Antiquarian Book Blogosphere

Alan TuringDecoding a Life

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By Tomas Elliott

Perhaps the reason why the life and legacy of Alan Turing (1912–1954) continue to fascinate is because they intersect with some of the great highs and lows of twentieth-century British history. From the heroic climax of his decryption of the Enigma cipher at Bletchley Park, to the tragedy of his prosecution for homosexuality and his subsequent suicide, Turing experienced the best and worst of the powerful machinations of the modern British state. Since his death, the reception of his legacy has highlighted a public effort to grapple with the prejudices of the past.

Nowadays, Turing’s life and his major achievements are widely known. Having grown up in London and South England, he attended Sherborne School, an independent boarding school in Dorset. There is a famous anecdote about Turing’s first day, which coincided with the 1926 General Strike. Determined not to miss class, Turing cycled 63 miles unaccompanied—he was 13 years old at the time—all the way from Southampton to Sherborne. While he would later be remembered for his uncompromising intellect, he also never lost his athleticism. When he was at Bletchley, he would sometimes run the 40 miles back to London just to attend a meeting in the city, and in 1948 he tried out for the British Olympic running team.

Alan Turing, aged 16

At Sherborne, however, Turing did not always dazzle. In his correspondence with Turing’s school friends, Turing’s later biographer, Andrew Hodges, noted that he had a “rather chequered career at Sherborne School.” His teachers sometimes complained that his inclination for maths and science led him to neglect his other subjects, and his headmaster once wrote to his parents to tell them that Turing “must be educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school.”

That penchant for specialization, however, would later serve Turing well at King’s College Cambridge, where he graduated with first class honours in mathematics in 1934. The following year, he was elected as a Fellow of the college, aged just 22. The year after that, while still a PhD student, he published what has since become known as “the most influential maths paper in history,” entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (1936).

In that paper, Turing formed the theoretical basis for a “universal computing machine,” which he proved would be capable of solving any computational problem, provided that the problem could be represented as an algorithm. All that was required was a machine with sufficient power to process and record the information. Although, at the time, Turing’s ideas were not widely understood beyond a few specialists, they set him up for his work in cryptography during World War II, which famously led to the decoding of Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine. Despite being one of the most significant breakthroughs of the war, however, Turing’s work remained classified for years. Some of his discoveries were not made public until as late as April 2012, since GCHQ continued to rely on them as part of their training modules, demonstrating just how important and far-reaching they were.

The Colossus machine at Bletchley Park. By Unknown author – This file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record FO850/234.

A memoir about Turing was written, however, not long after his death in 1954. It was penned by his mother, Sara Turing, who sought to highlight her son’s achievements without mentioning his classified war work. As well as describing his theoretical discoveries at Cambridge, the memoir drew attention to Turing’s work after the war, in which his “logical theory of a universal machine” took “concrete form in an actual machine”: the early computer. During this time, Turing also provided a foundational theory of artificial intelligence in his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in which he outlined his celebrated “imitation game,” later known as the Turing test.

Although she provided a sensitive record of her son’s work, Sara Turing either did not realize or did not want to admit that her son’s death, which had occurred when he was just 41, had been suicide. She also neglected to mention his homosexuality, even though she knew that he was living as an openly gay man (illegally at the time). It would be left to Andrew Hodges in his later and more comprehensive biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, published in 1983, to explore those matters in detail, while also revealing much more about Turing’s time at Bletchley. In this work, Hodges documented how Turing was convicted for “gross indecency” in 1952 and, to avoid a prison sentence, was forced to undergo a form of drug-induced castration, intended to reduce his libido. Following his conviction, Turing wrote a letter to his friend Norman Routledge, which he closed with a poignant, three-line reflection on the reception of his work:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think
Yours in distress, Alan.

TURING, Sara. Alan M. Turing. 1959.
HODGES, Andrew. Alan Turing: The Enigma. 1983.

If the faulty logic of this syllogism intentionally encapsulates the fickleness of the state’s betrayal of one of its former heroes, it also highlights the senseless, mechanistic operations of the state itself—yet another man-made machine not capable of thinking. The in-built prejudices of that machine would take more than 60 years to reprogram. Turing would not receive a pardon for the crime of “gross indecency” until 2013. It would take until 2016 for that pardon to be extended to others previously convicted of the crime.

This shows just how revolutionary Hodges’ 1983 biography was in and of itself. Alan Turing: The Enigma raised its subject from obscurity at a time when his life had been all but forgotten, even hushed up. Reflecting on that biography in 2014, after Turing’s pardon, Hodges remarked that the reception of Turing’s legacy had been as dependent on gay liberation as it had been on Britain’s victory over Nazi Germany: “the 1968 social revolution, which Turing anticipated, had to happen before his story could be liberated.” If Turing produced seismic shifts in understanding in his life, in other words, then his legacy awaited similar shifts before it could be recognized. The biographic and bibliographic histories of Turing, therefore, speak to the changing landscapes within which history is made and remade, pointing to the need to examine the stories we tell and decode the ones that we don’t.

Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing appears in our catalogue Spring 2021.

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<p>By Lauren Hepburn Rebecah Child, the

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By Lauren Hepburn

Rebecah Child, the Marchioness of Worcester, was not alone in personally collecting an extensive range of recipes for her household. Manuscript ‘receipt’ (recipe) books such as Child’s were commonly kept by elite women in early modern England and typically collated intergenerationally, as Child’s was – having been successively added to by herself, her daughter and granddaughter between 1690 and the end of the 18th century. Transcribing diverse recipes was integral to a woman’s domestic leadership of household and estate, resulting in one-of-a-kind texts with a deeply personal connection to their owner-editors.

Rarely are these manuscript cookbooks, which were ‘most often produced informally [and] unattributed’ (British Library), so diligently organised as the Child family’s is. The 140-page dossier is neatly numbered and indexed; recipes are credited to their original authors (p. 95, for example, is dedicated to a household cook: “Cooke Smith’s receipts”); where applicable, they are also credited to whomever shared them with Child: “Lord Herbert and Lady Betty’s diet drink; prescribed by Sir Charles Scarborough” (p. 11). Particularly remarkable is the conscientious citation of publications Child borrowed from: “Printed by the license of the Inquisitors & Ordinary in the College of St Paul and of the Society of Jesus in God” (p. 15). The interaction between manuscripts and printed texts during this period is a rich source of study, particularly with regard to the female-led domestic sphere.

[The] printed books of household management that emerged parallel to domestic manuscripts marketed themselves by adapting–indeed extending–ideas of community, imparting a sense that (like the manuscripts) they would insert readers into a community, “a context” relevant to readers’ lives (Sherman).

Certainly Child’s manuscript evidences one way in which the branches of her community came together. Alongside recipes taken from or shared with medical professionals and household staff, there are those identified as having been provided by close relations (“My Grandmother’s Cordiall Water” at p. 11), local women (“Mrs Frith’s chicken broth” at p. 27), family in-laws (several recipes are credited to the Stanhope family, into which Child’s granddaughter Caroline married), and fellow members of the aristocracy (“My Lord Fitzwilliams Receipt for the Gaundice” at p. 99). The very words ‘receipt’ and ‘recipe’ (the latter emerging during the 18th century) embody this exchange: recipere from the Latin, ‘to take’; recipe, ‘receive’.

The ability to trace the social history of certain entries is extraordinary: “A cure for the bite of a mad dog or cat, given by Mr Fisher to my Lord” outlines, beneath the methodology itself, a detailed history:

This receipt was coppied [sic] out of Northallerton Church booke where a Charitable Physician write it after the restoration of R: James, who purchased it from the author with money & had it proclaimed in every town in England but was lost in the great troubles or rebellion until this charitable physician revived it again at Northallerton & is now in great reputation in Yorkshire. (p. 56)

Medicinal recipes such as these also offer a vivid glimpse into the relationship between women, science, and medicine. As scholar Katherine Allen has noted, “an acknowledgment of women’s engagement with medicine in the home is integral to any broader investigation of women’s roles in science and is indicative of the cultural and social significance of science in daily life”. Indeed, the seemingly experience-based advice that accompanies a remedy for jaundice on p. 99 demonstrates an active involvement in the administering of treatment: “If you find difficulty in taking it all in one day you may take it three mornings together. Before taking it shake the bottle & if you think it will check your stomack [sic] you may strain it before you take it”. It was standard practice to record medicinal and cookery recipes together, since “the relationship between diet, health, food and medicine was very close in the 17th century” (British Library). This firmly positioned at-home treatments within the women’s domain.

Left: Sir Josiah Child

Another elucidating theme running through this collection is the family’s connection to international trade, the adoption of foreign foods into their diet, and their adaptation on being replicated at home. This can be seen in both the source of the recipes (for example “a receipt for a Flux from Mr Stratton of Fort St. George in the East Indies” listed at p. 109, Mr Stratton being George Stratton, an East India Company official who moved to Fort St. George in 1751) and in the foodstuffs themselves (“To pickel mellons ‘like’ mangos” at p. 61; “To make Polow or Pilaw” credited to Rebecah’s brother Richard’s cook; “To make the Indian pickle” p. 108). The appearance of ingredients such as coffee, cocoa, and sugar in the wealthier spheres of British life was due to the establishment of the slave trade in the Caribbean and Americas, and the plantations which relied upon it. Manuscripts such as this form an important record of the impact the colonial expansionist project had on domestic life, and are thus a potent reminder of the normalisation of such violence in British society at the time. As the daughter of Sir Josiah Child, who became Governor of the East India Company in 1681, Rebecah and her family were direct recipients of the benefits of colonial exploitation. It is for this reason as much as any other that manuscripts such as this are an important contribution to our understanding of British history.

