THIS IS WHAT WE’LL DO:
TALK ABOUT BOOKS, OBJECTS, AUTHORS, ARTISTS, TRAVELS AND EVENTS.
WE ARE LUCKY TO DO WHAT WE DO AND FIND SOME ASTONISHING THINGS ALONG THE WAY.
COMMENTS ARE INVITED AND APPRECIATED.
THIS IS WHAT WE’LL DO:
TALK ABOUT BOOKS, OBJECTS, AUTHORS, ARTISTS, TRAVELS AND EVENTS.
WE ARE LUCKY TO DO WHAT WE DO AND FIND SOME ASTONISHING THINGS ALONG THE WAY.
COMMENTS ARE INVITED AND APPRECIATED.
At first glance an unassuming little book bound in simple black cloth, the unexpected title – “Eskimaux Vocabulary / For the Use of the Arctic Expedition” – boldly printed in gilt to the front cover, quickly catches the eye and the imagination.
Published in London in 1850, it was designed as a field guide to Inuit languages for European Arctic explorers, enabling the translation of useful phrases back and forth between English and what it defines as three categories of native dialect: “Labrador, or Eastern”, “Winter Island and Iglúlik, or Central”, and “Kotzebue Sound, or Western”.
In introducing the guide, its author, John Washington (1800-1863), a Royal Navy officer and founding member of the Royal Geographical Society of London, describes the Inuit languages as “graceful and energetic”, praising the “strength and brevity” of expression which resulted from their tendency to blend multiple words. He also notes how they “abound in words expressive of common objects”, for example animals, the natural landscape and weather, through which they can distinguish “slight shades of difference” via the use of specific terms.
Despite, however, the clichéd claim that Eskimos have more than fifty different words for ‘snow’, this guide offers only a couple. Indeed, its focus was essentially practical, aiming to condense previous tomes – “of little use…for the daily requirements of parties…in boats or on land expeditions” – into a handy pocket guide, furnishing “every officer and leading man in the Arctic expeditions with a book of ready reference that he can carry in his pocket without inconvenience”.
In addition to translating many hundreds of key words, the guide contains several specimen dialogues with titles including “On first meeting with natives” and “Dialogue with a sick man”. Through these, an explorer could learn how to translate phrases such as “I want to buy twelve good dogs”, “We are going to travel over the ice / Will you go with us as a guide?”, and “Do you catch many seals? / Show us how you catch them”. It also includes tips on conversing with Inuit peoples, noting how they “make much use of winks and nods”, as well as awkwardly advising perhaps usually reserved British naval officers that in “close quarters rubbing noses is the most approved mode of salutation”.
The central purpose of the guide was, however, even more particular than simply assisting Arctic exploration – it was created with the explicit aim of aiding one of the most famous rescue missions of the nineteenth century.
In May 1845, Sir John Franklin, a renowned explorer and veteran of three previous Arctic expeditions, set out with two ships and 134 crew to map the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage through northern Canada. On 26th July they were sighted for the final time by a European vessel in Baffin Bay. Two years then passed with no word from the expedition, leading Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, to repeatedly urge the British government to send a search party. After a third year elapsed, and with the expedition only carrying provisions for that length of time, the Admiralty finally agreed, offering a staggering £20,000 reward for locating Franklin and his men. The size of the reward (about £1.6 million today) and Franklin’s fame led to widespread public interest and numerous expeditions, with the search becoming something of a national crusade.
Washington hoped that his Vocabulary – “compiled for the use of the Arctic Expeditions fitted out at the expense of the British Government to carry relief to Sir John Franklin and his companions” – would aid in bringing “the joyful intelligence” of their safety. He was encouraged in this thought by previous expeditions which had experienced much helpful “intercourse…with the natives of the north-western coast”. He thus included in his guide specific lines to be recited to any Inuit encountered: “We are in search of two English ships / Which have been five years in the ice / Have you heard anything of such ships? / Make it known among all the Eskimos or Innuit / That the Queen of England will give a large reward / To any of the Innuit who will bring news of them”.
It certainly appears that the guide was actively used in the search for Franklin. Peter Sutherland, a member of two such expeditions during 1850-51, gave it a notable mention, declaring that only through using that “excellent vocabulary”, had they managed to make themselves “tolerably well understood” (albeit still complaining that the replies they received were “too hastily made, and far too voluminous to be comprehended”).
