The catalogue issued in 1946 (previous Jot) by the directors of Elkin Mathews Ltd of Takeley, near Bishops Stortford, probably contained descriptions of books and manuscripts by one of the directors, Ian Fleming, an avid book collector. It’s tempting to imagine the future creator of James Bond trawling through some of the items in the catalogue in search of likely material.
We don’t know what language skills his fellow directors, B. K. Muir and C. H. Muir had, but we know that before the Second World War Fleming attended universities in Munich and Geneva to work on his language skills and visited Moscow in 1933 while working for Reuters. It is likely that he was responsible for translating some, if not all, of the foreign language manuscripts being sold by Elkin Mathews.
First, he may have examined a letter from the disciple of Karl Marx and founder of the Social Democratic Party, A. Bebel (1840 – 1913), which was written in German in 1893.In it Bebel complains that ‘since the abolition of the ban very few intellectuals and university folk have joined the party, or if they have done so, have abandoned it later on, out of fear or for reasons of social ambition’. He attacks the evolutionary socialist Rodbertus, who was opposed to Marxism and the University- Socialists.
This letter of ‘great importance ‘ was priced at 9 guineas.
There is also a holograph MS of Maxim Gorki’s “From my Diary” consisting of 12 folio pages in Russian and priced at a bargain £40—more than a month’s salary for a British University lecturer in Russian in 1946.
You could also buy a letter from the Swedish Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlof ( who she ?,Ed ) for £2 10s,a ‘ very fine letter ‘ from the Nazarene painter J.F.Overbeck dated 1852 for 10/- less and ( a real bargain, this) ten letters from the German impressionist painter Liebermann, a victim of Nazi prejudice, for £2 15s. A single letter from the gifted German draughtsman A. von Menzel, to which were attached ‘ ‘three fine pen-and-ink drawings’, could be yours for £20.
Of the more substantial MSS for sale are letters from major figures in European culture. First is a three page unpublished letter from the great German poet Schiller to the eminent German historian J.W.Archenholz (1745 – 1812) concerning a much anticipated contribution to his magazine Die Horen, three –quarters of which contained material by himself, Goethe and Herder. Elkin Mathews wanted a cool £75 for this item of ‘the greatest value ‘. For £35 an admirer of Schophenauer could buy a three and a half page letter from the German philosopher to his follower Dr Asher in which he remarks on various contemporaries. Unfortunately, one of the more ‘ beautiful ‘ letters —from Count Tolstoy to a German schoolmaster on the topic of conscientious objection to military service—was sold. In it Tolstoy was dogmatic in his pacifist views:
‘ Not only no Christian, but no decent man can agree to become a soldier…The question is not: is it more useful to be a good schoolmaster, or objecting to service, to go to prison…And to this question, there is only one answer, for a man who understands the true meaning of military service, and who wants to remain decent—only one clear and irrevocable answer: he must object.’
More cannot imagine Fleming using the word ‘ beautiful ‘ about a letter promoting radical pacifist ideals, so it is unlikely, although not impossible, that he would have written this description of Tolstoy’s letter, although, of course, he still may have translated it.
Also already sold is a letter of 2 ½ pages dated 1865 from Emile Zola to a literary critic pointing out that the novelist’s debut book, Contes a Ninoncontains some very shocking passages on pages 211 to 219.
The catalogue also contains several MSS in English, including that of Arnold Bennett’s last unfinished novel, dated 2nd December 1930. This again had been sold, as had Bennett’s review of Joyce’s Ulysses. Other notable MSS for sale were the original holograph of Wilde’s poem ‘ Roses and Rue ‘ (1885) for £50 and five of the same author’s ‘Poems in Prose’ (1993 – 94) for a very reasonable £100. [R.M.Healey]