Monday, 9 August 2010

First Editions and Other Marvels of Bibliophilia

During the summer vacation I succumbed to my bibliophilic streak and bought a monstrous number of books. In the course of this quest for literature, I visited many exciting bookshops. I went to Oxford and found a fantastic bookstore. Blackwell Rare Books in Broad Street seemed, in this bibliophile's opinion, to be able to cater to my every need. With a seemingly infinite number of departments spanning a number of buildings, a small café and an allegedly wonderful at ordering what they might not have they met my every need. Also, G. David Bookseller in Saint Edwards Passage in Cambridge proved to be a gold mine for old and rare books. I wish I had been able to spend more time there. Once you have held the first ever printed copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped in your hands there you know there are no limits to what you might find. Finally, The Haunted Bookshop in the same alley deserves to be mentioned not because of the staff, which was less than obliging, but because I spent quite a lot of money there.

I bought the following:

A first edition of Mulliner Nights by P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse -
Mulliner Nights
(London 1933)
This set me back £50, but it was worth it. I had considered buying a number of Wodehouse books, but there is something special about a first edition. This one, from 1933, would have cost ten times as much with its dust jacket which is fortunately missing. There is something relic-like over a first edition by your favourite author; imagining how it was first read by eager eyes in the interbellum years, how reader after reader inherited and enjoyed the book until it finally, surprisingly, is bought and soon to go international.

The plot revolves around Adrian Mulliner, a private detective who has not smiled since he was twelve. However, re-learning how to smile he finds that his smile has a most astounding effect on those with something to hide. As the book is packed with these individuals, hilarity, in the colloquial lingo, ensues.

I am looking forward to being the latest in a long line to enjoy exposure to the Wodehouse wit. In the end, many years from now, I will pass on the book. As the antiquarian said, "we do not own books, we borrow them."

Three More Wodehouse First Editions

P.G. Wodehouse -
Ice In the Bedroom
(London 1961)
P.G. Wodehouse -
Mr. Mulliner Speaking
(London 1929)
P.G. Wodehouse -
If I were You
(London 1931)
Of these three, only Ice in the Bedroom has still got its dust jacket. It turns out that the reason why first editions of Wodehouse books with their dust jackets are much more valuable than those without is because they have generally been popular enough for the dustjackets to get worn away. However, my reasons for buying them were not financial. These books were highly anticipated. People with bobs queued up to buy them and then passed them on to people they thought well of. The last in this line of vehemence is me.

P.G. Wodehouse -
The Heart of a Goof
(London 2008)
P.G. Wodehouse -
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
(London 2008)

just to prove that I am not judging books solely by their covers, these are two other books I bought. Incidentally they were both bought at G. David's for half their original price although they were perfectly, crisply new.

Virgil - Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6 translated by H.R. Fairclough (New York 1925) 

Printed in 1925 and immediately bought by one J.W.D. Calman this is the first of two volumes covering Virgil's works. The other volume could not be found, neither could the dust jacket, which might explain the price of £3. Professor Fairclough of Harvard University spent the First World War years translating Virgil into English and the book nicely displays the original Latin text on the left side and the translated English text on the right.

The Eclogues is a set of text where herdsmen in a pastoral setting discuss and consider political, moral and even eroticist questions. They can be read as propaganda texts for Virgil's patron Augustus augmenting the political mythology he built for himself. The Georgics is a collection of four books in which a treatise on society and man is disguised as a handbook on agriculture. Analogically reminiscent of Hesiod's Erga the Georgics compare man to bees and emphasises the virtue of labour. Finally, the book contains the first six books of the Aeneid, the analogue of Homer's The Odyssey. Like The Odyssey the Aeneid begins with the fall of Troy and follow Aeneas, the mythical forefather of all Romans on his flight from Troy to Italy. I am especially looking forward to reading the better half of the epos, as I have not looked at it for 8 years now.

Edmund G. Gardner - The Story of Florence (London 1928)

St. Zenobius resuscitating a child
who has been hit by a runaway cart
(Domenico Veneziano - St. Zenobius Performs a Miracle (c. 1445))
I take a special interest in Florence and especially Renaissance Florence. This is where the Renaissance started and whence what I consider to be the most seminal works of art and literature of the period came. This is where Petrarch was born, where Michelangelo, Donatello and Botticelli made their David, Annunciation and Primavera, where Brunellesci built the first Renaissance dome atop the Santa Maria del Fiore. It is also where Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his The Prince and the setting of Dante's Divine Comedy and Boccaccio's Decameron (all available here). All this was funded by wealthy banker patrons such as the Medici who controlled Europe's largest bank. Culture flowed forth from Florence together with textiles and florins, which because of their purity became the standard coinage of Europe. Thus, Florence was the hub of Renaissance culture. For an astonishingly visual and appealing visit, play through the video game Assassin's Creed II. For a more toned down but still interesting approach, seek this book.