Manuscript cookbooks from this period offer far-reaching insights into the lifestyles, communities, domestic practices, culinary trends and traditions, medicinal remedies, and even the very personalities of those who compiled them; Child’s richly detailed and carefully edited version is exemplary.

This item appears in our recent catalogue, Spring 2021.

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Private Passions: A Bloomsbury rare book exhibition for Fendi Couture, curated with Kim Jones

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In January 2021, Fendi showcased its first womenswear collection under artistic director Kim Jones. Featuring marbled prints, androgynous cuts and floor-sweeping capes, the collection was in part inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and her relationship to her long-time paramour Vita Sackville-West, as well as the work and life of the Bloomsbury Group and the productions of the Hogarth Press. Orlando, Sackville West’s son Nigel would later say, was “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her”. Playing with texture, gender and literary allusion, Jones’ collection is a fitting homage.

In an adjoining room of the opulent Palais Brongniart, where the show was held, an exhibition of rare books and manuscripts told the story of the Vita and Virginia’s romance, as well as the lives and loves of the wider Bloomsbury group. This exhibition was co-curated by Jones and Sammy Jay, literature specialist at Peter Harrington. A prolific collector of art and books, Jones has worked with Jay in recent years to put together an impressive collection of Bloomsbury material, inspired by a life-long passion for Woolf and her contemporaries. Growing up in Sussex, a stone’s-throw away from Charleston – the house which formed the hub of the lives and romances of the Bloomsbury group – Jones felt a magnetic pull towards the vibrant cast of characters who coalesced around the central figures of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell.

In the wake of the show, Sammy Jay describes the process of putting together this remarkable exhibition, and working with jones on his Bloomsbury passion project.

The exhibition at the Palais Brongniart

What is the story of your collecting relationship with Kim Jones? How did you meet?

Sometime in the winter of 2019, Kim walked into our shop on Dover Street in Mayfair, asking to see a special book that he’d spotted on our website: a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room inscribed to her sister Vanessa Bell (with its rare dust jacket, which Vanessa designed). It was immediately clear that here was someone who not only knew what they wanted, but also had a very strong relationship to books, both as cultural objects and as rarities. He walked out with the book that evening. I should stress that, with a book like that, you’re starting at the top.

When the first lockdown happened, our shops were closed, and Kim too was stuck at home with his books. During this time, we spoke regularly. It was great, really, to have someone enthusiastic to geek out with on all things Bloomsbury. Over the next year he really expanded his Bloomsbury collection, more than once confessing himself to be “a bit of a completist”. It’s been a delight helping him to collect an example of every single book printed by the Hogarth Press, and he has no qualms about acquiring more than one copy of the same book. For example, I was scouting at the New York book-fair and spotted something really fabulous – a first edition of Orlando inscribed by Woolf to Noël Coward. I knew Kim already had copies inscribed to Vita Sackville-West and Vanessa Bell, but I called him anyway and he said “yes please”. And why not? Unique items like that each tell a different story, and when you bring them together, they start to speak to each-other too.

Kim jones photographed on the runway of the Fendi womenswear collection, January 2021. Image: Fedi

Where did the idea for curating the exhibition come about? Could you speak more about the process of collaboration?

The idea for doing an exhibition of his books at the show was all Kim’s! It was around Christmas last year he asked if I could help curate it, and of course I was very excited. We had under a month to prepare, which made for an exhilarating process (the fashion world runs on a different clock to the rare book world, as perhaps you can imagine).

We spent a few evenings in his library discussing and finalising the overall selection – so much fun with all these priceless books and manuscripts spread out over the floor. It was a privilege watching him decide the aesthetic arrangement (Kim’s super-power) for the various marbled and patterned paper covers on the Hogarth Press books. We discussed the story we wanted to tell with the exhibition, and Kim was very clear that the focus should be on the formidable women of Bloomsbury: Virginia, Vita, Vanessa…

I must say it was a jaw-dropping moment when he first showed me the copy of Orlando that Virginia presented to Vita Sackville-West, who inspired, and to whom she dedicated, the book. This is what we would call in the trade “God’s own copy”, the best possible, indeed best imaginable, copy of any given book. All collectors are, whether they know it or not, on the quest for these biblio-grails, and, like the grail, very few ever get to see it.