Washington’s motivations were indeed ultimately vindicated when, in 1854, it was through conversing with Inuit hunters that the Scottish explorer John Rae became the first to learn of the Franklin expedition’s fate – how both ships had become icebound, and how the men, after attempting to reach safety on foot, had succumbed to cold, with some even resorting to cannibalism.
Whether Rae himself used Washington’s Vocabulary at any point is unknown. Nevertheless, this compact field guide, designed for easing the interaction of two alien cultures, would have been an essential piece of kit, stuffed into the bags of many nineteenth-century polar explorers. With such a specific purpose, few copies would have originally been printed, and most that were have not endured what would have likely been a rough-and-ready life, making this copy a genuinely rare survivor and a fascinating piece of Arctic history.
Andre Norton (born Alice Mary Norton in Ohio in 1912) was a hugely prolific writer and one of the earliest women to achieve widespread success in the traditionally male dominated genres of science fiction and fantasy.
Norton’s earliest books were historical adventures for young adults (which would have been described as ‘juvenile fiction’ at the time) published in the 30s and 40s. She legally changed her name to the androgynous Andre in the same year that her first book was published under the advice of her publisher, as it was thought that boys would not read a book written by a woman. Speaking in 1982 on this decision, she said that as “a woman in a man’s field” and with so few women were working in genre fiction “we had to”. In a 1985 interview Norton even recalls how she refrained from writing about female characters until Ordeal in Otherwhere in 1964, and that even then her publisher was “most dubious” about the book’s appeal.
In reality, as well as garnering a dedicated general readership, Norton ended up attracting many new female readers to science fiction and fantasy. Many of these such as Mercedes Lackey, Judith Tarr, Sherwood Smith, Martha Wells, and Susan Shwartz then went on to become a part of the next generation of writers in the genre themselves, often citing her as a role model or speaking of a particular, special respect they held for her. Though always modest about her role in bringing more women to the genre, Norton often went out of her way to publicly recommend books by new female writers, frequently collaborated with other women, and created a prize in 1989 called the Gryphon Award, specifically for new books by women writers.
Although Norton’s books, like any product of a specific time, certainly contain stereotypes and concepts that now appear outdated, her casts of characters are much more diverse and varied than their average contemporary’s, and the essential message of her work is that it’s ok to be different, and that equality and respect between all beings is of the greatest importance. Star Guard, for example, is described as ‘subversive’ by Judith Tarr, particularly for the 1950s. Featuring characters with a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, this post-nuclear-war, interplanetary science fiction is underpinned by a careful exploration of colonialism.
Norton was herself an avid book collector, and it became a passion project of hers to create a research library of rare and fascinating books and artefacts pertaining to science fiction, fantasy, legends, ancient history, gothic, and the occult. She briefly achieved her dream towards the end of her life with “High Hallack Library” in Tennessee, which housed over 10,000 texts and was complete with guest rooms and on-sight facilities so that scholars and writers could completely immerse themselves in their research.
Norton died at age 93 in 2005, and left behind an unmistakeable mark on the world of science fiction and fantasy. She was honoured with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America‘s Grand Master Award in 1984, and with the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 1998; and has been commonly referred to as Grande Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy by publications such as Publisher’s Weekly and Time magazine, biographers, and her fans; but moreover her hundreds of books were read by many generations of readers across a period when the genre was still in its formative state: she had already been a published author for 10 years when J. R. R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, and her blend of sword and sorcery fantasy themes with outer space science fiction settings, typified in books like Star Gate, became her trademark long before the same combination became so familiar in the Star Wars franchise.
Find our collection of UK first edition Andre Nortons here.
This signed copy of Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, brings together three very different, fascinating, and historically important people. The book is inscribed by Chatwin, an inimitable writer and character, credited with reinvigorating travel writing in the 20th century, to Eve Arnold, a highly talented and celebrated photojournalist, whilst the pair were working together on an assignment for The Sunday Times which saw them travelling through India with Indira Gandhi, India’s only female prime minister, on her election campaign (an account of which, “On the Road with Mrs G,” was later published in Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here? (1989)).
Chatwin’s books, which the editor of In Patagonia, Susannah Clapp, described as being “almost violently successful” in their first years of publication, breathed new life into a stagnating genre and turning it into something fresh and desirable. His sparkling, experimental writing style and his own, arguably self-cultivated, image itself (the charming, young, lightly foppish Englishman turned nomadic, carefree explorer) became what could only be described as cool. The appeal of this stylish, evocative persona endures even today, with articles about him being written in popular men’s fashion magazines such as Mr Porter and Another Man.
