Category Archives: Social significance

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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Reading World War One

Although several of my father’s favorite anthologies date from the period following the First World War, they contain little of the poetry now seen as representative of that war’s experience. J.C. Squire’s three volumes of Selections from Modern Poets include nothing by Isaac Rosenberg and only one Wilfred Owen poem: “Strange Meeting.” Three of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poems are included, but the central theme of many of Squire’s choices is of nostalgia for a lost English ruralism, a credo embodied in the opening lines of Gordon Bottomley’s “To Iron-Founders and Others”: “When you destroy a blade of grass/ You poison England at her roots.” The industrial-scale warfare of the Great War, as well as industrialism itself was seen through this “Georgian” lens as threatening a long-lost Country Life view of  a stable, sunny Britain.

It was the First World War rather than the Second that resonated most with my father’s sense of history and continued to rumble away as a kind of ground bass in his consciousness. All three of my father’s older brothers had enlisted and two of them died in their early forties from the effects of being gassed. Many years later I learned that his mother

At her oldest son's wedding 1919

At her oldest son’s wedding 1919


My father (L), Jack (Centre) and Morley( R) in 1914

My father (L), Jack (Centre) and Morley( R) in 1914

may have managed to prevent my father’s enlistment when he turned eighteen in September 1917. It seems, according to local legend, that she took the bus to the recruiting office and announced, “You’ve had three of my sons and you’re not having another,” with sufficient emphasis to keep my father out of the war. Whatever grain of truth belongs to the legend, it appears that she was reluctant to see a third son sacrificed to the war, despite the  deluge of propaganda urging mothers and wives to send their men to war. women of britain 2However, his father seems to have had a taste for the iconography of military propaganda. He devoted some of his spare time to meticulous reproduction of some of the militaristic images in vogue during the war. Years later, one of these efforts—presumably a copy from a poster or newspaper drawing––dominated one wall of my brother’s bedroom.  A framed, poster-sized coloured drawing showed a mounted cavalry officer in the mid-nineteenth century uniform of the 17th Lancers trampling a dragon underfoot. The caption, borrowed from the Lancers’ regimental motto, “Death or Glory” proclaimed, “No surrender! Death or Glory!” It mirrors the typical imagery of the innumerable posters propagandizing the First World War, though the uniform shown harks back to the style worn by the regiment at the time of the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade.

"Charge of the Light Brigade," James Edwin McConnell (detail)

“Charge of the Light Brigade,” James Edwin McConnell (detail)

The painstaking copying of such a piece of military propaganda seems an odd choice of hobby for a man who was to outlive two of his sons—their health irrevocably destroyed by an industrialized form of warfare quite unlike the prancing cavalry triumph in the picture. Odd too that my father would have chosen to preserve and display such a piece of sentimentalized homage to military force. Probably though, both father and son saw little or no connection between such iconography and the carnage of the First World War. For most of my grandfather’s adult life popular culture was suffused with the cultural ephemera of imperialism and his taste for militaristic iconography was common enough at the time. In South Riding (1936), Winifred Holtby describes the Beddowes family placidly sitting at the “well-spread table below photogravure pictures portraying those scenes of carnage so popular in Edwardian dining rooms. Horses lashed about in agony, soldiers fell face downwards in the snow unable to answer roll call, cavalry charged across the trampled corn . . . but the Beddowes family ate with excellent appetite, quite undisturbed by hate and slaughter.” Images like that of the “Death or Glory” poster abounded in advertisements, newspaper illustrations and cigarette cards.

Players Cigarette card, 1915

Players Cigarette card, 1915

Both my grandfather and his sons had spent countless hours in Methodist chapels, where, since the 1860s, the favorite non-conformist hymns fused Christianity with militaristic rhetoric. “Christian soldiers” were urged to “Fight the good fight” and “Soldiers of the Cross” were exhorted to “obey the trumpet call” and “Stand up for Jesus.” With such rhetoric and iconography so all-pervasive, no wonder that that it became detached from the reality of war. “Play up! Play up and Play the Game!” my father would expostulate in any number of contexts, sometimes associated with sport, but always remote from its original source in Newbolt’s  “Vitai Lampada” in which the lessons of the public school cricket pitch are transferred to bloody desert warfare in the Sudan,“. . .the regiment blind with dust and smoke./The river of death has brimmed his banks,/And England’s far, and Honour a name,/But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:/‘Play up! play up! And play the game!’”

