A new retelling of the Atkinson story – marred by errors and omissions

After many years gestation John Massey Stewart has finally published his book on the Atkinsons. Thomas, Lucy & Alatau: The Atkinsons’ Adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppes (Unicorn, £25.00) is not the first biography to be published, coming as it does in the wake of books and papers written by Susanna Hoe, Sally Hayles, Marianne Simpson, Natalya Volkova and myself.


In essence, it is a retelling of some of the stories and journeys contained in Thomas’ two travel books and diaries and Lucy’s book, together with the author’s limited research into their biographies. It contains seven of Atkinson’s superb watercolours that have never been published before, as well as details from a number of letters and documents that add to recent biographies.

The short prologue furnishes scant details of Thomas Atkinson’s early life – although Mr Stewart mistakes the names of Thomas’ two sisters for his daughters and somehow misses the fact that Rebecca Mercer, Atkinson’s first wife, was pregnant when he married her in April 1819. Their first child, Martha, was baptised on 9 November 1819. He also skips over whether or not in the early 1840s Atkinson ever travelled to India, via Greece, Egypt and the Gulf, about which there is plenty of circumstantial evidence, but little proof.

Similarly, he has no information on the circumstances of Atkinson’s bankruptcy and whether or not he spent time in prison for debt – or the events that led to his separation from Rebecca. Whole years go by for which there is no information. He has, however, found examples of Atkinson’s architectural work in Hamburg, where in the 1840s – no dates specified – the architect worked on plans for the rebuilding of St Nikolaikirche, burnt down in a fire. There is an interesting portrait of Thomas’ son John, but little detail about his life or the circumstances of his death in Hamburg in 1846 – which must have been a pivotal event in his father’s life.

The bulk of the book is made up of the chapters that cover Thomas’ move to St Petersburg, his first journey to the Urals and northern steppes of Kazakhstan, the journey with Lucy to the Altai Mountains and to Kapal in Eastern Kazakhstan (where Alatau was born), journeys along the Yenissei, into the Eastern Sayan Mountains, to Kiachta on the Chinese border and then back to St Petersburg.

Almost all the material in these chapters is extracted from Thomas and Lucy’s travel books and Thomas’ diaries, now held by the Royal Geographical Society. Much of it has been published before, although not in quite such detail. Large sections of it were first published, for example, by W H Davenport Adams as long ago as 1880 in his book Some Heroes of Travel.

Thus, for example, we read the incredible story of Thomas and Lucy’s encounter with a Kazakh in the mountains who tried to incite his followers to beat the Atkinsons to death and throw them over a precipice and the peculiar story that some Kazakhs believed Lucy had to be a man, as no woman could do what she had done. All are faithfully retold by Mr Stewart, with some new details that have emerged from Atkinson’s diaries and correspondence.

Considering the fact that he had them all in his possession for three years, it is all the more surprising that Mr Stewart states that Thomas’ last diary was for the year 1851. In fact, there are detailed diary entries for both 1852 and 1853, although they are written into blank pages of the other diaries. This may explain why Mr Stewart criticises Thomas for “his habit of inserting entries completely out of context and often even in a different year”. In fact, there is no confusion. Having spent many months transcribing the diaries I can attest to the fact that they are very clear once this point is understood. Did Mr Stewart actually read them all?

Mr Stewart also seeks to draw a distinction between what he sees as the orderly, date-referenced stories and anecdotes contained in Lucy’s book and the dearth of dates in Thomas’ two books. He states, for example that “Thomas also had an odd sense of time: over-conscious of the times of departures and arrivals and the length of journeys, but totally blind to the passage of days or indeed weeks, and – astonishingly – prepared for even more years of Russian travel.

He paints a picture of a chaotic Thomas, unconcerned with dates and unable to deal with money, who only gets through seven years of travel in remote areas because of Lucy’s organisational skills.

In fact, this is nonsense. Thomas’ diaries, which cover all or parts of seven years, are extremely well ordered. He usually notes the Roman dates and the Russian Orthodox dates and quite often he adds sunset and sunrise times at the top of each entry. His writing is fluent, his notes clear and sparkling, mostly written in complete sentences. Thomas even lists in tabular form and date order all the 66 letters he sent to Lucy during his first journey to Siberia and Central Asia, adding his location and the date he expected her to receive them.