For me, this book had to be in at the heart of the exhibition. So what took shape was a curation centring on Orlando, with a cabinet in in middle displaying Kim’s extraordinary proliferation of presentation copies, with Vita’s at the centre. On either side of this, I placed facing cabinets for Virginia and Vita – gazing on each-other, as it were, in mutual amazement – filled with magnificent examples of their books, letters, and manuscripts. Beside these were: a cabinet dedicated to Vanessa Bell and her contribution to the Bloomsbury aesthetic; one showcasing Kim’s exceptional archive of letters from Virginia Woolf to Clive Bell (with whom she was very close – he even proposed marriage to her before Vanessa); two displaying a range of early books produced by Leonard and Virginia at the Hogarth Press, with their striking hand-decorated covers; one for Roger Fry and the rare books produced by his short-lived Omega Workshops; and a final small cabinet dedicated to nostalgia, looking back at two new beginnings – the poetry anthology Euphrosyne which marks the beginning of the Bloomsbury group coming together at Cambridge, and the little brochure which Kim kept from his first ever visit to Charleston.

Why do you think the works of the Bloomsbury Group hold such a cultural resonance today?

It’s a good question – of course there’s the old joke about them “living in squares, talking in circles, and loving in triangles”, but for me the real story is that these were people who were deeply passionate about life and about art, and devoted themselves to getting to the bottom of both – that pursuit is surely not a theme which gets old.

It’s also key to acknowledge that the Bloomsbury group was exceptional in being a creative matriarchy – its leaders were women, the sisters Virginia and Vanessa being the twin geniuses at the heart of the group, and other major figures in the Bloomsbury orbit like Vita Sackville-West and Ottoline Morrel similarly held far more prominent sway than their husbands.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Image: Charleston

There’s a craft element of their practice which I think increasingly appeals to us as human beings caught in a mechanised and digitised world: the Hogarth Press was originally started as a sort of aesthetic therapy for Virginia to learn printing and practice book-binding, which she found “exciting, soothing, ennobling, and satisfying”. A lot of people have turned to amateur arts and crafts during this last distressing year. In Virginia’s case, look what extraordinary creativity was unlocked, not just for herself, by that first step!

What do you think connects the world of literature and fashion, aside from the obvious aesthetic qualities? Is there perhaps a philosophy that connects the two?

I certainly don’t pretend to be in touch with any fashion zeitgeist, though being introduced to the fashion world through rare books has been a fascinating, if unexpected, journey.

There are definitely compelling points of contact, most pertinently in Orlando itself, which has a lot to say about clothes and how “they change our view of the world and the world’s view of us”. I think the word “fashion” even appears in the first sentence of the book.

I was very struck when a friend told me that amateur costume drama was one of the frequent entertainments of life at Charleston. It makes sense! There is a sense in which all creative writing is inherently a form of dressing up;a writer must wear many guises to tell a story. Do the coats in our wardrobes and the books on our shelves serve to expand, in a similar way, our repertoire of selves? Perhaps literature, like fashion, is another way of becoming more than who we might otherwisenakedly be.

Sammy Jay, literature specialist at Peter Harrington Rare Books

The idea of collecting rare books and manuscripts as a creative and generative passion rather than an antiquated pursuit, is an important sentiment to you, why is this?

You’ve put your finger on it exactly! For me, Kim’s show was a world-class example of how collecting can be creative, how getting in touch with old things can give rise to new. This has always really mattered to me and inspired my approach to book-selling. At this point (I’m 32, and in the game now for almost a decade), I have to admit to myself that I’m committed to the rare book life, so it has been really gratifying to have been involved in something that revamps the inaccurate old image of book collecting as a dusty, desiccated pursuit. In my experience the rare book world is full of fascinating and fascinated people, dealers and collectors from all walks of life, each lured to the same spring in pursuit of whatever it is that they, deep down, care about most.

Is there a particular piece in the exhibition that you find exceptionally intriguing and/or inspiring?

One of the star Woolf items in Kim’s collecting constellation is an original manuscript she wrote for the introduction of Mrs Dalloway. It was written for a new edition of the book published in 1928. When it was first published three years prior, Mrs Dalloway had no authorial introduction, so this was in fact Woolf’s first opportunity to publish her own commentary on her ground-breaking novel, about which so much had already been said by the critics. Her handling of the book’s “theory” is wonderfully coy, but I love it most for the mind-bending sub-clause which Woolf adds to this sentence: “For nothing is more fascinating than to be shown the truth which lies behind those immense facades of fiction – if life is indeed true, and if fiction is indeed fictitious”. This was written in the same summer that Woolf was putting the finishing touches to Orlando, and offers, I feel, a glimpse of the enduring mystery at the heart of that book.