World War One is now seen as the most literary of all wars of modern times. Its relationship to literary culture has been extensively analysed  by such critics and historians as Paul Fussell. The brilliant work of Fussell and others has tended to focus our attention exclusively on the writers such as Owen and Sassoon who exposed the futility, cruelty and squalor of the war. However, as Peter Buitenhuis has shown in The Great War of Words, Buitenhuis covera cast of established writers (H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett,  Galsworthy,  Masefield, John Buchan, Edith Wharton and even Henry James) systematically  generated jingoistic texts at the British government’s behest, lending a degree of sophistication to the crude imagery of recruitment posters. The theme of the propaganda was the necessity of defending British “decency” and civilization against the onslaught of the brutal “Hun.” It would have been difficult to remain entirely unaffected by this barrage of propaganda from both widely revered “bookmen” in addition to the ubiquitous militaristic imagery. My father’s eldest brother, Wilfred, who was never posted to the front, would refer cholerically to the “Hun” in reminiscences for the rest of his life. The other brothers, Morley and Jack, both severely injured by gas, the latter much decorated for bravery for service in the non-combatant R.A.M.C. in the Somme and the Battle of Ancre, maintained a life-long silence about their war experiences.

Jack in uniform, 1915

Jack in uniform, 1915

On the back of the postcard of Jack in his Royal Army Medical Corps, in what looks like my father’s handwriting, are the lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses:”

                … that which we are, we are;

  One equal temper of heroic hearts,

  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.





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Books as furniture

Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker essay, “Books as Furniture,” pokes fun at luxury mail-order catalogues’ use of books as props for images of gentrified lives. Baker is far from alone in being mildly irked by books displayed and fetishized as status objects, divorced from actual reading. Simon Brett’s 2001 murder mystery, Death on the Downs, features a faux-rustic pub with an artful display of artefacts, “Wooden-shafted golf clubs and antiquated carpenters’ tools . . . Books were randomly scattered, without dust-jackets . . .Names like John Galsworthy, Warwick Deeping and E.R. Punshon gleamed in dull gold on their spines.” An array of objects “carefully selected to create an instant ambiance.”
While Baker and Brett both hint that the use of never-to-be-read books for purely decorative purposes, results from the waning cultural power of the book, it may be only their own critical reflex that belongs to recent times. Their Victorian forbears were less likely to be embarrassed by the phenomenon of books as interior decoration.
In contrast to their well-thumbed and annotated Golden Treasuries my grandparents’ small collection of books included some volumes whose soft red leather bindings functioned solely as decorative furniture. Displaying these books was a form of innocent cultural self-display –one that was approved for members of their class. John Bright, in the 1880s, had urged that the mere presence of books in artisans’ houses would “guard them from many temptations and many evils.” Sydney Smith’s view: “No furniture so charming as books” from earlier in the century is frequently quoted by modern bibliophiles. But Smith added the proviso “even if you never open them or read a single word.” In fact, not reading “a single word” of an impressive volume was sometimes touted as a virtue. A Fraser’s Magazine article in 1859 recommends that the best way to “reverence” Edward Gibbon was “not to read about him at all, but look at him from outside, in the bookcase, and think about how much there is within.”
In addition to the six volume Nature Book set, their shelves displayed a few other books valued exclusively for their bindings. Longfellow’s, Shelley’s, and Felicia Hemans’ poems, published around 1900 by Frederick Warne,Hemans cover were displayed but not, I think, much read. The Longfellow and Shelley volumes have long since vanished, but Felicia Hemans has somehow survived. The pages bear no marks or any evidence of reading—slightly surprising in view of her immense popularity with a large number of unsophisticated late Victorian readers with similar background to my grandparents.  Credited by Wordsworth with having given “so much innocent pleasure” to so many, he still considered Hemans good enough only for Americans “in the present state of their intellectual culture.” Despite her mass following, her works were out-of-print by the end of the First World War. She survived, until quite recently, solely as a figure of fun, represented in Saki’s short story “The Toys of Peace” as a “little lead figure . . .Mrs Hemans, the poetess” and as the butt of Noel Coward’s (1938) parody, “The Stately Homes of England.
But Felicia Hemans’ literary reputation would have been of no concern to my grandparents. Her poems, like their other books with leather bindings and gilt fore-edges, belonged in the class of what W.J. Loftie in his 1876 guide for homeowners, A Plea for Art in the House, called “ornamental books . . .whose binding is their chief feature.”

Frontispiece detail from W.J. Loftie: A Plea for Art at Home

Frontispiece detail from W.J. Loftie: A Plea for Art at Home

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