Books to buy in late Victorian Britain

J. H. Slater, a lawyer by training, who became the doyen of late Victorian writers on rare books, deserves to be far better known than he is. It is scandalous, for instance, that someone with so much influence and practical discernment  has no Wikipedia page ). He often comes across as  a grumpy, somewhat world-weary and cynical guide to the world he knew so well. Though occasionally inspirational ( particularly on incunabula ), his observations on the second hand book trade in general were often shocking when he made them, and continue to be distressing to many collectors today. Take some of the comments in his chapter entitled ‘ books to buy ‘.

‘ Few collectors, who are not specialists, care very much for the utility of their libraries; in many cases, indeed, it is not a question of utility at all, but of extent, though I apprehend that no one would wish to crowd his shelves with rubbish merely for the sake of filling them. As an immense proportion of the books which have been published during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries clearly come under that category, the collector has much to avoid, and stands in need of considerable experience to enable him to make a selection…’

Such a statement might be regarded as sacrilegious to many collectors who feel that any writing that has reached the stage of publication must, ipso facto, be worthy of respect. The fact that a book printed in the sixteenth century has survived into the twenty-first doesn’t mean that it is worth collecting. The often argument that such a book reflects the morals, taste or intellectual climate of the time is not a valid one. Discernment must be another factor and that can only be acquired through knowledge and scholarship, or ‘experience ‘,as Slater goes on to argue.

Slater cites the example of Naude, the seventeenth century bibliophile whose method of purchasing, was ‘ if not unique, was at any rate, uncommon’.

‘His favourite plan was to buy up entire libraries, and sort them at his leisure; or when these were not available in the bulk , he would, as Rossi relates, enter a shop with a yard measure in his hand, and buy his books by the ell. Wherever he went, paper and print became scarce: ‘ “ the stalls he encounters were like the towns through which Attila had swept with ruin in his train”  

Then there was the notorious bibliomaniac Rev. Richard Heber (1773 – 1833 whose great wealth was spent on a vast library that occupied eight houses in Britain and the Continent. His dictum was ‘ no gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use and one for borrowers ‘. In 1834, after his death, the sale of his books occupied 202 days, and in the words of Slater, ‘ flooded the market with rubbish —a worthy termination to a life of sweeping and gigantic purchases, made in the hope of acquiring single grains of wheat among his tons of worthless chaff’.

Quite rightly, Slater compares the privileged positions of collectors like Naude and Heber with the average modern bibliophile who must of necessity consider his limited means and opportunities to acquire the treasures he covets.

‘He will have to make up his mind to buy or not to buy on the spur of the moment, for while he is consulting his books of reference at home, a gplden opportunity may be missed…I have often thought that a register of scarce but mean looking English books, of such a convenient size as to be carried in the palm of the hand, might be of assistance to those who haunt the stalls, and delve among the rubbish usually to be found there …’

Today, of course, the smartphone supplies that need to a certain extent. In Slater’s time Book Auction Records (BAR) was a handy source of information, but a volume of this it could hardly be called ‘ pocket sized ‘.

Slater then returns to his favourite theme of ‘ rubbish ‘ books to be found in street book stalls, though he never preciselydefines what constitutes ‘ rubbish ‘.

‘ …the major heap will be found to consist of volumes of sermons, and other theological treatises, recipe books, odd historical volumes, and poetical effusions, besides periodical literature of the Spectator and Tatler brand. Books of this class are, as a rule, merely rubbish…’

The tone of world weariness adopted by Slater in classifying the Tatler and Spectator as ‘ brands ‘reminds us of the brilliant analysis by another maverick writer, William St Clair , whose survey, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004)  has become a modern classic. In it he is equally scathing on the issue of certain publishers/booksellers being more interested in publishing umpteenth editions of the tried and tested ,’classics ‘ of literature ( such as the Tatler and Spectator ) than risking money on bringing out new literature. It is not certain whether Slater felt that Addison and Steele wrote ‘ rubbish ‘ or whether he was questioning that essays originally published in 1709 had any relevance for readers living in 1780.

But Slater never despairs of finding interesting volumes among the bookstall dross.

‘ …Sermons of John Knox and Dr Sacheverell, or any of Mather’s tracts, are invariably worth purchasing; as also are first editions of sermons by Cardinals Manning or Newman. Early editions of Mrs Glasse’s cookery book, or any recipe books of the seventeenth century, may safely be speculated in; so may early editions of poetical works, if written by authors whose reputations subsequently became established..’

To be continued…

R. M. Healey  

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