Antiquarian Book Blogosphere

By a Lady: The not-so-uneventful life and words of Jane Austen

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By Lauren Hepburn

On a sunny winter’s day in December, 1775, Jane Austen began life at home in the quiet country village of Steventon, Hampshire. The bustling parsonage where she was born was already occupied by her parents, four brothers and one sister, and another baby boy would join them two years later. “She is to be Jenny,” wrote her father, George Austen, in a letter to his sister-in-law (qtd. by Tomalin, 2012).  

Mr. Austen was the rector of the local church (the Austens belonged to a large clerical family) and supervised the family farm, while also maintaining a dizzying cycle of debt and borrowing; Mrs. Austen busily managed the house, chickens and dairy, and was more of a pragmatic parent than a coddling one. The children’s sophisticated London-dwelling, French-speaking older cousin, Eliza Hancock, who owned jewellery sent from India by her military father and was heiress to a small fortune, would also feature heavily in the children’s lives, along with her widowed, financially independent mother, Philadelphia. Despite being 14 years apart, the cousins developed a close bond, and Eliza would eventually marry Austen’s favourite older brother, Henry.

Defying the high infant mortality rates of the time, all of the Austen children grew up healthy and into adulthood (although the parents’ second child, George, was sent to be raised elsewhere as he suffered from symptoms which may indicate cerebral palsy). The Austens were otherwise close-knit and, no matter their change in circumstances, would remain in each other’s lives. Sisters Jane and Cassandra were lifelong friends and confidantes, whose relationship may be reflected in the authentic female companionships of Austen’s novels. The author’s other siblings would work up the ranks of the navy, be adopted by or marry into upper-class families, or, like their father, join the clergy. Overall, the Austen children appear to have lived in a “cheerful home, whose atmosphere reminded one observer of ‘the liberal society, the simplicity, hospitality, & taste, which commonly prevail in different families among the delightful valley of Switzerland’” (ibid.).   

Austen was not a diarist, and much of her correspondence has been destroyed or lost, in part due to a deep sense of privacy. Her sister Cassandra destroyed many letters for this reason, leaving us to speculate about what Austen might have felt during some of the most pivotal moments in her life: unfulfilled engagements, bereavements, family upheavals, illness and unexpected changes. This has widely engendered the assumption that her life was “uneventful” (so it was deemed by her brother and nephew in their own writing), but recent scholars have challenged this perception. Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography  details the many intrigues, excitements and scandals the author experienced or was privy to in her lifetime, and which almost certainly informed her writing. Virginia Woolf, who proclaimed Austen “the most perfect artist among women” also considered her “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface”. 

Austen died from what was likely to have been cancer, aged 41, in 1817. Her life was the shortest of all her siblings. In this time she completed six novels, which have been beloved for centuries worldwide. Pride and Prejudice alone has sold tens of millions of copies globally and been adapted to screen for mass audiences and to great acclaim. This reserved genteel countrywoman, of whom we know relatively little, produced some of the greatest works of British literature. It is tantalising to imagine where she may be hidden in the stories themselves.  

Below, we pay a visit to each of her much-loved novels.  


Sense and Sensibility, 1811

First edition of Sense and Sensibility in the original boards

Sixteen years after its first draft, in 1811, Austen spent a third of her annual household income to publish her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, through Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house; she would receive a commission on sales. Where her name might have been printed on the title page was an anonymous, mysterious alternative simply reading, ‘By A Lady’.  

Initially epistolary in form and titled Elinor and Marianne, in 1797 Austen decided to change the novel’s structure to direct narrative. It was renamed Sense and Sensibility, indicating that the contradictory natures of her main characters, two sisters – one stoical and sensible, the other impassioned and impulsive – would frame her narrative. 


Pride and Prejudice, 1813 

When Austen wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice, then titled First Impressions, in October, 1796, she was twenty – the same age as her heroine Elizabeth Bennet. She completed the first draft in nine months. By the time it was published, seventeen years later in 1813, she was thirty-seven. The novel’s title change once more signposted the central conflict in the book, this time between one of literature’s most famous couples, “Lizzy” Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.  

Left: Title page of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice. Right: Portrait of Thomas Langlois Lefroy by Willaim Henry Mote, 1855.

Pride and Prejudice’s instantly recognisable opening statement establishes the key theme of the novel – marriage: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Although Austen’s opus widely explores and satirises the subject, in her own life her first and possibly only meaningful romance was cut short. From her letters we know Austen shared feelings with a family friend called Tom Lefroy, but their lack of combined wealth led to a family intervention which separated them: “The day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea” (Jane Austen, qtd. by Tomalin). Biographer John Spence has gone so far as to suggest that the bold nature of “Lizzy” could have found inspiration in Lefroy, while Darcy’s restrained character may have reflected Austen herself. Austen would later refuse another proposal after changing her mind overnight, and her sister Cassandra’s fiancé died while on military expedition. Neither of them would ultimately marry. 

Despite what has previously been perceived as her lack of personal experience, Austen’s most popular work, which established her as a success in her own time, is a triumph of satire; an astute social commentary on manners, education and, of course, the very nature of courtship and marriage. 

The original signed illustration for the 1907 edition of Pride and Prejudice, by Charles Brock


Mansfield Park, 1814 

Title page and frontispiece for Mansfield Park, illustrated by Ferdinand Pickering, the first illustrator to interpret Austen’s works visually.