He disliked being described as a journalist, preferring to think of himself as a storyteller, and indeed, he was not shy of amplifying or bending elements of the truth to create a more impactful or engaging story. Salman Rushdie, a close friend of Chatwin’s said that “he was looking for stories the world could give him and that he could embellish. He didn’t give a damn whether they were true or not; only whether they were good”. A well known anecdote from his time with Indira Gandhi in which she turns to him and says “Bruce, you have no idea how tiring it is to be a goddess … do get me some more of those cashew nuts” is almost universally believed to be fabricated, yet nobody denies that it makes one hell of a good story, or even that it evokes something of Ghandi’s energy and the dynamics of her relationships both with Chatwin and the people of India. Eve Arnold affectionately disclosed that Chatwin had a tendency to make himself the protagonist in his writing, citing an anecdote that Chatwin describes Ghandi as telling to him, which was actually told to Arnold while Chatwin was far away in another part of the country. Arnold said that “he absorbed everything around him and transmuted it into something all his own. He just found it made a better story if he was number one”.
Eve Arnold, born in 1912 in Phillidelphia, first found recognition for her photography with her series that documented the vibrant Harlem fashion scene in 1950. She took this along with a photo essay on migrant labourers in Long Island to the prestigious Magnum photographic co-operative in 1951 and was accepted as a stringer, and a few years later as a full member. She was the first female photographer to do this.
Arnold’s photojournalism straddled a strange combination of glamorous Hollywood stars and the stark, everyday realities of the poor, both in the US and around the world. She attempted and certainly succeeded to, in her own words, “take the mundane and try to show how special it is” with her shots of normal people in their daily lives, but also conversely was able to expose humanity and mundanity in the lives of the rich and famous. Some of her most memorable and celebrated photographs are those that she took of Marilyn Monroe, particularly those on the set of the 1961 film The Misfits. Arnold developed a long friendship and working relationship with Monroe, as she did with many of her famous subjects, which allowed her to capture more natural, warm, and vulnerable images of them. Besides her photographs of celebrities, she worked all over the world (such as her trip with Chatwin and Gandhi), and created incredible series on subjects such as the Black Power movement and the then still very taboo topic of birth.
The Sunday Times assignment involved Arnold and Chatwin accompanying Gandhi for a month while she was on her election campaign. Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had become India’s first prime minister after the country gained independence in 1947. Educated with only mild success across various schools in England, Switzerland, and India, and often sickly as a child, the young Gandhi was popularly characterised as unintellectual, meek and compliant, a perception that only continued as she matured and began acting as something of an assistant and hostess to her father and his colleagues. However, Indira broke expectations when she became Prime Minister 1966 and proved herself to be a hugely forceful, often controversial leader, who rose to a near dizzying level of popularity after guiding India to victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh war, and later used instances of unrest and political upheaval to grant herself even more power. Arnold and Chatwin’s visit to her tour came a year after she lost a general election after eleven years in office, and she was already regaining popularity. She would be re-elected in 1980. The personal insecurity observed in her early years may have ended up becoming her biggest downfall as a leader, as it appeared to develop into an almost paranoid clinging to control the longer she stayed in power. After resorting to drastically violent means, her attempted suppression of a Sikh separatist movement resulted in great and widespread bloodshed, and she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
And so this book, an important and enthralling text in its own right, becomes a rather curious and unexpected but also historically staggering artefact capturing a brief moment in time in which three hugely significant, wildly different figures; the irrepressible, rakish explorer-cum-writer; the sensitive, insightful photojournalist; and the shockingly powerful, steely, yet troubled political leader; became travelling companions.
Painter and illustrator Millicent Sowerby was born in 1878 in Gateshead to a wealthy glass-making family. Her father, John G. Sowerby, as well as acting as director of the glass-making factory, also enjoyed recognition as a painter and illustrator. Millicent was one of the first women to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and she also illustrated children’s books by her sister Githa.
Millicent moved to London with Githa in the early 1900s, and the pair began work on their books, Githa writing them and Millicent illustrating them. We at Lucius Books are fortunate enough to have acquired seven beautiful, original illustrations for one such book, Childhood, the sisters’ second book, a collection of children’s verse published in 1907.
