Category Archives: Book ownership

Books as furniture: 2

In Chapter 24 of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair cover“In Which Mr. Osborne Takes Down the Family Bible,” George Osborne’s father formally disinherits him by crossing George’s name from the fly-leaf of the family Bible and then burning the will in which George is named as his legatee. “The great scarlet Bible” normally resides in a glass-fronted bookcase along with several “standard works in stout gilt bindings” which are unread “from year’s end to year’s end.” Family and servants are forbidden to touch the books and the room itself inspires “a certain terror.”

One of the ways in which Osborne senior enforces his authority over the family is through Sunday evening prayers read “to his family in a loud grating voice.” The “pompous book, seldom looked at, and shining all over with gold” whose frontispiece appropriately depicts Abraham and Isaac, is an emblem of the Osborne’s family’s social weightiness.

Abrahm and Isaac 2

Thackeray’s novel, published in 1847, but set in 1812, recalls a period when the heavy family Bible sat in a glass-fronted bookcase alongside Burke’s Peerage and the Gentleman’s Magazine to demonstrate the household’s wealth and importance. National Trust properties in Britain still reflect this practice of displaying sumptuously bound but unread volumes. The inaccessibility of these books to modern researchers has been the subject of a lively controversy in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement.

Library at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL Andreas von Einsiedel

Library at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL Andreas von Einsiedel

The Osborne”library” is a scanty effort whose pretensions come nowhere near the vast libraries of the families whose lineages are set out in Mr. Osborne’s copy of Burke’s Peerage. But weighty volumes with fine bindings operated as a signifier of social status at many levels.

By  the last decades of the nineteenth century large illustrated Bibles were being displayed very humble households, and, like the Osborne family Bible,  acted  as repositories of family records. In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) the bankrupted Mr. Tulliver insists that his son Tom fetch the “big Bible . . .where everything’s set down” and inscribe a vow of vengeance in its opening pages.

By the end of the century, although family Bibles continued to serve as the formal record of genealogically significant events and to serve as signifiers of social respectability, they had become so ubiquitous that they no longer implied the level of social prestige comparable to that suggested in Thackeray’s novel.Bible--Holy Matrimony PM

The popular literature of the late Victorian period is full of illustrations of poor and pious family listening attentively to a father’s bible reading. In heavily didactic works, like the Sunday at Home periodical received in my grandmother’s family, the bible reading is often presented as a provocation to dramatic moral repentance.

Illustration from serial in Sunday at Home, 1890

Illustration from the serial, “Not By Bread Alone” in Sunday at Home, 1890

The  Bible’s force as an agent of moral exhortation in poorer households stemmed in part from its status as the sole book in the family’s possession. In one of my grandmother’s favorite girlhood novels, James F. Cobb’s The Watchers on the Longships, the heroine is desperate to rekindle the lighthouse’s signal lamps. She can only reach them by using the family Bible as a platform, “But to stand upon the Bible! She could never do that. Her mother had always taught her to treat the sacred volume with extreme reverence. It was scrupulously dusted twice a day. . . . to stand on it . . . seemed like sacrilege.” After resting her head on “the holy Book” and praying, young Mary’s hesitation vanishes and she stacks the Bible with other household objects to rekindle the lamps to send “their cheerful beams over the mass of raging waves.” The Bible is then restored to its role as “sacred volume” when Mary prays for mariners’ safety by reading the ninety-third Psalm evoking the “Lord on high . . . mightier than the noise of many waters.”Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 12.05.14 PM





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Buying books

My father bought books throughout his life. His purchases as a young man had the hallmarks of the aspirational reader—editions of the various Victorian sages, Ruskin, Arnold and Carlyle that his brief college education had taught him to revere. He sought to underpin all this with the solid encyclopedic certainties offered by a subscription purchase of the monumental Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His brief enthusiasm for fatherhood was marked by subscribing to Odhams’ twelve volume encyclopedia for children edited by Ernest Ogan under the title The Wonderland of Knowledge. The series’ frontispiece displays an impressive array of figures and objects associated with “knowledge”—Athena posed in front of a set of columns, a large globe, big leather bound volumes tumbling out of the frame and in the distance a sailing ship, representing, presumably, voyages of exploration.Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 11.22.14 AM

On the two occasions we visited London in the 1950s he spent several mornings in the various bookshops in Charing Cross Road, though I think these visits seemed more involved in inhaling the atmosphere of book-lined spaces rather than making purchases. On our infrequent trips to local towns like in Cornwall his sole mission was to visit the local bookstore. Generally he would buy only a single book, in some cases because of its binding rather than its contents.