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Style and SubstanceThe trail of Oscar Wilde

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“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

So says The Importance of Being Earnest’s Gwendolen upon discovery of her lover’s false identity and its accompanying deception.  The sentiment is typical of Wilde, who did not himself take his final play seriously: he referred to it as his response to an American producer’s request for a play “with no real serious interest.”  The result, of course, is the author’s most famous and most-adapted play–one which has outlasted many more “serious” works of the period.

Gwendolen’s flippant response to Jack’s lie gets to the heart of the play’s interest in life as a performance.  In this, the play may be said to mirror its author, who famously blurred the lines between life and art: “I have put all my genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my works.”  It is therefore Wilde’s persona that is at times best remembered–something he crafted, altered, curated, and put on display throughout his life.

WILDE, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. 1899. £2,500.00.

The conceit of The Importance of Being Earnest hinges on a similar, if less aesthetic, performance of one’s own identity.  Its central characters, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, perform different personas when they are in the city or the country.  The ensuing plot is so labyrinthine as to be ridiculous (and hilarious).

Algernon and Jack embody their author’s wit–W.H. Auden described the play as “pure verbal opera”–and their decadent habits of “getting into scrapes” have left a lasting picture of British fin de siècle dandyism.  The play culminates in a withering critique of Victorian England’s obsession with roots, status, and decorum: an obsession that forces Wilde’s characters into their double lives even as it eventually unmasks them.

Famously, the play’s opening night–Valentine’s Day 1895–would witness events that eventually led to Wilde’s own public unmasking: a tragic set of legal proceedings that have since become known as the Wilde trials.

In the early 1890s, Wilde had a well-known affair with a young nobleman named Lord Alfred Douglas who was 17 years Wilde’s junior.  Beginning in 1894, the affair began to rouse the suspicions and eventually the ire of Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry.  Queensberry harassed Wilde and his son for almost a year, threatening restaurant owners who allowed them on their premises and even showing up at Wilde’s home with a prize fighter and a threat of violence.  On the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde caught wind of a plot on the part of Queensberry to sully the stage with a bouquet of rotten vegetables.  In response, he surrounded the theater with policemen and therefore ensured that Queensberry would be barred from entry.

The Wilde Trial as recorded in The Illustrated Police News, May 4 1895.

Four days later, Queensberry publicly accused Wilde of sodomy by leaving a note with the porter at his club, reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite”.  Despite friends’ warnings against the action, Wilde sued Queensberry for libel–a case which the author lost and which led to his arrest for “gross indecency” on April 6th, 1895.

The result led to two of the most famous trials of the century.  Prosecutors presented both literary and fact-based evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality, questioning him about young men he had spent time with in London and pressing him to explain his admiration for two of Lord Alfred’s poems that had been deemed homoerotic in character.

W.B. Yeats wrote that Wilde was “the greatest talker of his time. I have never and shall never meet conversation that could match his.”  Despite their tragic nature, the Wilde trials allowed for a public display of the author’s oral and rhetorical capabilities.  On the stand, Wilde–like his plays–was alternately full of both sincerity and style.  He responded to questions from his prosecutor, Charles Gill, with quips and one-liners that could easily have been lifted from one of his plays:

Gill: Why did you take up with these youths?
Wilde: I am a lover of youth. (Laughter.)
Gill: You exalt youth as a sort of god?
Wilde: I like to study the young in everything. There is something fascinating in youthfulness.
Gill: So you would prefer puppies to dogs and kittens to cats?
Wilde: I think so. I should enjoy, for instance, the society of a beardless, briefless barrister quite as much as that of the most accomplished Q.C. (Laughter.).

Four clippings from The Daily Telegraph (1, 2, 24, and 25 May) giving transcripts of the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde.

When pressed repeatedly, however, to describe “the love that dare not speak its name” in one of Lord Alfred’s poems, Wilde spontaneously issued what is perhaps the most famous–and certainly one of the most eloquent and sincere–defenses of same sex love in literary history:

‘The Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

The newspaper clippings describe alternating cheers and hisses from the gallery in response to this speech, and the Judge had to demand silence and decorum in the court.

Given the overwhelming evidence mounted against him, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labor in prison.  Upon his release in May 1897, he fled to France and lived there on a deliberately low pittance from his wife.  Due to the scandal of the trial, The Importance of Being Earnest was only performed 86 times before being cancelled, but publication of the first edition of the play in 1899 reportedly “brought Wilde a little money” while living in Paris.

