Saturday, October 08, 2005
Where do little books come from?
At first glance, the traces of a book’s ownership--bookplates, gift inscriptions, signatures, stamps--seem wonderfully revelatory. Here, in other words, is proof that a book had an audience. Moreover, in the case of Victorian prizebooks, we can often identify the audience’s religious composition (Reformed, Anglican, Catholic, and so forth). But, at second glance, things rapidly become more confusing. Who read these books, who bought them, and who decided to keep them? Here are a few examples:
(1) My copy of Grace Aguilar‘s The Women of Israel (first pub. 1845) is, like just about all of my Victorian didactic texts, a prize book; it’s a 1st prize for “Attendance and Proficiency During the Year 1888,” courtesy of the Camp Hill Sunday School in Birmingham (a Presbyterian school). The Women of Israel is, on the face of it, a weird choice for a Christian prize book. Early reviews--in the Athenaeum, for example--complained that Aguilar was too attached to her Judaism. (Some Jews had other criticisms to make.) Aguilar herself announces in the introduction that Jewish women “must prove without doubt or question that we need not Christianity to teach us our mission...”  But Aguilar was also the most famous and most “acceptable” Jewish writer of the nineteenth century, as Michael Galchinsky has documented. What, then, does it mean that this book was suitable for a Christian girl, even though Aguilar was, if not anti-Christian (although ardently anti-Catholic), certainly anti-evangelical? Did the prizegivers expect that the girl’s Christian training would be sufficient to counter Aguilar’s staunch Judaism--that is, that the student might come away with philosemitic feelings, without accepting all of Aguilar’s arguments? Or were the prizegivers simply unaware of the book’s polemical purpose? Who decided that the book was “acceptable” reading, and on what grounds?
(2) Here’s a copy of Jessie Armstrong’s My Friend Anne: A Story of the Sixteenth Century (Frederick Warne and Co., 1901), inscribed from “the Rt. Hon. Arnold Morley, Postmaster-General” and later stamped “M Wenlock.” Well, we know who Morley is, but who or what is “Wenlock”? Is that Wenlock the place? Given the inscription, did Morley give the book to a relative, to a library, or to the child of a friend?
(3) What, if anything, distinguished didactic books for boys from didactic books for girls? It’s not especially startling to find that J. Frederick Hodgett’s Edwin, the Boy Outlaw was given to a boy in 1909, courtesy of Copenhall Parish Church in Crewe. But it is rather odd to find that, in March 1895, Glenore Wesleyan Sunday School gave Emily Sarah Holt’s For the Master’s Sake: A Story of the Days of Queen Mary to one Percy French. This novel, like most of Holt’s books, features a strong heroine instead of a male protagonist, and--unlike her contemporary, Grace Stebbing--Holt didn’t have a reputation as a religious novelist for boys. (It’s worth remembering that many publishers explicitly divided their children’s lines into “books for boys” and “books for girls.") The same goes for The Rescue: A Story of the Huguenots (RTS): although it’s even more obviously a “girl’s book,” young Walter Stackwood still wound up winning it. Despite our own stereotypical assumptions about such literature, then, did adults expect boys to be able to identify with books that appeared to be “for girls"--no matter what boys actually did in practice? Girls, after all, loved reading literature for boys, as Jonathan Rose reminds us .
(4) I’d still love to know how this bookplate wound up in Lady Morgan’s Florence McCarthy. Once again, we know who Sir Samuel Wilson is, and we even know that he rented Hughenden Manor. But did he actually purchase the book from the “Earl of Beaconsfield’s Library"--presumably in an estate sale? (I’ve asked the Disraeli Project, but they’re also in the dark.)
(5) What divides religious literature for children (or YAs) from religious literature for adults? Given that Paul Sugden’s sons gave him a copy of Mrs. Alexander S. Orr’s Mountain Patriots: A Tale of the Reformation in Savoy (W. P. Nimmo, 1884) for his birthday, should the literary historian take this as an “adult” text? But the catalog in the back lists this novel as part of Nimmo’s “Blade and the Ear” series, which seems to have a strongly adolescent cast. Given that today’s adults have been known to read children’s literature (*cough* Harry Potter *cough*), are we safe in projecting such behavior backwards in time?