Githa also wrote plays, and her most famous, the deeply political play Rutherford & Son (written under the deliberately genderless name of K. G. Sowerby) became a critically acclaimed sensation in London and was subsequently performed in New York. The eventual discovery that the play was written by a woman was met with shock and disbelief, and even withdrawals of praise by some critics. Sadly, the play eventually fell into obscurity before its slow but steady revival in the 1980s, and there is now a growing interest in Githa’s life and work as northern-born, political, feminist thinker and writer.
Millicent’s style was strongly influenced by Kate Greenaway, and her idyllic scenes of sweetly dressed children and tranquil domestic life fitted perfectly into the popular genre of Edwardian children’s gift books. The illustrations for Childhood are highly worked with a very fine attention to detail and an accomplished command of colour. Millicent is adept at creating smoothly blended planes of colour on a dress or a face that contrast against more textured areas built up with tiny brushstrokes to indicate hair, grass, or rough wood. A favourite of mine shows a domestic scene in which a mother works on embroidery whilst glancing affectionately at her child who is writing with a quill. The skilful diagonally trailing composition which flows from the child’s feet up to the top of the mother’s head and the subtle use of muted colours create a harmonious, tranquil picture.
Find our Sowerby illustrations here.
Over the last few days I have had the pleasure of researching and cataloguing a collection of decorated letters, calendars, and bookmarks created by the “Glasgow Girl” and contemporary of Jessie M. King, Annie French, which has been a lovely task while working from home! Annie French (born 1872) is something of an elusive figure and little is recorded of her life, which makes these letters and keepsakes that she made for a close friend very special.
The calendars and letters are decorated with tiny detailed borders and flowers which have a certain looseness of style that lends them a frothy romanticism. French also often adds profuse collections of her favourite quotations in beautiful lettering. The colourful bookmarks are covered in colourful flowers, and one of them bears the image of an enchanting young woman with long hair and a flowing green gown.
The letters and gifts date between 1939 and 1954, each sent as “New Year Greetings”. The recipient is Violet Neith (née Anderson) of the artistic Anderson family. Violet’s mother and father, Daisy Agnes McGlashan and William Smith Anderson, met at the Glasgow School of Art, and attended the school at the same time as Annie French, which is likely to be how the families became friends. Violet and her sister Daisy (in the letters French affectionately enquires after “the Daisies”, clearly referring to Violet’s mother and sister) also attended the school in the 1920s. French also mentions handmade art and gifts that she had received herself from Violet, Violet’s artist husband John Neith, as well as more of their friends and family; you really get a sense of the creative energy in the social and family groups that were affiliated with the “Glasgow School”, even decades after the movement’s greatest peak in fame and success.
It is difficult to build a complete picture of French’s life. Much of what is known is owed to the research of the art dealer Una Rota, who was unfortunately unable to complete her planned biography of French due to ill health in her later years. Much of Rota’s research consists of correspondence with people who knew French, leading more to a picture of her as a person rather than the historical structure of her life events. One lovely quote from a friend of French describes her as “like thistle down, she was small, dainty and merry”. It is believed that French, in something of an artistic tradition, destroyed many of her own papers at the end of her life (in one of the letters, French describes returning gifts given to her by her friends to them, for fear of their artwork being snatched into the unknown in the event of her own death), so it is wonderful to see these letters which have clearly been carefully cherished for many years by Violet Neith. The letters mostly detail small comments on and descriptions of everyday life, but French’s creative and adept use of language make them a compelling read, with metaphors like “butterfly” people, and not caring for a life that is a “stream that tumbled along among boulders”.
After her studies, French returned to The Glasgow School of Art as a teacher, before marrying a fellow artist, George Woolliscroft Rhead, with whom she moved to London in 1914. Some time after George’s death in 1920 French moved to “1 Oaklands” in Kenley, Surrey, where she lived, seemingly across two flats, with two of her sisters, Agnes and Margaret, and this is where this collection was created. Agnes died in 1952, and Margaret suffered an unnamed accident from which she unfortunately never recovered, dying in 1954. There are various points in the letters in which French describes finding life difficult, and it is surely these events to which she refers. It has previously been suggested that French then moved to Jersey to live near to relatives as a reaction to both sisters’ deaths, but these letters reveal that Annie and Margaret were both planning on the move: French describes trying to get her affairs and belongings in order, and says that Margaret will need to recover before the move.