And as Mr Stewart himself notes, Lucy’s book often quotes verbatim from Thomas’ diary. The fact is that Lucy’s book is largely based on his diaries. All the dates are taken from Thomas, as are most of the major incidents and whole sections of narrative. It is, of course, possible that Lucy kept her own diaries, but none have ever come to light.

As for money, in the Dahlquist Collection in Hawaii there are dozens of pages of detailed handwritten financial calculations by Thomas concerning the publishing advances for his books. This is not the work of someone “unable to deal with money”.

Throughout this book there is a strong tendency to seek a division between Thomas and Lucy, where none is merited. For example, Mr Stewart suggests Thomas seldom shows affection to Lucy and Alatau, which is simply not true. The saddest example comes when Mr Stewart speculates about Thomas’ feelings on Lucy’s pregnancy: “Was he pleased now to have another son, having already lost his only son, John William, as an adult? Or could he have half-hoped even unconsciously that Lucy might miscarry, since a baby would surely be a major encumbrance hugely circumscribing all future travel? We will never know. But if the latter, he was very much mistaken and the young Alatau seems to have curtailed nothing – rather the contrary, indeed. He may have added a major and inescapable complication to his parents’ travels, but he was to win many hearts and his young presence was to smooth the way for many future encounters.”

So without any evidence – in fact, plenty to the contrary – Mr Stewart suggests that Thomas may have wished that Lucy had miscarried her baby. This does the author no credit and suggests he does not understand very well the subject of his biography. In fact, Thomas appears to have been an exemplary father, often tending to the baby Alatau, changing his clothes, washing him, carrying him in his arms as they rode through the mountains. There is no evidence anywhere that he regretted Alatau’s birth. His diaries  are full of warm comments towards both Lucy and Alatau.

Mr Stewart also appears to be obsessed by Thomas’s bigamy. It is true that he married Lucy in Moscow in 1848 having not divorced his first wife Rebecca. But we should note that the only way anyone could obtain a divorce in the 1840s was through a private act of Parliament. No ordinary person could obtain a divorce. Seven years abroad with a strong belief that his former wife was dead would have been enough to escape a charge of bigamy following his second marriage. In fact, Thomas had been separated from Rebecca for longer than this before he remarried, even if he could not swear that Rebecca was dead. There is a lot of recent scholarship on the subject of divorce and bigamy in the nineteenth century, but none is referenced in this book.

Although Mr Stewart is certain that Thomas deceived Lucy by not telling her about the first marriage and deceived his first wife by not telling her about Lucy, in fact, things are not so simple. First, several national newspapers and magazines reported that Thomas, Lucy and Alatau were a family unit, not least the Illustrated London News, which even reported a visit to their apartment in St Petersburg. It is hard to believe that Thomas’ first wife Rebecca or his daughter Martha and her wealthy solicitor husband James Wheeler did not see these reports. There is little chance they did not know about the second marriage and the existence of Alatau.

And what about Lucy? If she did not know that Rebecca was still alive, then her reaction on finding out was nothing short of saintly. In November 1861, three months after Thomas’ death, she wrote to a friend “I earnestly beg of you not to think my husband guilty – he was too good a man to deceive me”. This was after Rebecca had come forward to demand Thomas’ estate. And note that in her own book Recollections of Tartar Steppes, published two years later in 1863, she signs it simply ‘Mrs Atkinson’ on the title page, in clear defiance of those who sought to drive a wedge between the couple and to make the point that she was still Thomas’ wife. There is no evidence she ever changed her mind – or name – or turned against him.

Senior figures at the RGS such as Sir Roderick Murchison also continued to support Lucy and Alatau, not out of pity, but in recognition of Thomas’ achievements. They never allowed the issue of bigamy to get in the way. Presumably Mr Stewart thinks we should judge all our national heroes according to their peccadilloes? What then of Nelson and the rest?

