Monday, 26 March 2012

Reading Charles Dickens

When I was young I did not enjoy reading Dickens. Maybe, this was due to early exposure to "Pickwick Papers" in English literature classes. I did not find the book amusing (despite being told I should by a teacher who thought every page was hilarious).

I still have an aversion to Dicken's early 'picaresque' books and have never returned to Pickwick, nor been tempted to try "Nicholas Nickleby".

However, about 5 years ago I decided to read "Bleak House" and that changed everything. From its famous opening lines describing the fog hanging over London (a metaphor for the impenetrability of the legal system) to its dramatic climax when the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce is finally resolved (to no-one's benefit but the lawyers), I found the book totally riveting. With its cast of wonderful characters, including Lady Dedlock (who I always picture as Gillian Anderson following the BBC TV series), the wards in chancery and the sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn it is perhaps Dickens' greatest work.

Since then I have picked off Dickens' later (sometimes called 'social condition) novels one by one.

First, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", with its brooding atmosphere and evil choirmaster John Jasper. Like all of Dickens' major work, this book was issued in parts and its author died with the novel incomplete, making it a perfect vehicle for literary speculation as to what happened to Edwin, who had mysteriously disappeared. This book is set in a cathedral city, based on Rochester, the city near which Dickens lived as a child.

Next "Our Mutual Friend". This is a long complex novel, which begins with the finding of a body in the Thames by one of the book's heroines, Lizzie Hexham and her boatman father. From this incident much of the plot derives and the story is essentially a murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns until the good are rewarded and the evil punished.

"Little Dorrit" was the next one I read. Here we are presented with the contrasting worlds of the Marshalsea prison in East London, where Amy Dorrit's father is imprisoned for debt and in which she was born and has lived all her life so far, and the world of high society inhabited by the crooked financier Merdle and his sycophantic friends. Amy Dorrit is possibly too good to be true as, following her father inheriting a fortune and taking her and others of his family and friends on the Great European Tour, she yearns for her simple life in the prison. She then sacrifices her own fortune to spare her husband's feelings (his supposed mother having wickedly kept it from her till the end of the novel) and lives happily ever after.

I have just completed "Dombey and Son" and have spent three weeks totally engrossed in the life of Florence Dombey as she keeps faith with her truly awful father, particularly following his financial and moral ruin and gets her reward as in his old age he dotes on her own children, giving the baby Florence the love he denied his own daughter until the closing chapters of the novel.

The astonishing thing about these novels is that they were each issued in some 18 monthly instalments and once a part was printed and bought by up to 40,000 readers, Dickens had to live with what he had written and future parts had to be consistent with what had gone before. This was standard practice for his contemporaries such as Trollope, Wilkie Collins and Thackeray, but it is a very different way of writing a novel to that of today when a complete novel is delivered to the publisher and makes far greater demands on the author. That the novels are, to a large extent, fully finished works of great skill and internal consistency is a tribute to how well Dickens managed his plots and characters, while maintaining his wife and children (10 in all), editing magazines, acting in theatrical productions and giving lectures and public readings. He also walked twelve miles a day in the afternoons.

It being the year marking 200 years since Dickens was born, I also decided to read a biography. The classic biography was written by John Forster, a close friend and companion of Dickens, who was commissioned to write it when Dickens was still relatively young.

I have a copy of Forster's life in three volumes, but decided to read the recent biography by Claire Tomalin. This, like all lives of Dickens, owes much to Forster but is itself a very good account of Dickens' life and work.

Tomalin shows how his experiences as a child (when his parents callously sent him to work in a 'blacking' factory on the bank of the Thames just off the Strand became reflected in his books (via Oliver Twist and David Copperfield in particular). There is also a new abridged edition of Forster's biography recently published and beautifully illustrated.

Dickens left his wife Catherine after nearly twenty years of married life and plunged into an even more energetic way of life, with lecture tours in Britain and a second trip to the United States. At this time he was very close to the actress Ellen Ternan, but their relationship is unclear. As a human being Dickens had his faults and could be needlessly cruel, as when he portayed his friend Leigh Hunt as the sponger Skimpole in "Bleak House" and even parodied Forster in the character of that defender of middle class values Podsnap in "Our Mutual Friend". His readers, however, loved him and it was only fitting that on his death in 1870, at the relatively young age of 58, he should be interred in Westminster Abbey.

I still have several major works to read - "The Old Curiosity Shop" (where I am assured by Oscar Wilde I will need a heart of stone to avoid laughing at the death of Little Nell) and "David Copperfield" (Dickens' own favourite of his novels) to name but two.

