Friday 19 June 2020

'I am got somewhat rational now...'

One of the pleasures of Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence blog is his frequent quoting from the letters of Charles Lamb – letters which often sound like Keats in high spirits, scattering puns and good cheer all round. I have never read, or owned, Lamb's letters, so I decided the other day to take the plunge and buy a volume advertised on AbeBooks as The Letters of Charles Lamb.
  What came through my letterbox was a small and astonishingly slim volume (the spine is about five-eighths of an inch) of 466 pages, with no space wasted on an introduction, or even an index.

Published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, this compact little book is a joy to handle, and a perfect fit with a jacket pocket. The paper, though thin, is strong and opaque, and the type perfectly clear and readable. If only more books published today were like this – and if only Simpkin, Marshall, etc. had issued a companion volume of Keats's letter, but as far as I can find out, they never did. 
The title spread is very much of its time (the early 1920s) – to the right a jolly neo-Rococo extravaganza by (Alfred) Garth Jones, to the left a fanciful, and frankly awful, picture showing Lamb as a broken-down manservant waiting on a bloated Coleridge. This is dated 1903, and I can't make out the signature of the guilty party...
What first caught my eye, however, was the inscription on the title page: 'One of some books bought out of Auntie ES's gift for my 21st birthday.' The bookshop label shows it was bought at the Davenant Bookshop in Oxford. The date was July 23rd, 1926, and the man who bought it was one Geoffrey Tillotson. This rang a bell – wasn't there a literary critic of that name? Indeed there was – in fact there were two of them, Geoffrey and his wife, who were both professors and distinguished scholars, specialising mostly in Victorian literature. I fancy I might even have read their joint production, Mid-Victorian Studies, back in my university days.
It's always a pleasure to come across a book with a history...

Taking a first look at the Letters last night – this is going to be my bedside reading for some while – I noticed that it has also been lightly margin-marked, most likely by Tillotson himself. The first passage marked, in the very first letter (to Coleridge), is this:
'My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad-house, at Hoxton. I am got somewhat rational now, and don't bite anyone.'
I'm fancy I'm going to enjoy these letters very much.

1 comment:

  1. If only Hoxton expertise could be spread across the world, to ensure everyone could be "got somewhat rational now."

    That is an enchanting copy of Lamb's letters you have there.