Another book of contrasts, Mansfield Park primarily concerns itself with questions of ‘right and wrong’. Austen’s characterisation of individuals and their society in her third-published book presents a binary moral code. Where Fanny Price is somewhat priggish, inflexible in her ethics and judgemental of others, Mary Crawford is witty and gregarious, resembling Austen’s other strong, wilful and unconventional female protagonists. However, Mary also belongs to morally corrupt London society; she is materialistic, capricious and, despite being shown as capable of caring for others, her actions are mostly self-centred. In the end, it is Fanny who prevails in Mansfield Park, much to the surprise and disappointment of some readers (including members of Austen’s own family), and to the approval and satisfaction of others. 


Emma, 1815 

Emma was published in 1815, the fourth and final book to be during Austen’s lifetime. After rejecting an offer from publisher John Murray II which would have included handing over the copyrights of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, she self-funded the printing of the Emma’s first 2,000 copies. In an unsigned review, Sir Walter Scott described how her style had changed the rules of novel-writing: 

“[Austen’s novels] belong to a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel… The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand: but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.”

First edition of Emma, a rediscovered authorial presentation copy, to Austen’s great friend Anne sharp, the model for Mrs Weston in the novel: the only known authorial presentation copy of any Jane Austen novel to have appeared in commerce since publication.

It is amusing, perhaps, that the most iconic adaptation of Emma is a modern homage to it: a contemporised (at the time of its release) screen adaptation, set in an American high school in the ‘90s. Clueless introduced Austen’s story to the global mainstream and continues to be a cultural phenomenon, to the extent that some viewers won’t realise its basis in Austen’s novel. In fact, this screen adaptation is truer to the original than one might first appreciate: a privileged teenager interfering in her peers’ lives, constantly thinking of the future and not the present, planning and plotting, deluded about her own feelings, misunderstanding social cues and ultimately making things worse for everyone involved. The coming-of-age comedy has a universality about it and an enduring appeal for young women. Clueless, like Emma, is timeless. 


Persuasion, 1817 

Austen finished writing Persuasion when she was 40, in 1816. Around this time her health deteriorated; she did not dwell on what was, early on, a mild discomfort and would later take great pains to downplay her suffering. She finished the book in July but would eventually rewrite the two closing chapters – these drafts are the only manuscripts of Austen’s work to survive and are held by the British Museum.  

“[They show] a remarkably tight and economical habit of composition. The dialogue runs continuously, without paragraphing, closely packed in. The abbreviations show how she hurried and kept to essentials… Many nouns are capitalized in the old-fashioned way… some underlined as well, as though she paused to think of their significance and stress it: ‘Persuasion’, ‘Duty’.” (Tomalin, 2012.)

The famous letter written by Captain Wentworth to Anne Elliot, which forms the romantic climax of the novel


While the author may finally have been satisfied with her work, she did not begin the process of publication until a year later. It would eventually be published, along with Northanger Abbey, six months after her death. 


Northanger Abbey, 1817 

Northanger Abbey, initially structured as an epistolary novel (as Sense and Sensibility was), was also published posthumously, twenty years after Austen first penned it. A masterpiece of meta-literature, Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels and reading them. It is a playful comedy, a pastiche of gothic horror, and it subverts clichés. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s naïve protagonist Catherine Morland is plain and ordinary, lacking in suitors and not particularly bright. On the other hand, satirising popular gothic romances of the time, other clichés are farcically exaggerated: formidable architecture, sinister shadows, dark, creaking rooms, and the like. Meanwhile, the narrator punctuates the tale with bemused and witty observations, at odds with an otherwise foreboding setting. These contrasts come together as a commentary on fiction itself. 

Illustration of Catherine Morland, artist unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen’s Novels

Some of the commentary is explicit, though still couched in a humorously flippant tone: a novel is “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”: a pithy statement that is true of any one of Jane Austen’s novels. 


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The Cult of Mao and the “Lin Biao Incident” of September 1971

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The cult of Mao – perhaps the most well-known aspect of modern China’s history – has fascinated me since childhood. The cult was wide-ranging, ostentatious, and quasi-religious, dominating everyday life during the Cultural Revolution and spawning an entire world of print and material culture. I remember, many years ago, my dad asking me how I wished to celebrate my 18th birthday, and my convincing him to take me to the British Museum to see an exhibition of Chairman Mao badges. While he dutifully waited, I spent hours looking at the pieces on display.

How intellectually exciting it has been, therefore, to spend the last 2 months bringing together the selection of Mao cult material listed at the bottom of this article. The items show not only the breadth of the cult, but also accord due space to Lin Biao, Mao’s hand-picked successor who was the man most responsible, besides Mao himself, for stoking the cult and the charged political atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution.

This week is a fitting time to be talking about Maoism, for Monday 13th September 2021 marked 50 years since Lin Biao died in a plane crash while attempting to flee China to safety. Up to his death, Lin was consistently described by state propaganda as Mao’s “closest comrade in arms”, and it is hard to overstate the political significance of his meteoric rise and fall.

Chairman Mao on the Tiananmen rostrum, joined by Lin Biao (R) and Premier Zhou Enlai (L) waving copies of the “Little Red Book”

Put simply, I don’t think the Cultural Revolution could have happened without Lin. A famed general with a strong powerbase in the army, Lin threw his support behind Mao in the early 1960s when the Chairman was politically becalmed. After Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, Lin backed Mao to the hilt, spearheaded the mass dissemination of the famous “Little Red Book”, and used the army to restore order and implement Mao’s ideological wishes when the Chairman had had enough of the Red Guards and their factional conflicts.