Wilde died on November 30th, 1900 in poverty and exile.  But his legacy, as André Gide remembers, outlived the decline of his final years:

Those who came into contact with Wilde only toward the end of his life have a poor notion, from the weakened and broken being whom the prison returned to us, of the prodigious being he was at first. It was in ’91 that I met him for the first time. Wilde had at the time what Thackeray calls ‘the chief gift of great men’: success. His gesture, his look triumphed. His success was so certain that it seemed that it preceded Wilde and that all he needed do was go forward to meet it. His books astonished, charmed. His plays were to be the talk of London. He was rich; he was tall; he was handsome; laden with good fortune and honors. Some compared him to an Asiatic Bacchus; others to some Roman emperor; others to Apollo himself — and the fact is that he was radiant.

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5 Rare Books about Love, from Peter Harrington’s “Love in Literature” Catalogue

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Rare book shop Peter Harrington has recovered, restored and found loving homes for many romantic treasures. Each catalogue is painstakingly curated by a team of Peter Harrington rare book dealers, and the latest is no exception. Launched in conjunction with Valentine’s Day, 2021, the Literature in Love catalogue includes a list of rare books dedicated to romance and eroticism, featuring poetry, prose, play scripts and more.

DONNE, John. Poems. With Elegies on the Authors Death. 1633. £25,000.00.

The first of John Donne’s exquisite poetry collections was published two years after his death, in 1663. Containing some of the English language’s greatest romantic verses, this first edition represents, in part, Donne’s pivotal introduction to the poetic canon. The collection includes the scholar and cleric’s most famous work, ‘The Flea’, alongside others, such as ‘The Sun Rising’ and ‘Air and Angels’, but notably excludes his erotic ‘Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed’, which remained unprinted until another editor dared to include it in 1669. John Donne is widely regarded as the finest of the metaphysical poets.

DRYDEN, John. Marriage A-la-Mode. 1673. £1,750.00.

Playwright, poet, critic and England’s first Poet Laureate, John Dryden, was no stranger to love in literature . His Restoration comedy Marriage A-la-Mode follows two couples as their overlapping stories play out numerous comic tropes, from mistaken identities to a complicated love quadrangle. Published in the same year it was first performed, the play appears exactly as it was written for actors at the Theatre-Royal in London’s Covent Garden, thus transporting its reader into this farcical love story as it originally unfolded on stage.

MARVELL, Andrew. Miscellaneous Poems; [together with:] Advice to a Painter; [and:] Second Advice to the Painter. 1681; [1679; 1679?]. £12,500.00.

Contained in this first edition of three works is Andrew Marvell’s tantalising, seductive and, in 1689, salacious ‘To his Coy Mistress’  – one of the best-known erotic poems written in the English language. Eminently quotable (‘Had we but world enough and time…’), the racy monologue – delivered to an apparently coquettish love interest – carries a great sense of urgency, both in form and language, as its speaker attempts to ‘reason’ with her chastity. Particularly vivid is Marvell’s double entendre: ‘my vegetable love should grow vaster than empires and more slow…’, which requires little imagination to interpret!

SHAKESPEARE, William. Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. 1685. £185,000.00.

First published in 1685 and self-described as ‘never-before printed in folio’, the seven scripts added to this Fourth Folio completed the final edition of Shakespeare’s work printed in the 17th century. With these inclusions, the folio contains 50 play scripts in three genres – comedy, tragedy and history – and though six of the new additions are no longer attributed to Shakespeare (the seventh being ‘Pericles’), the Fourth Folio was considered the preeminent edition of Shakespeare’s work until the 18th century. And of course, among others, inside Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio is one of the most powerful and enduring love stories of all time: ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

SHAKESPEARE, William. A Collection of Poems, in Two Volumes. [1710-11]. £22,500.00.

Shakespeare’s sonnets cover a swathe of emotions experienced by lovers. Admiration, nervous anticipation, connectedness, jealousy, betrayal and rejection; the 154 sonnets contained in this edition, first published as a collection by the author himself in 1609, are amorous and tragic in equal measure. Alongside his most famous, such as Sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’) and ‘A Lover’s Complaint of his Angry Mistress’, are lesser-known treasures, including Sonnet 43 , whose finishing rhyming couplet is breathtakingly romantic:

‘All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.’

Peter Harrington rare book dealer is committed to maintaining the condition of rare books and delivering them to newfound owners. The list of rare books in the Literature in Love collection has been carefully curated to appeal to the most romantic of collectors: those who celebrate life’s seductions, courtships and heartbreaks – and everything that happens in-between.

By Lauren Hepburn

These items appear in our recent catalogue, Literature in Love, a celebration of romantic love, in its ecstasy and anguish, expressed in the great stories and poetry from across the ages.