So why read Dickens? Because, for all his faults, for all his unbelievable plots, for all his meanderings, his novels are still as fresh, relevant and true as when they were written. He was aware of his talents and drove hard bargains with his publishers, but he knew he was worth it and his books have sold in their millions all over the world.

I am particularly attracted to the modern Everyman editions of Dicken's works, which are well edited with long introductions and bibliographies and contain original illustrations by artists such as H K Browne. However, I have read "Our Mutual Friend" "Little Dorrit" and "Dombey and Son" on a KOBO e-reader. I hope the author would have approved.

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Friday, 16 March 2012

You Can Be Sure of Shell

Throughout much of the twentieth century (and indeed before then) publishers competed in producing books on the English counties, not just general guide books, but books setting out the literary and historical background to the county.

Macmillan led the way with their "Highways and Byways" series; sturdy octavo volumes written by well known literary figures, such as Edward Hutton and E V Lucas and illustrated by eminent artists such as Joseph Pennell and F L Griggs.

This series began with "Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall" in 1897 and came to an end with "Highways and Byways in the Welsh Marches" in 1935. Not all counties were published, notable omissions being Lancashire and Cheshire and the series also covered regions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Normandy, a total of 37 volumes being produced. These volumes are attractive and do provide a detailed review, being particularly strong on history and literature.

Next up we have Hodder and Stoughton's "King's England" series. This began life in the 1930's and was resurrected in various forms once all the English counties had been completed in the original red cloth, blue dustwrapper, format in 1952 with "Northumberland", the 41st volume in the series. These were edited by Arthur Mee, but used other authors in building up descriptions of each village, town and city in alphabetical order illustrated by brown and white photographs. The descriptions are gloriously positive as even the most unprepossessing of villages is found to be blessed with a wonderful church font, a magnificent oak tree or a remarkable grave.

Passing over Robert Hale's "County" books and Pevsner's "Buildings of England" series, we come to the gold standard for county guides - the Shell Guides published initially by the Architectural Press, briefly by Batsford but reaching their glorious best when Faber and Faber took over the series.

The Shell Guides, which were published over the period 1934 to 1984, were aimed at motorists touring their own country. With a mixture of essays on the county, a gazeteer and carefully chosen photographs they complemented perfectly the ordnance survey map on a motoring holiday. In fact, so good are they that it would be highly unusual for my wife and I to spend any length of time in an area of Britain new to us without packing the appropriate Shell Guide.

The initiative for the series belongs to John Betjeman, at that time working for the "Architectural Review". Betjeman sought sponshorship for a series of guide books from Shell, who were suitably enthusiatic, the idea complementing their own brand of advertising.

The first guide "Cornwall", written by Betjeman himself, duly appeared in 1934 published by the Architectural Press. Further volumes from this Press on Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, Kent, Somerset and Wiltshire followed over the next few years.

"Devon" was authored by Betjeman, the others by different authors commissioned by Betjeman, including Paul Nash, the artist, whose "Dorset" contains a mixture of photographs and Nash's own drawings, making it particularly attractive.

These volumes are all spiral bound with relatively short gazetteers, and separate essays on various aspects of the county, such as geology, architecture, natural history and antiquities. Gazetteer entries are often short and not always complimentary. This sort of critical appraisal continued to be a great strength of the series, as authors heaped scorn on recent architectural developments in some towns and cities. In particular, James Lees-Milne in his "Worcestershire" is in fine form in his condemnation of the damage visited on Worcester by insensitive development and would have been even more vitriolic if the publishers had not objected. The point for Shell after all was to encourage people to travel to places, not put them off. In retrospect, it is surprising how much licence was given to the authors.

Batsford took over the publishing of the guides in 1937 and were responsible for "Hampshire", "Northumberland and Durham", "The West Coast of Scotland" and "Oxon" (1938). This latter guide was written by the artist John Piper, supported by his wife Myfanwy Evans and this volume again broke new ground in its use of images and incorporation of cartoons by Osbert Lancaster.

Piper and Betjeman had become friends in the mid 1930's and their joint involvement with the Guides from 1938 to 1964 (when Betjeman resigned) ensured that the guides would continue at a high standard. Piper remained as editor until the series closed in 1984.

In 1939 Faber and Faber took over the series and as well as re-issuing several of the earlier guides produced their first original guide, "Gloucestershire", in 1939, the last guide issued before the Second World War. It would be 1951 before the next guide "Shropshire" was issued, fittingly enough jointly authored by Betjeman and Piper.