Yet, by 1970, Mao was turning against Lin, wary of the latter’s growing status and mindful of his own warning, contained in the “Little Red Book”, that “the gun [i.e. the army] must never be allowed to control the Party”. While much is still unknown about the events leading up to Lin’s flight, there is no doubt that, by September 1971, Lin and his closest allies feared that Mao would turn on them in the same way that he had turned on the Party’s old guard at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The options were fight or flight, but a desperate dash for freedom, on an aeroplane perhaps low on fuel, claimed the lives of Lin and the family members travelling with him. In the months and years that followed, Chinese propagandists turned Lin Biao into the archetypal traitor, all traces of his closeness to Mao targeted in nationwide waves of iconoclasm. As for the cult of Mao, its excesses were blamed on the power-hungry Lin and significantly curtailed, although elements persisted until after Mao himself was no more.

Lin Biao holding up a “Little Red Book” at a Red Guard rally, during the Cultural Revolution

Our featured selection begins with the origins of the most famous manifestation of the Mao cult: the “Little Red Book”. Hundreds of millions of copies of this pocket-sized anthology of Mao’s quotations were printed during the Cultural Revolution, with every Chinese person owning a copy and many knowing the text by heart. Our selection includes the May 1964 first edition of the text in every known state – copies in paper wrappers or the famous red vinyl, with or without a typesetting error in the text, and an especially collectable copy retaining the fragile erratum slip issued to draw the reader’s attention to this error. Only a comparatively small number of first editions were issued, with the book’s editors having little inkling that it would become a nationwide publishing phenomenon. As a result, copies in the various states are all highly prized. Lin Biao was intimately involved in turning the “Little Red Book” into a political sensation, and this state of affairs posed a serious problem after his ill-fated dash for freedom. One of our first editions is conspicuously missing the facsimile of Lin’s calligraphy included in every copy – this facsimile has been excised during the anti-Lin purge following his death.

Recently, we also acquired an extremely scarce precursor edition of the text, printed shortly before the first edition with its own layout and format. These precursors, only ever issued in small quantities, are special items for “Little Red Book” collectors. Ours is unassuming – captivatingly so – and retains the fragile errata slip issued to correct several errors in the text.

While the “Little Red Book” is famous, far fewer people know of the editions of Lin Biao’s quotations and speeches published as part of his own cult of personality which grew alongside Mao’s. I have managed to track down several presented here in this collection. A volume of Lin’s military writings and a 1967 Quotations of Comrade Lin Biao are two such items. You would be forgiven for mistaking these as compilations of Mao texts, following as they do the same recognisable red vinyl design scheme. Perhaps these publications eventually became a cause of concern to Mao, with his fixation on being the undisputed supremo of the Chinese political sphere? I am especially pleased that we are likely the first established Western bookseller to offer Lin’s quotations in Chinese braille. Braille printing is a side of China’s bibliographic culture still overlooked in the collecting and academic worlds, yet it demonstrates that none were exempt from the politics of Mao’s China. Together, these three works helped Lin’s star shine ever brighter – eventually, too bright.

MAO ZEDONG. Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung. 1966-72. £3,250.00.

At its height, the Mao cult glorified Mao’s image, words, and deeds in all manner of decorative and everyday objects besides books. We have located an example of surely the strangest of these cult objects: a wax mango, housed in a glass bell jar, commemorating Mao’s gift of a case of mangoes to some Beijing-based revolutionaries in 1968. The gift came to symbolise a transfer of political legitimacy, much heralded in state media, and many wax and plastic replica mangoes in glass vitrines were quickly produced for display in workplaces, homes, and community spaces. After purchase, the replicas were brought to these spaces with great fanfare and venerated as beacons of Maoism. Yet, after a feverish year, the mango craze died down and the replica mangoes were put away, with many probably recycled or disposed of after Mao’s death. Examples are now prized political collectables.

The collection also includes a portable stand where the faithful could display different Mao quotations on small cards, a notebook given to airline passengers, and a plastic desk model of Mao as a red sun. This latter item exemplifies an interesting facet of the Mao cult, namely how over time an “arms race” between producers made Mao items ever larger and more demonstrative of their owner’s revolutionary pedigree. This trend peaked at the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party in 1969 – a meeting that incidentally ratified a new Party constitution explicitly naming Lin Biao as Mao’s successor.

Finally, this selection evinces the truly global nature of the Mao cult and the strong reactions Maoism provoked abroad. Alongside a scarce bilingual edition of the “Little Red Book,” we are offering a 34-item collection of the work in 25 different languages and multiple formats and editions. Again, Lin Biao is a key part of the story, for his death forced publishers to reissue all translations without the endorsement leaf in Lin Biao’s calligraphy included in every edition while he was riding high. Our 34 items span across the “Lin Biao divide” and include languages from French and German to Swahili, Persian, and Esperanto. Conversely, for those interested in opposition to Maoism abroad, we are offering a “Little Red Book” in English caught up in Washington’s war on Communism, as well as a pamphlet written by a London-based anarchist who abandoned his former support for Maoism and became convinced that Mao wanted a “race war against the white man”.

With its supporters and detractors, few other 20th-century publications come close to matching the socio-political influence of the “Little Red Book”. Fifty years on from the death of Mao’s most loyal lieutenant, I hope our selection opens up new avenues for collectors.