Quinto Bookshop, Charing Cross Road.

Quinto Bookshop, Charing Cross Road.

My mother’s book buying took a quite different form. She only ever entered a bookshop to seek out my father. I never saw her scan bookshop shelves with any degree of interest. However, she considered it her duty to supply the family with a steady stream of books bought in box lots in auction sales.

Attending auctions was nearly her only form of self-indulgence and one that entailed skillful planning. The first sign that she had identified a promising auction would come early on a Wednesday morning when she would come into my room with a breakfast tray (both my brother and I were brought breakfast in our rooms to avoid our exposure to the shouting and door-slamming that marked our father’s departure for work). She would suggest that I was looking “a bit under the weather” and probably shouldn’t be going to school that day. I would placidly accept the diagnosis and spend the next hour or two lounging in bed reading, fancying that I did, in fact, feel rather unwell. She would reappear around 10:30 and observe that I was now looking much better and that an outing would do me good. Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 3.26.26 PMWe would then set off to catch the train for Hayle or Penzance and I would find myself spending the afternoon in a smoky auction room while she became entirely absorbed in the complicated dynamics of bidding on her chosen lots. My presence was not required because of any need for company but rather because, as a non-driver, it was useful to have another set of hands to transport her purchases.

On one occasion she was thrilled to find a lot consisting of a filing cabinet crammed with sheet music. No other bidder shared her enthusiasm and the sheet music with which she planned to delight my father was knocked down to her for a pound or two. The entire contents of the filing cabinet was crammed into shopping bags at the end of the afternoon, and we made our way to the station, arms pulling out of their sockets with the weight of the bags. On one of the many stops to rest our aching arms she looked more closely at her prize. “But this is all cello music,” she gasped. Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 11.59.41 AMThe canny auctioneer had evidently put the few pieces of piano music at the front of the drawers obscuring the less desirable cello music. Despite this catastrophe we lugged the weighty bags to the station and onto the train. By the time we reached home she had already a devised a plan to mitigate the disaster. She immediately began cataloging her purchases, placed an advertisement in the Exchange and Mart and then spent the next few weeks selling off her stock and happily mulling over the letters she received from “professional musicians in London” as she invariably described them.

Another of her purchases resulted in a more successful attempt at pleasing my father. She bid impulsively on a huge pump organ which was knocked down to her for five pounds. Like other large purchases, it was delivered by the local carrier who worked with the auctioneer. Named Ducky Lanyon, he had a wooden leg which didn’t seem to inconvenience him in moving huge pieces of furniture. No sooner had Ducky delivered the organ than a small deputation from a local church knocked on the front door offering to buy the organ to use while their pipe organ was going through repairs. For few days my brother and I (non-musicians both) “played” the resounding organ as soon as it was surrendered to us by our father, panting and red-faced from his “turn” at the huge instrument and its demanding bellowsScreen Shot 2013-08-29 at 11.51.29 AM

Often whole suites of furniture would appear unannounced and I would return home from school to find that, not only had all the furniture in my room been entirely rearranged (which frequently happened) but had been completely replaced, the old furniture presumably having vanished in Ducky Lanyon’s same van which had brought the new set. Her book purchases at auctions were similarly quixotic. Acquired in unexamined box lots, we could find ourselves in possession of scores of mining textbooks—a common experience—or, more happily, on one occasion, a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. “Sets” were considered to be the most desirable trophies. The hours spent inhaling tobacco smoke and mold spores in damp auction rooms were rewarded by the acquisition of sets of Dickens, H.G. Wells, Hardy and, to my father’s greatest satisfaction, Robert Louis Stevenson.  There was also a complete set of Shaw’s plays in the pocket edition published by Constable; really superfluous since my father had bought a one volume edition of the complete plays some time before his marriage, along with another volume with the complete prefaces. Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 10.57.13 AMShaw seemed a confusing figure to me: my father often had the heavy volume of Complete Plays on his lap in the evenings, but my grandmother remarked to me one morning that Shaw was in league with the devil. This observation was prompted by seeing his photograph in the newspaper alongside his obituary. As a six year old, I digested this piece of information with puzzlement, but never discovered whether vegetarianism, atheism or Fabian Socialism was the basis of his supposed pact with the devil. Instead, I formed the impression that it had something to do with his large beard.