In this context we have to consider other possibilities. Did Thomas come to a private arrangement with his first wife? There are some signs that this was the case. She is described in several censuses as an annuitant. Who was paying the annuity? Rebecca had no resources of her own. Mr Stewart has no answers. And why was Thomas Longridge Gooch present at Thomas’ death and the informant to the coroner? Gooch, a famous railway engineer, was a close associate of Atkinson’s son-in-law (and railway solicitor) James Wheeler. Was he there to make sure the terms of a private agreement on Atkinson’s estate were honoured? More than likely in my view. And why, in her detailed account of Thomas’ death, did Lucy not mention Gooch’s presence? Undoubtedly, there are still discoveries to be made here. Either way, Mr Stewart is not able to offer any explanation.

Another important controversy examined in Mr Stewart’s book concerns Thomas’ journey on horseback across northern Mongolia. He calls it “seemingly fictitious”, but never really gets to grips with this subject. He does not mention, for example, the great Russian explorer PP Semenov Tian-Shansky’s take on this debate, which can be found in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. This is a surprising omission. Personally, I cannot fully resolve this issue, but I would be loathe to dismiss Atkinson’s account without further research. And if he did invent it, why? Therein may lie another story.

The other great issue discussed by Mr Stewart is the debate over plagiarism in Thomas’ second book on the Amur River, only the headwaters of which he visited. I have written previously on this blog that Thomas was actually more sinned against than sinner in this respect. Whole chapters of his books were reproduced without permission and his pirated drawings were used in numerous encyclopaedias through the late nineteenth century.

I have also previously written about the fact that the title and subject matter for Thomas’ second book were decided upon by his publisher and foisted on the author. The title that Atkinson wanted for the book, that does not mention the Amur, is the subject of a previous posting on this blog.

Mr Stewart mentions Richard Maak’s 1859 book on the Amur and the fact that the last five (very short) chapters of Thomas’ second book and several appendices were lifted from it. He wonders aloud who could have translated Maak’s book from Russian so quickly after its publication. The obvious answer is Lucy, who was fluent in Russian. She had previously translated Dr F V Gebler’s notes on climbing Mt Belukha from Russian into English for Thomas. Does that make her a co-conspirator and plagiarist too?

Again, it would probably be useful to stand back a bit and re-examine this controversy. There is some evidence that Thomas’ original plan was for a 2-volume account of his travels. The publisher decided against this and went for a large (610 pages) single volume instead. When it was a success he wanted another volume, this time on the newsworthy (at the time) subject of the Amur River. Thomas had wanted a very different second book but settled for this idea, filling it with overmatter from his first book unconnected with the Amur River, plus some odds and ends from Maak and elsewhere. I have analysed this in more detail previously on this blog.

Why did this happen? I believe Thomas’ main concern was to get some income for Lucy and Alatau, knowing that he was gravely ill and not likely to live much longer and that his estate would be seized by his former wife. He even tried to get a non-returnable advance for a third book from Longmans, but this did not happen. In fact, the Amur book was reasonably successful, running to several editions in both England and America, by which time Thomas had died.

So the question of plagiarism is also bound up with many other issues and it is therefore far too simplistic to put this down to a weakness of Thomas, at a time when he was ailing fast. Once again it is Mr Stewart’s desire to tarnish Thomas’ reputation that over-rides his ability to resolve this matter.

Once Thomas, Lucy and Alatau return to London – we are not provided with a clear answer about the dates – the rest of their lives are dealt with in a few pages that don’t even reference previously published material. What happened to Lucy in the 32 years between Thomas’ death in 1861 and her own demise in 1893? What happened to Alatau? For that matter, what happened to Thomas’ children from his marriage to Rebecca? Other than a few passing anecdotes, there are no answers in Mr Stewart’s book. A full biography ought to have dealt with such matters.

There are other issues in this book that I will leave for another time. For now, it is enough to say that it is a useful book that documents some of the Atkinsons’ journeys – and therefore adds to a growing body of work. It contains useful lists of Thomas’ known paintings and his architectural projects. It falls down, however, through some basic errors, substantial omissions and by making inaccurate judgements over issues that have not been sufficiently researched and where the author has allowed his own feelings to overwhelm the facts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.