The post 5 Rare Books about Love, from Peter Harrington’s “Love in Literature” Catalogue appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

Renée VivienSappho’s first female translator

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In 1877 Pauline Tarn was born in London to British and American parents. She was schooled and spent much of her childhood in France, and began writing verses in French aged 10; at 16 years old she pronounced poetry her vocation. ‘Elle [la poesie] peut elever, elle peut encourager, elle peut montrer le vrai et denoncer le faux… Elle a un grand role a jouer dans l’Univers…’ (Qtd. by Goujon; Engelking). Here, in her personal diary years later, we glimpse the deep feeling and sense of purpose poetry inspired in Tarn throughout her life and, more poignantly, the way she reclaimed poetry for women: She [poetry] can uplift, she can inspire, she can reveal the truth and denounce the false… she has a great role to play in the Universe…

In 1900, the British-American Francophile received an inheritance which enabled her to immigrate to France as a financially independent woman. She experienced a renaissance, adopting the pointed pseudonym Renée Vivien (Re-née; ‘rebirth’), dressing in men’s clothes, and embarking on a passionate affair with her first lover, the salonièrre, playwright, novelist and poet Natalie Clifford Barney, who would later form the Académie des Femmes in response to Paris’ prestigious all-male French Academy. Barney, a formidable intellect and openly lesbian writer, rejected monogamy and was known as the Amazon of Paris; in Greek mythology, the Amazon warriors lived in exclusively female society and matched their male rivals in strength and skill.

Portrait studio photograph of Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien in Directoire-era costume

Vivien and Barney’s partnership was creatively bountiful and romantically tumultuous. They soon uncovered a deeply felt and shared appreciation of Sappho, the 6th-century lyric poet from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, whose poems exist in mostly fragmentary form – much of it recovered on strips of papyrus during excavations in Egypt or else quoted by other authors. Approximately just 650 lines of Sappho’s work are extant today. Vivien and Barney both learnt ancient Greek to read her writing, which describes love, sensuality, longing and heartbreak between women without the prejudice that came to exist some millennia after she wrote. Vivien was the more committed student and, during what Tama Lea Engelking has coined her ‘prolific Sapphic phase’, produced the first ‘explicitly lesbian translation of Sappho’s poetry’ (Mendès-Leite). In 1903 its first edition was published. It features Sappho’s original Greek verses alongside Vivien’s direct translations and unique versification in French; its cover features a custom illustration by Symbolist and Art Nouveau artist Lucien Levy-Dhurmer.

Wide-ranging admiration of Sappho’s poetry has endured for thousands of years, but her influence on female and lesbian poets is particularly significant: ‘For the woman poet who experiences herself as inadequate or inadequately nurtured by a nonexistent or degraded literary matrilineage, for the lesbian poet who looks in vain for a native lesbian poetic tradition, Sappho is a very special precursor’ (Garber). Sappho’s status as foremother to women, lesbian and feminist writers is likewise attached to her continually high status, alongside men, in the poetic and literary canon. She was venerated in antiquity, and included by Hellenistic Alexandrian scholars among the most highly-esteemed Nine Lyric Poets. Virginia Woolf once observed, ‘perhaps in Lesbos, but never since have these conditions been the lot of women’ (Qtd. by Garber.); Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lesbos’ ‘presents the island as an unreachable ideal place, the counterpart to everything that is wrong with real women’s lives’ (Wilson, The Guardian). These writers were in awe of Sappho’s freer, more equal world.

SAPPHO; VIVIEN, Renée (trans.) Sapho. Traduction nouvelle avec le texte grec. 1903. £1,500.00.

Before Vivien reinstated Sappho as a lesbian poet, translations – written and published by men – had frequently muffled or censored her work; Vivien was ‘one of the first women writers to rewrite Western myths from an enlightened lesbian-feminist perspective’ (Marks). And, like Sappho, Vivien’s work impressed male writers and critics, then very much the gatekeepers of culture. She received high praise from an unlikely source: the well-known littérateur Charles Maurras, famously disdainful of non-native speakers and their ‘false Parisian polish’ (L’Avenir de l’Intelligence), who considered

Her use of the French language, whether in prose or in verse… remarkably fluid. There is neither impropriety in the choice of words nor a false note in the harmony of sounds. She knows that the mute e is responsible for the charm of our language. She plays with the eleven-syllable line of verse that Verlaine considered the most accomplished of all… (Qtd. by Marks).

His snobbery aside, it is unsurprising that Maurras’ expectations were defied by Vivien’s poetry and command of the French language: ‘The frequent letters Vivien exchanged with her assistant and editors concerning the minute details of her poems – some of which were literally written from her death bed – suggest how meticulous she was’ (Engelking).