Often the bulk of auction room book purchases was in the form of old Sunday School prize books. The large number of Sunday Schools in the early twentieth century and their practice of awarding prizes for the bare achievement of “attendance” must have been a significant influence on the character of popular fiction of the time. Only the presence of such a guaranteed market can account for the publication of the deluge of insipid novels from now-long-forgotten authors. As auction-room flotsam and jetsam half a century after functioning as Sunday School prizes, their book-plates and inscriptions offer clues to how they figured in young readers’ lives.Frieda Jewell 2 Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World, which had also been a favorite with my grandmother, bears a plate showing its origin as a prize for Frieda M. Jewell at the Brea Bible Christian Sunday School in 1905.

Frieda’s prize the following year, Constance Millman’s Aunt Sally must have come without its bookplate, prompting Frieda to improvise her own, noting that it was awarded for her “receitation” at the Brea Band of Hope.Freida Jewell 1



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Filed under Aspirational reading, Book ownership, Secondhand bookstores, Sunday School prizes

Marks of ownership

More commonly in the past than now, child readers would  inscribe their name and address on the flyleaf of a book adding “The World” or “Planet Earth” and ending with “The Solar System” and “The Universe.” This jokey pin-pointing of the book and its owner usually palls once adolescence is reached, but I notice that books bought by both of my parents in their youth tend to include an address as well as the owner’s name. My own book purchases as an undergraduate frequently included the university’s name as well as my own.

Another case of multiple ownership--my 18 year old mark of ownership over that of my sister-in-law.

Another case of multiple ownership–my 18 year old mark of ownership over that of my sister-in-law.

Did I imagine, then, that my location was somehow permanent?

Or did I merely want to fix my engagement with that particular book with a specific time and place? No need really—the flat-footed exegesis in the scrawled marginal annotations reveal the undergraduate hand and mind all too plainly. My urge to inscribe marks of ownership evidently faded with the passage of time. Hardly any of the hundreds of books I’ve bought in later adult life are even marked with my name.

My father, on the other hand, continued to pencil his name on the flyleaf of any newly acquired book throughout his life. But this practice wasn’t associated with possessiveness about the books themselves. I frequently availed myself of books from his collection during my years as a student. His Everyman two volume edition of Middlemarch testifies to the complexity of book ownership in the family during that time. He must have purchased it in the late 1950s, appending his customary penciled signature to both volumes. I scooped it up to use in my first year at university, penciling my own name over my father’s signature on the first volume and on the board paper of the second. My mother evidently imagined the book was likely to be coveted by other students and, while I was out for a walk, used an indelible marker to inscribe the board paper of both volumes with my name in inch-high letters. On the same occasion she took the opportunity to append my name in similarly large letters on the front cover of the Pelican edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 10.46.06 AMand even on the foredges of The Second Common Reader, in each case using my initials and surname rather than the full name with which I usually signed. Her choice of site for the large-lettered imprint of ownership mimicked that of professional librarians who generally select “the inseparable portion of the artifact” –whatever part of the book which can’t be removed without catastrophic damage—for their library stamps. Librarians, however, favour discreet embossed stamps or institutional bookplates rather than giant cursive script made with a grocery marker. Half a century later, these “marks of ownership” with their fierce permanence makes these books seem not to belong to me but to exist in some other dimension.

Quite aside from the traces of contested ownership that such marks show, they testify to a relationship between reader and books that’s rapidly sliding into the past. The e-book in every reader’s hands remains indistinguishable from all its fellows and dissociated from the reader’s place on the planet.




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