French did eventually move to Jersey to be close to her sister-in-law and beloved nephew Eric, who enjoyed painting with his aunt, and whose recollections of her form some of the most intimate components of Rota’s research. French died in Jersey in 1965 at the grand age of 92. These beautiful gifts and letters offer a remarkable and truly unique look into the work and life of a private, and in my opinion unfortunately overlooked, artist, as well as a small snippet of the wider, vibrant world of the Glasgow School, which so influentially shaped British decorative arts at the birth of the 20th century.
“Girls! Girls everywhere! Girls in the passages, girls in the hall, racing upstairs and scurrying downstairs, diving into dormitories and running into classrooms, overflowing on to the landing and hustling along the corridor — everywhere, girls! There were tall and short, and fat and thin, and all degrees from pretty to plain; girls with fair hair and girls with dark hair, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, and grey-eyed girls; demure girls, romping girls, clever girls, stupid girls — but never a silent girl.”
(Angela Brazil, The School by the Sea)
The genre and formula of the girls’ school story is a familiar, well loved one, still read by all ages and exerting a strong influence on modern writing today. Its history can be traced all the way back to the 1700s and Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or The Little Female Academy, which is not only credited as the first school story, but also as the first full length novel for children. This is particularly remarkable as books aimed at girls were especially unusual at the time. The Governess sees its school’s nine pupils tell their own life stories, read together, and learn moral lessons and good behaviour, which is the ultimate theme and aim of the book.
This emphasis on instructive, moralistic, often religious tales in girls’ school stories (which surged in popularity in the late 1800s) was de rigueur until the early 20th century when Angela Brazil, the original pioneer of the modern incarnation of boarding school fiction, arrived on the scene. While Brazil’s work may seem tame or stuffy or simply a jolly-hockeysticks cliché to today’s average reader, in her time it was somewhat groundbreaking and even rebellious. Some people of a more conservative leaning even condemned them as dangerously subversive, and there are accounts of headmistresses banning the books outright. The stories served primarily as entertainment rather than as moral instruction, and the multifaceted, sporty young female characters (usually aged around 14 to 15) weren’t unfamiliar with a bit of trouble, pranks, and flouting of authority; even their vocabulary, which seems quaint today, was full of contemporary, indecorous, youth-led slang.
Following closely after Brazil were Dorita Fairlie Bruce, famous for her Dimsie series; Elinor Brent-Dyer with the hugely popular Chalet School series; and Elsie J. Oxenham with her slightly more Christianity-influenced The Abbey Girls series; with Enid Blyton carrying the popularity of the school story into and past the mid-20th century with Mallory Towers and St. Clare’s. All of these authors use the school setting (the schools and lessons themselves hold varying levels of importance from series to series) as a way of giving the young female characters stardom and autonomy within the novels. They create an almost mythical world, largely free from adults and populated and driven by girls; their structured, insular societies within a society held together by female friendships and relationships simultaneously provide freedom and adventure and safety and security.
For these reasons the boarding school setting has appealed even to authors that write outside of the classic school story formula, particularly as a way to frame and facilitate the trials of adolescence and the hypnagogia of emergent adulthood. An early example is Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s A Little Princess, in which Sarah Crewe and her friends experience upheavals and hardships but ultimately emerge as improved and well-adjusted individuals together within the community of a girls’ school. The otherworldly, isolated image of the boarding school has also lent itself to surreal, supernatural additions in later decades, such as Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, a dreamy time travel novel that sees a 1970s schoolgirl swap places back and forth overnight with a former pupil whom her bed belonged to in 1918, or the gothic The Moth Diaries published in 2002 which, although thematically the near antithesis of the earliest school stories, uses the same boarding school world-structure of insular adolescent female freedom to deal with obsession and sexuality along with implied vampirism.
As each wave of boarding school books influences the following generation of writers, the genre adapts and continues: the most notable modern jump-starter of course being J. K. Rowling with the co-educational magical boarding school Hogwarts, but the setting has also attracted authors like Jacqueline Wilson and John Green, showing that the near-imaginary, child-ruled world provides the perfect backdrop for stories that are funny or serious, sexy or staid, realistic or fantastical, and captures readers with a nostalgic but ever-adapting, enduring appeal.
At times like these when the world can seem like a dark, confusing place, it becomes important to find a little joy here and there so that we can keep on going. Something that has personally lifted my spirits recently is a little gem of a book that my colleague Sky brought back from the California Book Fair shortly before book fairs started to get cancelled. It is a “Chap Record”, a form of journal designed specially for a lady to keep organised notes on all of the men she meets; a concept summarised wonderfully by the snappy verse printed on its opening pages:
“Behold herein, all nice and neat,
A record of the men I meet.