By now the spiral binding had been replaced with conventionally bound boards and the gazetteer expanded to occupy the great majority of the text.

During the next 33 years many of the original county guides were revamped and re-issued sometimes by the original author, more often by new authors and the guides became thicker as the gazetteers expanded and entries became longer.

In addition, new counties were added, culminating in "Nottinghamshire" by Henry Thorold in 1984, the last guide issued.

In addition to "Nottinghamshire" Thorold produced guides to Durham, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, all detailed inventories of all that is good in the county. Other notable authors were Norman Scarfe, author of "Cambridgeshire", "Essex" and "Suffolk" and W G Hoskins, author of the superb "Rutland".

The first holiday my wife and I took with a Shell Guide was in 1968, when we paid a brief visit to Dorset, taking Michael Pitt-Rivers' 1966 guide. This was our companion at sites that have since become very special, such as Durdle Door, Gold Hill at Shaftesbury and Maiden Castle.

Holidays in Pembrokeshire were considerably enhanced as Vivyan Rees's "South West Wales" took us to lonely villages nestling in the shadow of the Prescelly Mountains or to forgotten standing stones on lonely Pembrokeshire trackways. I could go on; we have since spent weeks in, for example, Cornwall, Northumberland, Norfolk and Devon, always with the Shell Guide at hand.

As they have become even more appreciated for their sheer excellence, and since they more and more tell of an England that is disappearing, the Shell Guides have now become collectable and are becoming expensive. This is a pity because their best place is at your side in the car, which is exactly what John Betjeman, soon to be poet laureate, had in mind when he went into business with that unlikeliest of partners - a multi-national oil company.

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Sunday, 11 March 2012

The World's Classics: A Library within a Library

Oxford University Press World's Classics have a special place in our book collection - a purpose built bookcase in our main guest bedroom.

In this bookcase there are some 700 volumes spanning the whole series from "Jane Eyre" (No. 1) to "Mandeville's Travels" (No. 617).

Chronologically this takes us from 1901, when Grant Richards published the first volume, to the early seventies, when the last in the series was published and OUP finally pulled the plug on the original hardback format, so beloved of many readers. (The continuing paperback OUP World's Classics are not lacking in merit, but somehow do not quite have the same feel.)

The first World's Classic I ever read was 'Anna Karenina', in 1968 when embarking on solid state physics research near Reading.

At that time I was in a Tolstoy phase and so it was good to find that he was an author well represented in the series, with no fewer than 20 volumes. It was also a time when you could still buy World's Classics in new bookshops and over the next few years my wife and I added a number of Trollopes to the collection, both new and secondhand. Trollope is the author with the most titles in the series, 36 in all, a virtually complete set of his novels.

It was probably in the early nineties, when our book collection was growing in several directions, that we realised that we had some 10% of the World's Classics, a collection that had appeared on the shelves as by osmosis.

It was then a logical step to make a more determined attempt to collect more of the series; well, alright, to collect all of the series. At first progress was rapid, as local bookshops were searched - then bookshops further afield; I recall a lovely summer day in York which ended in a glut of new titles.

Then a never to be forgotten day in July 1995, when we arrived at the Book Barn in Henneker, New Hampshire, on one of our American trips when we sought out bookshops off the beaten track. It was my family who saw it first. A whole bookcase full of World's Classics, perhaps 200 or so. I have a very understanding family and so they gave me carte blanche to add to the collection (and obtain finer and different copies of titles I already had). This endeavour was assisted by the most amenable of booksellers, who was in a particularly affable mood, in that post lunch period when life seems not so bad after all and discounting for quantity seems a neat idea.

So, it is the late nineties and we now have, maybe, 75% of the series all bought in bookshops by good old-fashioned searching of the shelves.

But we now had the internet and ABEbooks and Amazon, so we could have polished off the whole series fairly quickly. But, I REALLY ENJOY BROWSING FOR WORLD'S CLASSICS. So a GOLDEN RULE OF COLLECTING was formulated. Put simply, this is that any World's Classic missing from the collection can only be added to the collection if it is purchased in a second hand bookshop or at a Bookfair by myself or my family. Seeking the bookseller's help is not allowed. I nearly fell into this trap when a bookseller in Harrogate said he had many more World's Classics in his reserve stock and did I want to see them. The look of horror on my face at this suggestion probably told him this was not a good idea (unless he attributed my blunt refusal to a misinterpretation of his intentions).

