Sunday 9 July 2023

Two Survivors

 Well, I have finally managed to unpack and shelve all my books (yes, I know it's been a long time – I shan't bore you with an account of the various delays, obstructions and diversions that have slowed everything down). Along the way, I've had some happy reunions and surprises of various kinds, and I achieved another drastic cull: seven boxes stuffed with books are destined for whatever charity will accept them.
   I was pleased to find that I still own two 18th-century leather-bound books, humble products of a period that was surely the golden age of book-making. The paper in both – being made of rag rather than wood pulp – is in remarkably good condition, and the bindings still tight. The less interesting of the two was, I think, inherited via my grandmother, and is Volume III (of VII) of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, in a Series of Letters published from the Originals, By the Editor of Pamela and Clarissa, i.e. written by Samuel Richardson, who had a bigger success with Grandison than with either Pamela or Clarissa. My copy of this stray volume is from the library of Isabella Powlett, whose name is beautifully inscribed on the flyleaf, with the date 1754 and the number 216 (she must have had an impressive library for a 17-year-old). Isabella was the only daughter of Lord Nassau Powlett, and she became, by marriage, Countess of Egmont. Her armorial bearings – three downward-pointing swords – are on the front board.
Here is how the first letter of Volume III begins: 
'SELF, my dear Lucy, is a very wicked thing; a sanctifier, if one would give way to its partialities, of actions, which, in others, we should have no doubt to condemn. DELICACY, too, is often a misleader; an idol, at whose shrine we sometimes offer up our Sincerity; but, in that case, it should be called Indelicacy.'
Well, quite... I did not read on.
   Much more interesting is my other 18th-century survivor – Miscellanies, the Sixth Volume, by Dr Swift (London, 1751). This is a collection of Swift's minor essays and what we would now call open letters (and by pure coincidence 'the more obscure regions of Swift's work' are also Patrick Kurp's subject today). Here are, for example, A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, Some Arguments Against Enlarging the Power of the Bishops, A Short View of the State of Ireland, etc. What caught my eye immediately was A Letter from Captain Gulliver to His Cousin Sympson, written in the Year 1727. In this Lemuel Gulliver takes his cousin to task for prevailing upon him to 'publish a very loose and uncorrect Account of my Travels', relying on 'some young Gentleman of either University' to put it in order. 'But I do not remember,' Gulliver continues, 'I gave you Power to consent, that any thing should be omitted, and much less that any thing should be inserted: Therefore, as to the latter, I do here renounce every thing of that kind; particularly, a Paragraph about Her Majesty Queen Anne, of most glorious and pious Memory; although I did reverence and esteem her more than any of human Species.' This is Swift with tongue very firmly in cheek: Queen Anne disliked and distrusted him, and the feeling was mutual. 
   Later in the letter, Gulliver laments, without surprise, the failure of his published Travels to reform the morals of the Yahoos (i.e. the common run of humanity). Rather, the Yahoos have turned on the author, finding fault and condemning his work. 'If the Censure of the Yahoos could any way affect me,' writes Gulliver, 'I should have great Reason to complain, that some of them are so bold as to think my Book of Travels a mere Fiction out of mine own Brain; and have gone so far as to drop Hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the Inhabitants of Utopia.' (Oddly, he also complains that the name Brobdingnag is an erroneous transcription, and it should correctly be Brobdingrag – why?).
   Gulliver concludes that he 'should never have attempted so absurd a Project as that of reforming the Yahoo race in this Kingdom: But, I have now done with all such visionary Schemes for ever.'



  1. Do you know how your personal library began? Lifelong book accumulators may have entrancing stories to tell about the biographies of their libraries.

    It's not entrancing, but in the Washington Post some months ago Michael Dirda did compliment my piece on this subject, which may be read here:

    It would be a pleasure to read the biography of your library, even if only in scattershot installments.

    Dale Nelson

    1. Thanks Dale. I fear my library and its history have been far too haphazard to merit any kind of biography. Despite being a professional librarian for some years, I never made any lists or catalogues, or even arranged my books in any properly systematic way. All I have done really is weed the collection out periodically – only to add at least as many books as I've removed. Like you, one of the very first books I bought was an H.G. Wells – in may case the collected short stories – and amazingly I still have it, a thick and far from handsome volume, but I can't bring myself to chuck it.

    2. Was that a Dover paperback?

    3. No, a poor quality hardback bound in red cloth. Published by Benn & Co. – 17th edition, 1960. The paper is now quite brown and brittle.

  2. I wish I remembered what, as a boy, I said, and when, about H. G. Wells, that prompted my mother or father to say something about him that, I must suppose, prepared me for what I eventually found out about his disastrous ideas regarding eugenics, politics, etc. I was not forbidden to read him and yet there was a gentle caution imparted then. I loved much of Wells's early science fiction and yet I never felt for him the fondness I felt for, say, Tolkien and Lewis.

    Well done Mom & Dad!

    1. Yes, Wells's early science fiction is surely his best work, and it still makes great reading. Because I liked it so much, I thought, as a boy, that I would like his other stuff – I soon found out how wrong I was. It seems extraordinary now, but my
      school English class studied Kipps for O-Level (don't know what the US equivalent of O-Levels/ GCSE is). I guess it shows what a big figure Wells still was in the 1960s – as was Shaw: we also did Three Plays for Puritans.