The book I have bought is not Machiavelli's Florentine Histories from 1532 although it refers to it. His style is unfortunately rather erratic and not fit for a travel guide such as the one I actually bought. However, it seems informative and I have already found the guide useful: during a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, I came across a painting of Florence's St. Zenobius and recognised the motif from what I had read. In seeking to understand human nature, such links are always most gratifying.

Christian is fed up with
the "City of Destruction"
John Bunyan - The Pilgrim's Progress (London, date unknown)

This must be the weirdest box of frogs I've ever probed my nasal appendage into. The text can best be classified as a Christian allegory. John Bunyan wrote it while serving several consecutive jail sentences in 17th century England for preaching weird stuff. Like Hitler he found it necessary to write down his strange ideas while imprisoned and this book is further proof that pen and ink should be prohibited for those incarcerated, as weird or dangerous products are the result (Marco Polo excepted). It was published in installments between 1678 and 1686. The allegory's plot consists of the main character, Christian, who travels from the "City of Destruction" to the "Celestial City" (the pious Christian's ascension). On his way through "Plain Ease", "The Delectable Mountains", the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" and , interestingly, "Vanity Fair" he meets personifications like Mrs. Bat's-Eyes, Madame Bubble, Mr. Wordly Wiseman and even Beelzebub. The book certainly makes you both bewildered and uncomfortable but it is still curiously fascinating. For the full text, click here.

Gender and 18th Century Literature

Charlotte Lennox -
The Female Quixote
(My ed. London 1970)
Henry Fielding -
The Adventures of
Joseph Andrews
(My ed. London 1912)
This coming fall I will try to write posts about a number of 18th century novels offering different views of gender in contemporary England. I bought two of these in Oxford: Charlotte Lennox' The Female Quixote and Henry Fielding's The Adventures of Joseph Andrews. My edition of The Female Quixote has a special history attached to it. I had already bought a recent edition, but at Blackwell's in Oxford something happened which made me buy another edition. Having browsed for some hours, I came over all peckish and bought a scone with butter and jam and a cup of tea in the in-store cafe. An elderly, Ernest Hemingway-looking gentleman was seated all alone in a group of comfy chairs, so I asked whether one of them was taken to which he replied in the negative. We ended up conversing on this and that, as he turned out to be "a semi-retired professor". I told him what I was planning on reading, pointing to a second-hand edition of the above mentioned book on a nearby shelf. He told me that this was rather a happy coincidence as he knew the previous owner. He was a fellow at Merton College and had signed his name, unintelligibly for mere mortals, in the cover. So, obviously, I picked up the thing following our little conference and brought the Oxford Press product, formerly owned by an Oxford fellow.

Dara Ó Briain - Tickling the English (London 2009)

For those poor souls unfamiliar with the wit and down to earth sense of Irish stand-up comedian Dara Ó Briain, now is the time to expand your horizons. He is sharper than a carpet tack; he studied maths and theoretical physics, audited the local debating society, founded a newspaper, wrestled killer whales, won debating championships and is fluent in Irish. Also he makes sense. Funnily. Just look:

Dara Ó Briain -
Tickling the English
(London 2009)

He has been host and/or participant on most of the good panel shows on the British airwaves, perhaps most notably on Mock the Week, and has toured the isles with several stand-up shows. The book was written while doing this.

One of his routines involves asking the audience for adjectives that describe people from obscure countries. This resulted in highlights like "the Azerbaijanis are Crazy and Bouncy [...] the Bhuthanese are Happy and Unwashed [and] the people of Fiji are Well-read and promiscuous" (p.15). However, the audience could never do the same with the British and so, throughout his tour and book, Ó Briain tries to find his adjectives.