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10 Beautiful Books From Our Shelves

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Some books should be judged by their covers. This is true in the case of many titles on our bookshelves, ten of which we list here. Though beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, unique details such as hand-painted illustrations, dazzling gold-leaf decorations and ornate designs and patterns; intricate craftsmanship demonstrated through embellished lettering, gilt edges and marbled endpapers; and the use of the highest quality materials, from soft Morocco leather to handmade paper, universally contribute to the aesthetics of the most beautiful book covers.

Read on to discover more about the most beautiful bindings Peter Harrington has in its collection, as chosen by our discerning experts. These books are not just for reading, they are works of art.

The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory; illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley

Top of the list is this rare set of Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian epic The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur. These painted covers are especially scene-stealing, handmade in 1893 by famed binder Cedric Chivers using his signature “vellucent” technique (a process Chivers would patent in 1898). Each volume features a figure panel of one of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Malory’s work, designs which  took him 18 months to produce when he was just 20 years old; both vignettes are sweetly framed by soft floral borders. Chivers’ binding style is produced by hand-painting the backing sheet of the binding, which is subsequently covered in vellum that has been shaved to transparency then tooled in gilt.

Catherine de Medicis, Henri Bouchot

This opulent first edition of Bouchot’s historical biography of Catherine de Medici is a fine example of the 1,000 copies initially printed on handmade paper by Blanchet Frères et Kléber, bound in timeless burgundy morocco by Lucien Durvand, with gilt edges, marbled endpapers and a tricolour silk page-marker. The book was printed and engraved by Jean Boussod for art dealer Goupil & Cie in 1899, and showcases an elaborate interweaving pattern, deeply satisfying in its symmetry. The dazzling cover incorporates ornamental strapwork, fleur-de-lys, a central roundel with Catherine and Henri II’s conjoined ciphers inside a wreath of twined olive branches, as well as a banderole bearing Catherine’s motto “Bringing light and peace of mind” in Greek.

Epithalamion, Edmund Spenser

Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe were pioneers of jewelled leather bookbinding, their most famous of which, the “Great Omar” (1910), was lost with the Titanic. Their first jewelled binding covered an edition of Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion (held by the British Library) and many of its design elements are found on this manuscript of the same poem. On a backdrop of brown morocco, the front cover is set with garnets and turquoise, while Tudor-style roses on the centre of each side are composed of white, red and green onlays, within elaborate borders of scrolling vines. White cinquefoils decorate the spine alongside gilt lettering. Put simply, this exquisite binding is as precious as the stones adorning it.


A book of common prayer

Another example of preeminent bookbinder Cedric Chivers’ “vellucent” style, this elegant prayer book was likely so finely bound for presentation and includes an ink inscription indicating that it was indeed a very special gift. Bound in midnight-blue leather, its gold floral tooling is strikingly art deco before Art Deco, resonating with motifs one might find in the work of Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was prolific in Scotland at the time. The showstopper here, however, is the prayer book’s front board, featuring two hand-painted angels flanking a mother-of-pearl cross, radiantly resembling stained glass. A truly heavenly item.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Expertly crafted in 1960 by Bennett Book Studio in New York, this first first edition, first impression of James Joyce’s Ulysses is bound in russet half-morocco leather with geometrically patterned paper covers in deep-sea green and cream, finished with a Jackson Pollock-worthy smattering of pink and blue; the compartmented spine also displays futuristic geometric designs alongside titles, all in gold leaf. An unusual and exciting design appropriate for a triumph of modernist literature.

Le Livre D’Amour, Blanche Butterworth Haggin

Bound by one of the best-known and most influential fin de siècle French binders, Léon Gruel’s atelier, this romantic cover perfectly complements its contents. A book of French love poetry including works by Charles Baudelaire, Christine de Pizan and Victor Hugo, it was compiled by San Francisco socialite Blanche Butterworth Haggin who dedicated the work to “A mon mari” – her husband. Bound in contemporary morocco in a shade of tan, it features intricate depictions of roses and tulips in pink, white, and blue, forest-green leaves, delicate posy bows in burgundy, and is completed with board edges also tooled with delicate blooms. Floral patterned endpapers and a silk book marker provide a finishing flourish.

Lord George Gordon Noel Byron: The Love Affairs of Lord Byron, by Francis Gribble

“Whether a book is called ‘The Love Affairs of Lord Byron’ or ‘The Life of Lord Byron’ can make very little difference to the contents of its pages. Byron’s love affairs were the principal incidents of his life, and almost the only ones” – Francis Gribble’s statement in his preface to this collection is difficult to deny, thus Byron’s heroic portrait on this front cover seems perfectly apt for a collection of his amorous adventures. Framed by a Cosway-style binding by Bayntun Riviere, the oval miniature of Byron’s noble profile sits behind glass, his surrounds complete with red moiré silk endpapers, gilt edges and two scarlet silk bookmarks.

Cosway bindings are called after the famous Regency miniaturist Richard Cosway (though having no connection with him). Cosway binding was a style originally executed by Rivière & Son in the early years of the twentieth century for the London booksellers Henry Sotheran’s, Imitations are designated “Cosway-style” bindings.

Chansonnier dédié aux Demoiselles, Blanche Marguerite

An enchanting example of French glass binding, this songbook typifies the fragile binding technique. Father and son Pierre-Étienne and Louis Janets were well-known engravers and publishers of ephemera in luxury bindings, but of the Blanche Marguerite verse collection specifically, we can trace just one other copy at the Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Library in New York, part of the prestigious Corning Museum of Glass. Encased in gilt metal with three-dimensional leaf and polka-dot details, thin glass panes cover grey and white marbled paper boards; a hand-coloured engraved illustration beneath the front panel depicts a cherubic winged woman delightedly posing in front of a looking glass, her attendant smiling behind her.