In 1904, Vivien and Barney moved to Mytilene where Vivien purchased a house. They intended to establish a community for women poets in imitation of the academy Sappho once had on Lesbos. However, the couple’s volatile partnership led to their separation before their plans were fulfilled. In a tragic reflection of the legends surrounding Sappho’s own premature death, Vivien fell into a depression which manifested in anorexia and addiction, and she died aged just 32. In Vivien’s personal tragedy, ‘the intensity of [her] Sapphic passion presages a fall…’  (Gubar).

In 1951, French writer André Billy gave Vivien her final moniker: ‘Sapho 1900’. His words suggest her status as the lesbian poet of her time – a title hard-earned and well deserved.

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Dr Samuel Johnson: A Harmless Drudge

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One of the highlights of our recent Fifty Fine Items catalogue, the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, is a landmark publication in the history of the English language. Tom Elliott examines Johnson’s approach towards his greatest literary labour. 

Lexicographer. n. s. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

~ Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, respectable Englishmen and women faced two problems: their language and the people using it. In times gone by, writing and publishing had been the province of a privileged few, but recent revolutions in printing and education had led to a rise in literacy: more people than ever before were engaged in the production and consumption of books, newspapers, pamphlets, and more. Print culture had created a new society of letters that existed not just in England but across its empire. As a most unfortunate result, English had “spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance.”

That was the diagnosis of Samuel Johnson who, in 1746, had been tasked with creating A Dictionary of the English Language to help document the “boundless chaos of living speech.” Johnson’s monumental undertaking would eventually go down as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship,” earning him his reputation as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” The Dictionary’s impressive size and weight (two volumes, in folio) signalled its significance—on a par with the King James Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare. It was a source of national pride; as the author Christopher Smart put it: “I look upon [it] with equal amazement as I do upon St Paul’s Cathedral; each the work of one man, each the work of an Englishman.”

Doctor Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

At the time Johnson was undertaking his work, however, he was not the titan of letters he would later become. He was languishing before his gargantuan task. Although he had envisioned the project taking him just three years, it ended up lasting more than eight.

The problem was the unruliness of English. “When I took the first survey of my undertaking,” Johnson wrote, “I found our speech copious without order and energetick without rules, wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.” There was so much confusion, in fact, that Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield and the Dictionary’s patron, declared that Johnson should be given the emergency powers of a dictator to bring English into line: “We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and choose a dictator. Upon this principle, I give my vote for Mr Johnson to fill that great and arduous post.”

Johnson, for his part, received Chesterfield’s vote of approval with distaste: “the notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind, but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it.” Moreover, far from presenting himself as the noble saviour of a linguistic empire, Johnson viewed himself as a menial labourer. His amusing definition of a “lexicographer” as a “harmless drudge” says as much, as do the opening lines of the Dictionary’s “Preface”:

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise… Among those unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove paths of Learning and Genius, who press on forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.

JOHNSON, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. 1755. £275,000.00.

The fact that Johnson viewed lexicographers not as emperors but as labourers—linguistic rubbish collectors—is significant. Johnson was the grammar-school-educated son of a humble bookseller from the midlands. He had attended Pembroke College, Oxford, but had been forced to drop out when he couldn’t pay his bills. He turned to lexicography to stave off the debts that afflicted both himself and his family.

Moreover, his admittedly dramatic claim that he was a “slave to science” seems to point to an even more important part of his political history. Throughout his life, Johnson was forcefully opposed to what he called the “dreadful wickedness” of slavery, denouncing it publicly many times. In 1752, during his work on the Dictionary, Johnson employed a black Jamaican former slave named Francis Barber as his manservant. Barber would go on not only to help revise later editions of the Dictionary but also to become Johnson’s residual heir, much to the consternation of London society. If a lexicographer, in Johnson’s mind, was a “harmless drudge,” then it is noteworthy that his Dictionary defined a “drudge” as “one employed in mean labour; a slave; one doomed to servile occupation.” While Johnson’s drudge was “harmless” (and in no way comparable with what he called “the toil and torture” of slavery), he nonetheless aligned himself with the plight of servile work, befitting of someone far beneath the “dictator” that Chesterfield described him as.

Portrait thought to be of Francis Barber, attributed either to James Northcote or Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1770s.

If Johnson grappled with a wild and unruly English language, therefore, it wasn’t necessarily because he wanted, like many of his day, to rule over all who used it. At the dawn of the radical Enlightenment, his Dictionary seems to have been written both by and for “those who toil at the lower employments of life.” If it sought to regulate the English language, it did so to allow nobody and everybody to claim dominion over it, to be its master.

The first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary features in our Fifty Fine Items catalogue, which brings together fifty standout collectibles from the 13th to the 21st century.

View catalogue PDF. 

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