Tom Bryant (ed.) - Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman (Richmond 2010)

From its beginnings in the 1780s, Debrett's has produced a who is who of British nobility and peerage. Originally the official publisher to the East India Company, they were well suited to gather material for their most famous 20/21st century products; their books on etiquette. The Guide for the Modern Gentleman informs such an individual on subjects as diverse as dress code, how to survive a plane crash, how to buy underwear and bed basics. Try, for instance, to find whether one should wear silk, satin or cotton in bed at their homepage. If you do, should the same material be worn at all seasons?

Lewis Carroll - The Hunting of the Snark (London 1928)

Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark or agony in eight fits is a delightful read. Being a mathematician and a wordsmith the poem is a metrical delight as well as a lexical one. In its absurdity the poem is highly reminiscent of the Alice books and even incorporates some of its characters (though unfortunately not my fravourite, the Red Queen). What is a snark, then? As Carroll explains in his preface:

"take the two words “fuming” and “furious.” Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. [...] if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious.” (p. xi-xii) 

Is it a snail, snake or a shark? The mind boggles. It does not really matter, of course, as long as the snark is not a boojum.

A crew of ten, all with occupations beginning with "b" apart from the lace-making beaver of course, departs on a fantastical journey to capture a snark. Throughout the poem, different situations arise with hilarious effects:

"He came as a Butcher: but gravely declared,
 When the ship had been sailing a week,
He could only kill Beavers. The Bellman looked scared,
 And was almost too frightened to speak:
The Beaver, who happened to hear the remark,
 Protested, with tears in its eyes,
That not even the rapture of hunting the Snark
 Could atone for that dismal surprise!" (p. 9)

"Whenever the Butcher was by, the Beaver kept looking the opposite way and appeared unaccountably shy"

Some of the characters such as the Baker also have hidden phobias:

"“For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,
 Yet, I feel it my duty to say,
Some are Boojums —” The Bellman broke off in alarm,
 For the Baker had fainted away
They roused him with muffins — they roused him with ice —
 They roused him with mustard and cress —
They roused him with jam and judicious advice —
 They set him conundrums to guess." (p. 24-27)

For the reader who is into absurd literature or who simply likes the beauty and pleasantness of delectably metric poetry, the poem is available here in its entirety. You are welcome!

Saul David - Victoria's Wars (London 2007)

Having read George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series I was delighted to find Victoria's Wars at Waterstones in Cambridge. It was one of those books that tagged along. The book gives a reader friendly insight into some of the major conflicts of the British Empire while keeping a second focus on the responses of the monarch herself. Quotation from sources and numerous anecdotes make narration flow nicely and captivate the reader to such an extent that one tends to be reminded of the memoirs of the notorious cad himself. Indeed, the book covers much the same area as the Flashman books do; The Opium Wars (Flashman and the Dragon), The First Afghan War (Flashman), The Sikh Wars (Flashman and the Mountain of Light), The Crimea (Flashman at the Charge) and The Indian Revolt (Flashman in the Great Game).

Saul David -
Victoria's Wars
(London 2007)
Sir Harry Paget Flashman
The book includes all the central heroes, villains and incompetent fools of the era including respectively George Broadfoot, Sir Campbell and Toughguy Napier, Sher Singh and Akbar Khan and finally Macnaghten and Elphinstone. It also provides some analysis of the role of each of these personages perhaps a bit less subjective than the Honorable H.P. Flashman, although both are wonderful and vivid presentations of some of the most fascinating aspects of Britain's imperial history.

A Final Curiosity: Alexander Pope's Last Letters and Will (London 1776)

The last of his LETTERS, and WILL
(London 1776)
Feast your imagination on this, dear reader! Not only does the book contain Alexander Pope's letters to his friend John Gay and his will but it is a historic relic as well a work of art in its own right. The pages are beautifully textured, the pages are wonderfully composed (like the title page above) and the book is old enough for the words to have modern "s'es" only at the ends of words and "f's" in their place otherwise. Also it is intriguing to imagine previous readers. The person who bought this book would probably not live to see the Napoleonic Wars, perhaps he would even have relatives fighting across the sea in America. Perhaps he also bought the first volume of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Perhaps he mourned the death of Edward Wortley Montagu or rejoiced in that of David Hume or Nathan Hale. Perhaps he expressed outrage in the House of Lords at the loss of the thirteen colonies on 4th of July or at the madness of the regent.

Of course, one cannot know these things but such a book can trigger quite a nice bit of intellectual exercise or plain imaginative pleasure through its content and its existence. As with all books, one can and should be somewhat awestruck.

Other images from Wikimedia Commons

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