The Times Atlas of the World, Stuart Brockman (binder)

An excellent binding belonging to the renowned Wardington collection of atlases, this modern cover was crafted in 1993 by the celebrated Stuart Brockman of Oxfordshire’s Brockman Binders. Classic red morocco is boldly inlaid with black and green, tooled in gilt, and neatly finished with small gilt crests in the design’s corners and on spine ends. Stuart Brockman has received numerous accolades for his work, is a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders and has work held in the British Library as well as among private collections.



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A Canadian Clergyman in Shanghai

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Chinese specialist Dr Matthew Wills introduces us to a memoir of early 20th century Shanghai through the eyes of a Canadian ex-pat. 

It has been an exciting time for China-related books at Peter Harrington recently, for we have acquired a range of 19th and 20th-century publications covering all manner of topics, from missionary work and pharology to philosophy and political propaganda. Some of these are already on our website, with others scheduled to appear in the coming weeks. You can find our current China-related stock here.

Today, I would like to write about one of these acquisitions: a fascinating typescript memoir authored in 1966 by Alexander Trivett, a Canadian-born clergyman who spent almost 3 decades in China between the early 1920s and the early 1950s. Among his several appointments, Trivett was Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in the British concession in Shanghai for 28 years.

As an historian of China, I have found that memoirs reveal the kind of granular, everyday detail – the colour of life – that is often omitted by formal bureaucratic documents and other sources. Trivett’s account is no exception. I decided to read the whole 118-page document to gain as full a picture of his experiences as possible, and this decision did not disappoint. Among his many recollections, he writes of sailing to China in the company of an American officer prone to throwing chairs overboard, and of preaching at his first post in the city of Hankou with the full-throated backing of a “hardened male quartet of old China hands” who liked to sneak a few beers in a side room during hot summer sermons. In Shanghai, Trivett’s life was equally rich, with his duties including officiating at the marriage of Butterfly Wu – Shanghai’s wedding of the year for 1935 – and taking an active role in the rich cosmopolitanism of the foreign concessions.

TRIVETT, Alexander Christopher Sargent. “Topside Jossman”: Or, the Indiscretions of a Dean. [1966]. £1,750.00.

I found Trivett’s memoir most compelling though, because of the personal perspective he brings to the tumultuous and eventful history of China in this period. He writes of the destruction wrought by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937 and his internment in the infamous Lunghua camp – home to a young J. G. Ballard – by the Japanese Army. Trivett was also in Shanghai in 1949 to witness soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army entering the city and securing it for Mao’s Communist Party. And, permeating through the whole of the memoir in its post-1945 portion is a poignant sense of the end of China as Trivett had known it, with foreigners no longer able to enjoy the colonial privileges secured by the gunboat diplomacy of former times.

Panorama of Shanghai Bund, 1930. US Signal Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As a document of history, Trivett’s is the kind of account where its depth ensures that one reading will not suffice. Indeed, I finished it with an entirely new perspective on events I thought I knew well. As he only privately circulated copies, just one is known to exist institutionally (in the library of Lambeth Palace), and I cannot imagine that many people have had a chance to read his story. It feels exciting have been one of them.


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Behind the BooksAn interview with Sammy Jay

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Interview by Lauren Hepburn.

How did you come to the rare book trade, and how have your responsibilities evolved in that time?   

My “origin story” is a bit crazy. About a decade ago, after tumbling out of my English Literature degree without much direction, I found a book on the bookshelves in my grandfather’s house that changed my life. 

I was looking through his library after he died, getting a sense of what he cared about (there was a lot of Romantic poetry, a connection I didn’t know we had – he was an economist), and on the top shelf, untouched and unnoticed for decades, was a first edition of Frankenstein, inscribed by Mary Shelley to Byron. Needless to say, this was a very significant and valuable book. My grandmother decided that it should continue its story, and be sold.  

That was how I encountered the rare book trade: the discovery opened the door to a whole world which I barely knew existed, peopled with dealers, collectors, and curators whose enthusiasm for all the things I cared about was what sustained them. So I jumped in with both feet and, after they handled the sale of Byron’s copy of Frankenstein in the spring of 2012, started working at Peter Harrington. 

Since then, I’ve worked at most aspects of the trade: packing and polishing in the post room, cataloguing mountains of books, holding the front line with the sales team during our Dover Street shop’s Christmas rush, tending the stand at book fairs in London and abroad and, in more recent years, moving into the buying side of things.  

Tell us about your current role at Peter Harrington.  

I look after the Modern Literature at Peter Harrington – though “modern” is a loose term, and my enthusiasm for Poetry in particular often has me reaching further into the past. Really, my passion is for literature in general, any feat of human imagination in word form. Essentially, if it didn’t happen, I’m interested.  

What this entails is a lot of buying – my main activity is scouring the globe in search of great books to fill our shelves, mostly through the internet these days, but we look forward to the return of book fairs and road trips. We have two shops to fill, and many ravenous customers, so I’m busy. But I absolutely love it. Making house calls is something I particularly cherish – seeing books in their “natural habitat” and helping people uncover the rarities is a delight, not least because you get to meet such lovely and interesting people. I work with our team of cataloguers to process what comes in. They’re always surprising me with their own discoveries and interpretations. 

