Wednesday, 4 January 2012

How reliable are our reference sources: or, how old was Bernice Rubens?

'As a child I was simply a liar by nature ... I was happily at home with mendacity. It was less boring than the truth. My natural home lay in fiction.' - Bernice Rubens, "When I grow up" (Little, Brown, 2005), pp. 2-3.

We cataloguers spend a lot of time trying to identify authors, usually by using dates of birth to distinguish them from others with the same name. I sometimes wonder whether we worry too much about this: some users do not want this level of detail. On the other hand, it is useful to be able to attribute works to the right author. We use Library of Congress authority records where possible.

The whole vexed question of dates of birth and age seems to be a much more sensitive issue to a previous generation. A few years ago when I was the branch librarian in a northern Cardiff suburb a new system was introduced and we were asked to add dates of birth of our users. What a can of worms that opened! The reason was to get a picture of which groups of people were using the library, either as a prelude to reaching out to less well-represented groups or, if that were not possible, to concentrate suitable resources on those who were using it. We were also discussing what age-specific discounts or benefits could be offered to those over 60, and we needed to be able to identify who was and who was not 18, for permission to use the Internet (new to us then). We were not interested in individuals’ personal details, and, as librarians among you will know, librarians do not ever give such information to anyone else. Several people refused point blank to give their date of birth, some left never to return in a rage at being so insulted, one man shouted “so how old are you then?” and looked flabbergasted when all the staff in turn told him their ages. (Far more men than women objected). One lady told me she was 46, which I duly recorded, and then, overhearing me explain to someone else that there was no charge to the over 60s for a particular service, she suddenly aged by 15 years.
Another former Cardiff resident, the author Bernice Rubens, who died in 2004, is recorded just about everywhere, including obituaries in The Times and The Guardian, as having been born in Cardiff on 26th (or sometimes 28th) July, 1928. She attended Cardiff High School and what is now Cardiff University, where she read English. The Library of Congress gives two references for the source of her date of birth: Who’s who (1983) and the Jewish Yearbook (also 1983).  These seem to be cast-iron authorities: but are they? Who is the source of dates in such books? Should we really regard such works as authoritative?
Elderly current and former residents of Cardiff alive today will indignantly tell you that Bernice Rubens was older than she said she was, that they remember her at school/synagogue/locally and that they are sure that the 1928 date is wrong. After her death, one such gentleman wrote a letter to The Times, setting out his recollections of her as a child older than he was, giving his own date of birth as 1926, and challenging The Times to prove that the birth date in her obituary was correct.
Among items recently added to stock in Cardiff University Library are copies of the school magazine of Cardiff High School in the 1930s, and the one for 1938 caught my eye, as it contains an account by Bernice, surname spelled Reuben, Form VA3, of a school trip to Dunkirk (“not particularly famous for anything” at the time). It does not read like the work of a 10 year old!
It may seem trivial to bother about a harmless lie, but she did upset her school contemporaries by claiming in interviews that they were anti-Semitic. There certainly was an anti-Semitic element in Cardiff (as elsewhere) and no doubt there were indeed some misguided girls at her school. In the same 1938 magazine, another girl describes attending a summer school in Berlin, arranged by the local government union NALGO – “as guests of high officials of the Nazi regime”.  The propaganda speeches are duly reported, with admiration for the “wonderful physique” of the German people. The previous year’s magazine, however, had included an article on Zionism by another Jewish pupil, of whom there were many at the school at the time.
If you are going to drop a few years from your age you would be better advised not to make public allegations about your classmates: those years may not seem significant in the great scheme of things, but it means you are talking about (and upsetting) a completely different cohort of people. A few years is a long time in the life of a school, and attitudes did change between the late 1920s/1930s and the 1940s.
I am a great admirer of Bernice Rubens’ work, so when her posthumous memoir, “When I grow up” appeared in 2005 I read it with much enjoyment. With the Cardiff rumours at the back of my mind I wondered how successfully she could publish a memoir without specifying her age (especially difficult if wartime comes into it, as that is a watershed event for most people who lived through it). She does manage to write her story in a way that would not lead readers to question the chronology, unless they had reason. The timing of her period at university is the main weak point: she completed her three-year course, graduated and went to teach in Birmingham before the end of the war by her own account, although a birth date of 1928 would have meant that she was only 17 in 1945. She also includes a photo of a page from a newspaper article about "twenty-three years old Bernice Rubens" - it's undated, but she supplies the date, 1946.

I’m an amateur genealogist in my spare time, and with access to the indexes of vital records through the CyMAL-funded public library subscription to such tools as Ancestry (library edition) and Find My Past, I thought I would try to prove the truth of the rumours one way or another. I had already failed to find evidence of her date of birth, but now I tried again, armed with the extra “e” and without the “s”.  Her  name at marriage in 1947 is registered as “Reuben” (in her memoir in fact she says that her father's surname was Reuben); she and all her siblings were registered at birth as Reuben. It took me just a few minutes to track down her birth in 1923 – not only 5 years earlier than every source states, but also not even at the same time of year (unless her parents were very late with the registration), as the birth is registered in the last quarter (Oct-Dec).  Splendid – not only did she shed five years, she also acquired a summer birthday! (Why didn’t I think of that? My birthday is in gloomy November!) Surprisingly, her date of birth given at the time of her death according to the index is the 1928 one, so she really did succeed in rewriting her own history, if I and older Cardiff residents have got this right!
Intriguingly, in her novel “The elected member”, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1970, the main character, Norman Zweck, is a linguistically talented young Jewish man whose mother lies about his age to make his gifts look more impressive, even delaying his bar mitzvah for three years. Was this Bernice Rubens’ own private literary joke, or a clue for her readers?


  1. A fascinating cautionary tale. I'd understood that Who's Who was not a reliable source because it accepted details from a questionnaire completed by those included. Obviously LC deemed Who's Who reliable *enough* long before it started citing Wikipedia in authority records!

  2. Intriguing stuff, and a great tale of librarianly detective work! Have you notified the LoC? :)

  3. If you try "How old is Bernice Rubens" on Wiki answers you will see the comment
    "This answer is closed to changes. This is done in rare cases when questions are being vandalized or answers have become debates" - which has nothing to do with me, so somebody else must have been challenging the date they give! (the 1928 one again)

  4. ... whereas the National Library of Wales, which holds her papers, has the right date, 1923. Trust librarians & archivists!

    NLW : GB02/10 RUBENS