Among them all perhaps, there be –
Who knows? – the ‘not impossible’ He.”
Each entry has space for the man’s name, the date and place, and the lady’s opinion on him. This particular Chap Record belonged to Gertrude L. Beebe (born in 1893 in Brooklyn) who started writing in it in 1910 when she was around 17 and kept doing so until 1917 when she was around 24. Gertrude rather prolifically filled in 55 single sided pages and recorded a whopping 162 men, many of whom she met at a huge variety of parties and holidays (such as a “Japanese Party at Helen Francis’” and “Addis Wilmot’s Halloween Party”) across Brooklyn, Newark, and Baltimore to name just a few.
It soon becomes clear which particular attributes Gertrude was paying attention to in a man, with her always commenting on their height; almost always noting whether they were dark or fair; and often noting if they were ‘jolly’, ‘good fun’, ‘quiet’, or ‘lively’; as well as commenting on their dancing and piano playing prowess. She seemed to have a particular soft spot for a handsome pair of eyes and an attractive voice, with those that she found pleasing earning the description of ‘dandy’. She didn’t tend to dwell too long on the men she she didn’t like, instead signing their entries off with the almost quality-control-style repetition of “nothing to rave about”, though she clearly took a particular dislike to a man known only as “-?” who Gertrude states was:
“Short – not very good looking – horrid. Only saw him for five minutes.”
It seems that she marked her favorite men with a little “C” symbol in the corner of their entries, as with Carl Smith’s entry, which reads:
“Perfectly stunning chap. Tall and very dark with beautiful eyes. Rather quiet and dances dandy. Quite an independent chap.”
In 1916-17, though, she dropped this method, and instead took to the after-note: “I am terribly fond of… [lucky man’s name here]”. One of the last few entries, one Fred Fraser, is even lauded as “a peach of a fellow”. The volume is a truly wonderful record of a wealthy young woman’s social life in early 20th century New York and beyond, and is an absorbing read in itself, the short notes revealing much more about its unexpectedly relatable writer than its subjects. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as I made my way through the 162 entries, transported for a few moments to another time and another world.
The journal is happily accompanied by two photographs of the society beauty, which seem to radiate with happiness and vitality. One is a glamorous headshot, the other a photograph of Gertrude in a surprisingly fashionable fancy dress owl costume, possibly at Addis Wilmot’s aforementioned Halloween party.
This fascinating journal is, considering its age and how long Gertrude kept it for, in excellent condition, and provides an incredible historical glance atromance and dating, as well as being a very welcome, uplifting, and resoundingly humorous diversion. Unfortunately we have not been able to find out what happened to Gertrude or if she ever married, but I like to imagine that the reason she stopped writing in 1917 is that she did eventually find her “‘not impossible’ He”.
The upper and lower boards of Something Leather.
Lanark, title page and frontispiece.
1982, Janine (1984), his second (and the author’s own favourite) novel, was recently described by an admirer (the critic, Sarah Ditum) as ‘unambiguous filth, chronicling the compulsive, unruly fantasies of a middle-aged man called Jock’; in the same article she refers to Something Leather (1990), the fifth novel, as ‘straight-up lechery’. Those books are clearly much else besides, but as Ditum is quick to point out, ‘Gray’s writing is not the tyrannical kind that can only be enjoyed if you agree with him. He makes easy company with disagreement’. A lifelong socialist and Scottish nationalist, the salient quality of the work, however dark and angry (and, of course, funny), is that of generosity.
Janine, jacket and binding.
One of the many things that set Lanark apart from anything else being done at the time was the author’s control of every aspect of the book’s design and production. A feat (a feast) of graphic and typographic invention, everything from the elaborately illustrated jacket to the choice of font-type(s), expresses a singular vision.
When, in 1888, William Morris set up his Kelmscott Press, it was a response to the poor quality of mass-produced books, and of their drab, ugly appearance. Morris aimed to produce books at once beautiful, functional and affordable. It was a laudable ideal, and the books that emerged were indeed beautiful and finely crafted but – perhaps inevitably – turned out to be expensive and limited. A century later, with mass-produced, disposable publishing as pervasive as ever, an equally idealistic Alasdair Gray was able to carve an unexpected niche within the publishing world. Working closely with Canongate in Edinburgh and (through Liz Calder) Jonathan Cape and Bloomsbury (his books were published more or less alternately in Edinburgh and London) Gray was given relatively free rein, not only over content, but also the look, feel and weight of the books: their presence as objects/artefacts. It was an idealism redolent of Blake and Morris, but the books were affordable. This was partly owing to the publishers passing some of the cost of such idealism to the author himself. Gray was never financially secure, describing himself as ‘a well-known writer who cannot make a living from his writing’.