Relationships with customers is also a big part of what I do; finding the right home for any given book is really rewarding. After almost a decade, many customers are by now old friends – I enjoy keeping them up to date about anything that might come in “with their name on it”, as it were, and it’s a pleasure to have some involvement in how their collections grow and develop – witnessing the unfolding of whatever story they’re trying to tell. 


You have responsibilities both buying and sell books, as well as curating catalogues – how do these roles intersect?  

Every year the process of buying culminates in a printed catalogue or two from the literature side. I set the theme for these and curate the selection, which I find personally extremely involving, and which sometimes presents an opportunity to reflect on current events. For example, last year’s Fantasy & Science Fiction catalogue came out during the dystopian nightmare of the first lockdown, and stories like E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops took on a renewed relevance. It’s very energising to me, the way in which all these treasures of the past can still speak to us today. It’s like T. S. Eliot said: “the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”. 

So I suppose when I’m out buying I’m often, consciously or subconsciously, thinking about the next catalogue, as well as looking out for specific rarities which customers have asked us to hunt down. There’s an imaginary wall of “Wanted” posters in my head – and when you encounter one at a book fair it’s a question of shoot on sight! 


Tell us about one of your weirdest and most wonderful experiences working with Peter Harrington.   

I had a wonderfully bizarre half hour when a man walked in and sat down asking me whether we had any books “about either Richard II, or Abraham Lincoln”. “Two very specific and not obviously related people”, I replied, “What connects your interest?” At which he grinned widely and revealed to me that he was in fact the reincarnated person of them both

I think of this whenever people ask me “why do people collect books?” There are so many varied reasons! Plus, if anyone asks who the biggest celebrity we’ve ever had in the shop, I know my answer – Abraham Lincoln. 

The travel side of my work can also take me to unexpected places – there was a brief trip to Hawaii where we bought a huge collection of Hawaiiana, and we were woken each morning by a dawn chorus that sounded extra-terrestrial to ears used only to the cooing of London pigeons.  


What do you think the role of book dealers is in preserving items of historical significance? 

It’s a good question – sometimes we do get people seeing the things we have and saying, “but that should be in a museum!” I would challenge the assumption that items being in private hands is in some way inimical to their preservation or even, necessarily, their accessibility. Byron’s Frankenstein, for example, was purchased by a British private collector, but they have several times allowed it to be included in public exhibitions around the world. 

Dealers working with collectors play their part in recognising (and thereby raising) the value of books and manuscripts, which has the knock-on effect of making their owners more careful with them. The number of books which we spend significant money preserving with judicious repair work, or for which customers order fire-proof solander boxes from our Chelsea Bindery, is worth remembering, too. 

It’s a sad thought but if these sorts of books weren’t worth money, many would end up in the skip. As it is, however, people who discover interesting items at home bring them to us, and we set to work finding appreciative new custodians for them. I hope that arrangement is good for everybody, including the books.

We do have great relationships with various libraries and museums too, and when we find something that really should be in a particular institutional collection, we do what we can to facilitate that.


You recently helped curate an exhibition to accompany a Fendi fashion show – can you tell us how this came about and what your contribution was? 

Yes, it was very exciting – and unexpected! The connection to Fendi came through super-designer Kim Jones, who has been a customer for a few years now. During the pandemic we kept each other amused chatting about books, and one of his great passions is Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. When it came to his debut show for Fendi at Paris Fashion Week last January, he themed it around Orlando and the great love story between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, and he asked me to help curate an exhibition of books and manuscripts from his collection in a side-room at the show. It was a thrill to see rare books thrust into this kind of limelight – the runway video for the show stars Demi Moore gingerly leafing through the first edition of Orlando which Woolf inscribed to Sackville-West. It was also very gratifying to see how collecting can be a creative process: old creations giving inspiration to new.

What projects are you currently working on?   

We’re right now putting out our latest catalogue on the broad theme of “Poetry”. It’s a question of coming full circle for me, as that was the subject of my very first catalogue for Peter Harrington, five years ago. There’s some incredible things in there – our first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which I dearly love) has promotional broadsides stuck in by the poet himself, and holding it gives me full-blown ASMR. It was one of the very first copies ever to cross the Atlantic for a British readership, being a promotional copy sent to the editor of the Edinburgh Review.


If you could have any book in Peter Harrington’s collection for yourself, what would it be? 

There are long-since-sold books which I sometimes remember with a pang – we had a copy of the Rubaiyat which Dylan Thomas owned as a drunken teenager, or Aubrey Beardsley’s own copy of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, owned before he started work on his illustrated edition, with a drawing of Merlin in the front. Those sorts of things set my imagination on fire.

But right now, the book that blows my mind is actually the 1488 first edition in Greek of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, printed at the height of the Florentine Renaissance, before the French war and Savonarola turned things sour for anyone fond of poetry or pagans. For me, it marks an exciting moment in history when two unrelated forces met: the technology of printing (invented only three decades before) travelling south into Italy from Germany and encountering waves of Greek scholars moving west after the sack of Constantinople, bringing with them their language, their learning, and their manuscripts.

I don’t know where I’d put it, though – the two huge folio volumes bound in bright red leather would look rather out of place in my flat. Still, I wouldn’t say no!

Contact Sammy

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Behind the Books: Pablo Picó

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Tell us a bit about what you do at Peter Harrington.  

As the Customer Services Manager, I look after email and website enquiries, as well as processing online sales, photography requests and after-sale enquiries. I also refresh and upload our database to our website daily, and update other online platforms to ensure our latest acquisitions are available online promptly. We also receive many offer enquiries we receive from private individuals wishing to sell their books to us, which I assess and respond to. 