Now the hard truth - there are 610 titles (7 of the 617 were projected but never produced). I am still missing 22. The rate of finding new titles is now down to about one a year. Bookshops are closing, I am getting older. I will never finish the collection and this is what gives it its special magic.

The first 64 volumes in the series were published by Grant Richards; the series was taken over by Oxford University Press (with no change of format) in 1904. These early volumes, cloth bound with elaborate gilt titling and decorations on the spine are particularly attractive. By 1920, the format of the books had become more modern - mainly blue cloth (though some in green, maroon and one or two other colours) with standard dustwrapper designs. Later again, the cloth settled down at dark blue, finally becoming black towards the end of the series, with more pictorial dustwrappers becoming the norm. There are many variants, some were leather bound for example, and most titles were re-printed many times in the different styles.

The range of the series is vast, reflecting the tastes of the publishers of the series from Grant Richards, to Henry Frowde, Humphrey Milford and Geoffrey Cumberledge (of OUP), if a bit idiosyncratic (how do you explain the 9 titles by Constance Holme?)

A few examples:

'Jane Eyre' (No. 1) in its different manifestations, from the first edition in 1901, to a 1985 Chancellor Press Chinese reprint of 1985:

"Jane Eyre dustwrappers 1964 and 1974:

Early World's Classics published by Grant Richards between 1901 and 1904 (Nos. 2, 5, 14, 46, 47, 58, 64):

And some looking very much the same published by Henry Frowde for OUP between 1903 and 1907 (Nos. 9, 28, 36, 73, 99, 144):

Leather bound volumes published between 1904 and 1914 (Nos. 33, 98, 122, 133, 151, 152, 181, 183):

A variant leather binding, these examples between 1926 and 1928 (Nos. 8, 9, 31, 63);

Works of John Ruskin, the only author in the series for which the volumes did not carry a number. These carry the emblem 'Ruskin House Edition' and note George Allen is the publisher of 'A Joy for Ever'. These volumes were published between 1907 and 1923). (Series numbers 145, 147, 148).

Early dustwrappers between 1909 and 1917 (Nos. 7, 47, 73):

The standard green cloth used after the original decorative bindings. These volumes were produced between 1911 and 1928. (Nos. 123, 129, 138, 165, 172, 174, 185, 207, 223).

The stately blue cloth that is perhaps the most characteristic binding used by OUP. These double volumes of Trollope were produced between 1938 and 1944 (Nos. 454, 455, 468, 469, 472, 473, 484, 485, 492, 493):

These attractive dustwrappers span the period 1915 to 1929. (Nos. 40, 72, 119, 196)

One of the Standard dustwrapper designs, these examples spanning the period 1935-1951. (Nos. 86, 208, 210, 211, 230, 295)

Another standard dustwrapper design, these examples spanning the period 1926-1937). (Nos. 68, 296, 306, 307, 337, 439, 442)

Two movie tie-ins, the only ones in the series that I know, featuring John Mills (1946) and Charles Laughton (1936) respectively. (Nos. 128, 195)

9 volume set of Shakespeare (No.s 100 to 108) in publisher's slipcase (1933):

Three lovely copies of 'The Three Clerks' (No. 140), dating from 1907, 1925 and 1978):

Attractive dustwrapper designs by Lynton Lamb and Heather Standring ('Northanger Abbey') from the years 1965 and 1966. (Nos. 210, 225, 355, 356)

Two dustwrapper designs for the 'three volumes in one' 'War and Peace' (No. 233), dating from 1942 and 1974:

The last OUP World's Classics in their original form petered out in the mid 1970's as the last reprints emerged and a glorious era in book production came to an end.

These are the last four World's Classics (to my knowledge, at least three more were planned but I have never seen them):

But then in 1985 something strange happened - in a last sad reincarnation of the series Chinese reprints of some of the titles began appearing, with identical texts and pagination to the books in the original series. This persisted until 1987 and I have seven of these published variously by Chancellor Press, Avenel and Hamlyn.

In conclusion, collecting World's Classics is an absorbing endeavour, with many choices to be made considering that most titles (particularly the early ones) came out in several of the various binding styles and dustwrapper designs used by the publishers. A set of Trollope all in blue cloth looks superb but then you would sacrifice the elegant Lynton Lamb dustwrapper designs.

So it is best left to chance - buy what is there and over the years as if by magic lovely groupings will appear that could almost make you believe you had planned them from the start!