Unlikely Stories, Mostly, jacket and binding.
As with all the paratextual elements of Gray’s books, the text printed to boards and dustwrappers is treated with the same care as words on the page. The jacket copy of 1982, Janine, tells us that ‘This already dated novel is set inside the head of an ageing, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations […] Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books is to be found here in concentrated form’; the magisterial Book of Prefaces (2000) prints blurbs ‘by’, among others, Samuel Johnson – ‘never has penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment been so happily disguised’ – and Mark Twain; while the front flap of A Life in Pictures cites one Sidney Workman of the Times Literary Implement , who informs us that ‘in Glasgow pubs it is now common gossip that bibliophiles will esteem it as highly as Hypnoerotomachia Poliphili and similar incunabula’.
Gray’s concern with the technology (the medium) of the book is of a piece with his work as a visual artist, whether on paper, canvas, or in the magnificent series of murals scattered around Glasgow. He saw little distinction between his work across these various media (describing each as a holiday from the other): a platform at Hillhead underground station or the ceiling of the auditorium at the Oran Moor centre are treated with the same imaginative energy as the books.
Motifs, verbal and visual, reappear across the books, murals, paintings: whether of particular faces (James Kelman makes regular cameo appearances), decorative patterns, the figure of Prometheus, self-portraits, or phrases like the one from Dennis Lee (which was carved into the front of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004), not forgetting the myriad roundels, manicules, thistles and gremlins that pop up everywhere. It is a generous and labyrinthine universe of emblems that clearly calls for a scholarly concordance of some kind.
Collecting first editions published over the last few decades is a mixed blessing. A first printing of a Hilary Mantel or J. K. Rowling novel may be the relic of a moment, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that most hardback fiction these days is printed, bound and designed with little more care (or concern for durability) than the paperback edition that follows a few months later, and at half the price. Gray’s first editions, however, were always (and remain) desirable and special: the paperback editions really do entail a diminishment of the many pleasures that these works offer the reader – the holder – when in their original, their intended, form.
Lucius Books has recently acquired a once-in-a-lifetime collection of Gray’s work; everything from exhibition catalogues, pamphlets, poetry, drama, and, of course, the novels and stories. Mostly immaculate, nearly everything is signed/inscribed in Gray’s inimitable hand.
“The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make”
J.R.R. Tolkien is undoubtedly amongst the most popular authors of the last hundred years, with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings never failing to find a new, captive audience in every emerging generation of readers. Furthermore, the literary and increasingly multimedia genre of modern fantasy that he unwittingly created continues to flourish, only becoming more intricately woven into our cultural landscape as time goes on.
But why is this? To some, the key to the singular appeal of his writing lies in his primary passion for philology: the study, particularly through literary texts, of the history and creation of language and how words relate to history and culture. This passion became an unprecedentedly deep grounding and framework for the stories he created. To Tolkien, he was revealing the mythology that the roots and paths of the words of real, modern languages imply once existed, if only in the collective imagination. Simultaneously, he was creating a world and a history for the languages that he loved to create to inhabit (exemplified particularly in The Silmarillion); a necessity, since it was the relationship between culture and language, rather than language in isolation, which so enthralled him.
This foundation, so complex, rooted in reality, and essentially unreliant on plot, surely serves as one of the most unusual and painstakingly detailed bases for an imaginary world that is rarely seen elsewhere, and must surely contributes to Tolkien’s success. After all, as Tolkien said himself in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, “The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make”.
In some ways, Tolkien did not create a genre (fantasy, or, more specifically, heroic or high fantasy), he opened the door to a world – one that was not limited to the pages of his own books. Though they vary in tone, innovation, and quality, the myriad books (as well as films and television series) published every year that owe even the smallest debt to Tolkien invite the reader into a world that she or he already knows the lay of – one of dragons, watchful trees, heroic underdogs, and relics of ancient power. And if Tolkien is to be believed, it is the hidden mythology that can be read between the lines of our own language that makes this world so irresistibly familiar to us, even before we open The Hobbit for the very first time.