What does an ordinary day look like for you?   

The first part of my day involves checking the orders, enquiries and offers that will have arrived overnight, and dealing with them accordingly. Then it is time to evaluate any book purchases that might have arrived on my desk, and contact my own customers. The tail end of the working day involves database housekeeping and preparing upload files for all our online platforms. 


How long have you worked with Peter Harrington and have you always had the same role? 

I’ve been with the company for 27 years and have had many roles over that time. I joined the packing & shipping department in 1994. When we moved to our current premises on Fulham Road in 1997, I left shipping and started selling books. During this time I also took over other roles, such as book-keeping, photography, and office management, before moving into my current role as the company grew. 


In what ways would you say the rare book trade has changed in the last 25 years?  

The advent of the internet and e-commerce has presented many new possibilities for the trade, though also some challenges. For the first time dealers could showcase their books to a much wider audience and became less dependent on catalogue mailings, book fairs, and shop walk-ins. The internet has also introduced rare book collecting to a wider and younger audience, which is beneficial to the long-term future of book collecting and rare bookselling.


Can you share some of your weirdest and/or most wonderful experiences working in the trade?  

The most memorable one that comes to mind happened a number of years ago, when a major Hollywood and Broadway actor, who was on a West End show at the time, ordered a set of the books and asked if I could deliver them to the theatre. When I arrived the actor inspected the books and asked if we happened to have another edition bound in the original cloth bindings, which they preferred to the leather-bound set I had brought. I said we did and offered to bring the other set to their dressing room before they were due to go on to the stage that afternoon. In my haste to do so I accidentally packed the actor’s packet of cigarettes, which was laying on the table next to the books. I was horrified when I unpacked the books back in the shop and discovered the cigarettes at the bottom of the box! To their credit, the actor saw the funny side of it all when I rather sheepishly brought them back and explained what had happened- they had apparently concluded their agent must have hidden the cigarettes away. 


What would you say the key qualities of an avid book collector are?  

Patience and perseverance. Finding scarce titles or books in uncommonly fresh condition is a waiting game, and requires dedication and self-restraint to stop you from buying an inferior copy of a book you always wanted simply because there is not a better copy available at the present time. 


How do you support and advise Peter Harrington’s customers?  

As well as providing support and answering any questions they might have regarding our books, delivery, and any after-sales queries, I also help my customers maintain and build up their book collections, or find the perfect gift for a special occasion. I particularly enjoy advising clients who want to gift a book to a friend or loved one but are stuck for ideas. Putting together suggestions based on the life, profession, hobbies or even year of birth of the person who is to receive the book is a lot of fun, and very satisfying when I succeed, and the customer reports afterwards that the book was a hit with the recipient.  


Do you think the way that customers are discovering and buying items is changing?   

Absolutely. The internet has enabled the public not just to find a given title with more ease, but also to better-inform themselves about various aspects of book collecting, from the importance of the condition to the various editions, issues, or binding styles that might be available for particular title they wish to acquire. 



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Censure vs. CensorshipBanned books and the legacy of Lolita

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By Lauren Hepburn

When Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known and most scandalous novel, Lolita, was published in the USA in 1958, it topped bestsellers lists. Selling 100,000 copies in its first three weeks, it was on its third printing within just a few days, and shot the author to fame in the country. Until then, Nabokov, an émigré in the US, had struggled to find an American publisher bold enough to back his book and had – like James Joyce before him, for the similarly controversial Ulysses – looked to Paris for a supporter. In Nabokov’s case, this was Olympia Press, a publisher which, at the time, had a reputation comparable to that of Mills & Boon. Olympia printed 5,000 copies in 1955, all of which sold. Customs officials in the United Kingdom were soon instructed to seize copies of the book at the border, and a year later it was also banned in France.  

As the remarkable correspondence accompanying this copy of the first edition reveals, Olympia Press defiantly continued printing and selling the book illicitly following the bans, increasing its price by one third, from 900 to 1,200 francs per copy. Its widespread censorship had failed to suppress public appetite for the story of Nabokov’s eloquent, witty protagonist Humbert Humbert, who details in this fictional memoir his paedophilic obsession and relationship with 12-year-old “nymphet”, Dolores (whom he nicknames Lolita).   

First edition, this copy accompanied by a revealing trove of correspondence relating to the censorship of Lolita, as well as works of Jean Genet, and other Olympia Press books, between American screenwriter Theodore Reeves (1910-1973), and Olympia Press’s Ian Shine. Highly revealing of the mechanics of literary censorship from the point of view of an American customer. 1955. £12,500.

Early reception of the novel demonstrates how polarising it was. While its sales success proved its popularity, a New York Times review described it as “repulsive . . . highbrow pornography” (qtd. by Cooper, The New Yorker). At the same time as London’s Sunday Times judged it one of the best books of 1955, a reviewer at the Sunday Express considered it “the filthiest book [he had] ever read” (qtd. by Boyd, 1991). Although Nabokov had been rejected by multiple American publishers, the man who finally took on Lolita, Walter Minton of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, actively pursued it:

Minton got hold of an excerpt of the novel, via the unlikely agency of an exotic dancer named Rosemary Ridgewell, in whose living room he once fell asleep after a night on the town. “I woke in the middle of the night and there was this story on the table. I started reading. By morning, I knew I had to publish it.” (Cooper, The New Yorker.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lolita was never banned in the United States (though it was in Canada). This may have been the legacy of Hon. John M. Woolsey, whose decision in the case The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses”, in 1933, deemed Joyce’s epic nonobscene. Woolsey’s decision is described as “monumental” by Nabokov in Lolita’s foreword.  