What we don’t know, however, is whether or not these books were ever read. The cynic in me suspects not--or, at least, not often; after all, the adult-oriented and non-didactic Lady Morgan aside, these are mostly ephemeral publications in relatively cheap bindings. We can’t assume that children wanted to purchase these books, or even that their presence in a particular library or Sunday School “reflects” denominational interests. (RTS books, for example, were often intended to appeal to a non-denominational Protestant audience.) Janice Radway, speaking of romances, notes that “the astonishing success of the romance many constitute evidence for the effectiveness of commodity packaging and advertising and not for actual changes in readers’ beliefs or in the surrounding culture” . To what extent, then, did Victorian marketing tactics drive the didactic novel, and how did the audience receive and transform such texts for their own purposes?
 Grace Aguilar, The Women of Israel... (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1889), 13.
 Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 379-81.
 Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. With a New Introduction by the Author (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 20.
What we don’t know, however, is whether or not these books were ever read.
I think we can muster an educated guess. Consider the distinctive patterns of wear, the most obvious (with contemporary books) being the multiply-cracked spine, but there are others: the page corners creased by repeated dog’s-ears; the relative number of smudged print per page; the tenacity with which pages cling to the spine; &c. These standards would differ depending on the initial state of the book and the quality of the materials employed in its binding, but I think there are ways to decipher whether an individual volume was read...determining whether a book was widely read, on the other hand, would require much legwork.
(In my book collection, I should add, it’s fairly to simple to determine whether I’ve read a book: are there underlines, marginalia, the slightly sticky square remains of since discarded Post-It Notes? If so, then I’ve read it up to the point at which said “additions” cease.)
I’m pretty sure that at least two of my nineteenth century editions were well read, but then one of them was a scandalous roman a clef and the other was marketed as softcore porn, so it’s hardly suprising.
My favorite thing to find in used books, even more than bookplates, is a postcard as a bookmark. I don’t know why exactly, I just love ‘em. I’m sure one totally indefensible reason I’m such a rabid William Congreve fan is that when I bought the Mermaid edition of his plays at the Bryn Mawr used book shop it included a postcard reproduction of a painting of a fetching young courtesan with “Many Happy Returns” scrawled on its backside. Certainly left more of an impression than the book’s plain business-card-style bookplate for the Rt. Rev. Mgr. McDermott, St. Peter’s Rectory, McKeesport, Pa., or (on the facing page) the much more elaborate woodcut bookplate of Frank Slattery (a lawyer, judging by its iconography, and possibly the long-time mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.).
A Best Bookmark Ever (Found Category) contest? I win hands down: I sold the collections of a few LSU English department faculty members who passed away between 1994-1999, and in one of them--a manuscript of _Understanding Poetry_;--I found a love letter from Cleanth Brooks’ paramour (wife?) to Brooks. (This professor had apparently been given the galley after Brooks’ death in ‘94, and whoever had given it to him hadn’t looked through it too thoroughly. Neither, apparently, had this professor.) No matter how you feel about Brooks or the New Critics, you have to admit that’s a damn fine find. The sad coda: I offered the letter to the Brooks’ archives, and they responded something to the effect of “Why would we want that?” Stupid New Critic librarians, not wanting historicize anything…
...the letter, by the way, was from the ‘40s or ‘50s, so it also qualifies as the oldest relic I’ve ever discovered in a used book.
One other thing: for reasons I can’t entirely fathom, I love finding bookmarks from bookstores in used books. They’re usually independent stores, scattered across the country, and everytime I find one I think “Did Barnes & Noble or Amazon drive them out of business?” Then I weep tears of rage, drink too much and pass out on the sofa. Or possibly sigh.
A manuscript of..., of...? Try it without any formatting, Scott.
Update: I took the liberty of editing some of the HTML tags out of Scott’s comment so I wouldn’t have to stay in suspense.
Thanks Ray. I don’t know what’s been up with the Valve’s inability to process tags of late. (Although was this just a case of my messing them up?)
Scott: there was some giggling around the U of C English department after one professor purchased a book from the historian J. P. Kenyon’s library. In it, he found a remarkably virulent letter to Kenyon from another well-known academic (of the “you louse!” variety). Good times.