To me, the appeal of Tolkien also lies in the purity of fantasy and moral clarity in his world building and writing. This is something Tolkien touches on himself, again in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, arguing that, since fantasy lies separately from the ‘primary world’ and must be entirely created, it is “a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent”. He goes on to describe the heroic overcoming of evils and hardships in fantasy as moments of “joy” and “consolation”, which offer comfort and escape amidst the realities of the primary world. Indeed, many scholars have proposed that Tolkien’s work reveals the processing of his experiences in WWI, and he himself argued against the derision of escapism, asking “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”.
And so, in the extraordinarily well developed and language-anchored world of Arda and the land of Middle-Earth, readers may find both an example of a Very Bad Situation which is eventually, through the hard work of good people, solved logically and fairly; and a much needed escape from reality. It is no wonder then, that every generation, each facing its own Very Bad Situation (be it the wars Tolkien lived through or the political upheaval and instability of the present day), keeps reaching, again and again, for that solution and escape.
We are lucky enough at Lucius Books to currently be in possession of a handful of books once belonging to Nancy Cunard, a rebellious poet, socialite, publisher, and political activist who worked hard to promote pacifism while fighting fascism and prejudice, though she is now mostly remembered, perhaps unfairly, for becoming muse and lover to a host of early 20th century writers and artists. None of the books are in exceptional condition and most have been annotated and personalised by Cunard, which only serves to render them somehow closer to her – she was certainly not the sort to carefully collect and preserve objects, but rather to thoroughly and blithely immerse herself in them in a bid to extract the messages and sentiments held within.
Three of the books belonging to Cunard are by George Moore, and their publication and inscription dates range from 1917 to 1955. Moore had a very close, almost certainly romantic and sexual relationship with Cunard’s mother, Lady Maud Cunard, who remained his idealised muse until the end of his life, her likeness finding its way into many of his novels. It was rumoured during Cunard’s lifetime that Moore, rather than Maud’s husband, Sir Bache Cunard, heir to a profitable shipping business, was Cunard’s father. Cunard never discovered whether the rumour was true, and her parentage is still disputed to this day. Her father or not, Moore was a permanent fixture throughout Cunard’s life, and she often spoke of him with more affection than her generally absent or disinterested mother and father. Referencing her visit with Moore at age four, she describes him as her “first friend”.
Many found Cunard’s eccentric, energetic personality enchanting and magnetic, earning her a wide and dynamic social life; she had links, whether as acquaintances, friends, or lovers, with a staggering amount of famous artists, writers, and other creative or bohemian figures. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Louis Aragon, Aldous Huxley (who was so taken with Cunard he wrote her into his novels), Wyndham Lewis, John Strachey, and Jean Cocteau are just a few of those we know for certain were her lovers, while among her friends (a few of whom may also have been her lovers) were Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Virginia Woolf, Josephine Baker, and Iris Tree, as well as many more.
Cunard’s drive to fight prejudice and injustice was shared by one of her lifelong friends, the American writer Kay Boyle, who wrote another of our books belonging to Cunard. ‘His Human Majesty’ is inscribed by Boyle to Cunard, dated 1949. Boyle’s poignant and insightful 1937 poem about the Scottsboro case (Cunard had passionately put great effort into petitioning for the boys’ release in 1931) is titled ‘A Communication to Nancy Cunard’.
Our final book of Cunard’s is Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1928 ‘John Brown’s Body’, which contains a number of Cunard’s inscriptions: her pencilled reading notes on the front free endpaper state that she read the book three times, the second reading dated Summer 1953, the third reading in August 1964, just six months before her death. Her final years were sadly marred by poor physical and mental health, poverty, and addiction, and it can be noted that her handwriting in the 1964 inscription is markedly stiff and shaky. At the top of the page she boldy states that “this is one of the finest poems ever written”, with further notes highlighting favourite passages. It is certainly humbling to handle a book that such a vibrant woman held so dearly!
On the prelims, marked “today, the 16th of June 1953” (during her second reading of the poem) Cunard tipped in French newspaper clippings covering and denouncing Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s imminent execution for espionage, next to which she writes that “the issue is still uncertain”. Many Europeans, including Albert Einstiein and Pablo Picasso, publicly called for mercy and compassion regarding the Rosenberg Case. The execution went ahead three days later. This clearly beloved book along with our other books belonging to Cunard create a small but wonderful window into the life of one of the early 20th century’s most unusual and fascinating women, as well as into the political and social world of early and mid-century left-leaning minds.