As the discipline of psychology and our understanding of sexual abuse and its lasting damage have advanced, Lolita is more categorically recognised as a story of paedophilia and child abuse told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Dictionary definitions of ‘Lolita’ testify to the historically unsympathetic attitude towards Nabokov’s 12-year-old character: 

‘a precociously seductive girl.’ ( 

‘a young girl who has a very sexual appearance or behaves in a very sexual way.’ ( 

Theatrical release poster for the 1962 film Lolita, the first cinematic adaptation.

True to its nature of contrasts and controversy, Lolita is also considered a masterpiece and is taught on curriculums, referenced in diverse artistic works and has been adapted for screen and stage; it is widely regarded as a triumph of late modernist literature.  

Though an early admirer of Lolita, literary critic Lionel Trilling nonetheless described the knife-edge any reader of the tale balances upon: 

[…] we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting. (Trilling, qtd. by de la Durantaye, 2005.) 

Humbert Humbert’s irony, sarcasm and intelligence are appealing; we find ourselves somehow complicit in his actions. There are arguments for the literary and even moral value in this. Andrew Koppelman, in a 2005 essay for the Columbia Law Review questioning the legality of literary censorship, quotes American literary critic Wayne C. Booth: 

Booth concedes that even the most malign material, such as the pornographic novels of the sociopath Marquis de Sade, can offer “the by-no-means contemptible gift of providing fodder for ethical discourse, including my own” (Koppelman, 2005). 

Telegram Announcing prohibition of the novel ‘Lolita’ in New Zealand, 1959.

Koppelman himself argues that attractive portrayals of perverse characters “are risky, but morally valuable, precisely because they help to dispel the notion that evil is wholly other” (ibid.).  

In Dirt for Art’s Sake, Elisabeth Ladenson traces the history of books that were once vilified and banned but are now considered canonical literature. Naturally, Lolita features. Ladenson describes the modern shift away from book banning as somewhat objective:

Two ideas which had already been circulating for sometime in the form of avant-garde heresy, gradually became accepted clichés, and then grounds for legal defence. The first is most conveniently encapsulated in the formula ‘art for art’s sake’ the notion that a work of art functions on its own terms, exists in a realm independent of conventional morality, and should therefore be exempt from the strictures of moral judgement. The second is that of ‘realism’. The idea that the function of the work of art may legitimately include and perhaps should even obligatorily take on, the representation of all aspects of life, including the more unpleasant and sordid. Both these ideas now seem obvious, but they were unmentionable for a very long time. (Ladenson, 2007, qtd. by A. G. Noorani, 2007.) 

No matter one’s subjective opinion of Lolita, censorship is inherently at odds with the democratic necessity of freedom of expression. Political commentator A. G. Noorani has framed this more categorically: “Book banning is a civilised form of the vice of book-burning which is a sure symptom of fascim” (ibid.). Whether or not one agrees, Lolita will continue to be published, read, studied, championed and indeed deeply criticised for a long time to come. 

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Why do we use catalogues in the rare book world?

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Lauren Hepburn talks to Adam Douglas, Head Cataloguer at Peter Harrington.


Tell us more about what you do as Head Cataloguer at Peter Harrington.

I’m in charge of overall standards, making sure that we all write our book descriptions to an agreed set pattern. I don’t want to cramp anyone’s individual style, but customers like to know where to look for the information they need. If one cataloguer mentions the binding in the very first line of the description and another cataloguer leaves it until the last paragraph, it can be confusing.

I trained most of our existing cataloguers, and I wrote the house style manual, which guides our cataloguers on matters great and small, like whether “dust jacket” has a hyphen or not. (It doesn’t.) I also teach cataloguing skills at the annual York Antiquarian Book Seminars.


What is the importance of printed catalogues within the trade?

Traditionally, print catalogues were the main method of distance-selling rare books. A sole dealer might have been able to get by with single offers by letter or telephone, but a catalogue is more efficient and showed that they were a proper going concern.

Saving books up for a catalogue is a seasonal ritual for most booksellers. Issuing them helps remind customers that the bookseller is still plugging away, even if they don’t want anything from the current offering.

The most prestigious dealers issued lavish catalogues that have become reference works in their own right – grand dealers like Bernard Quaritch, Maggs Bros., Martin Breslauer, H. P. Kraus. All good dealers have shelves of old dealers’ catalogues which help them in their research. It’s my aspiration to keep producing catalogues for Peter Harrington that live up to those high standards.


What are the main functions and benefits of using print catalogues?

Printed catalogues give the potential buyer time to contemplate the item on offer, read through sometimes lengthy descriptions at their leisure, and consider buying a book, without the time pressure auctioneers rely on to get people to make up their minds. They also get the opportunity to browse through other items they may not otherwise have considered. The internet is brilliant for finding books, but it tends to narrow down the search to only one or two items. A print catalogue is more like browsing the shelves of a well-managed bookshop.

As booksellers who issue catalogues, we have a golden opportunity to show the same kind of taste and judgement that goes into buying our stock. It’s hard to imagine that a bookseller who issues an ugly, badly produced catalogue cares much about the aesthetic appeal of the books they offer for sale.


Have catalogues evolved over time?

In the past, every dealer worth his or her salt issued a catalogue, from the flimsiest photocopied list to a massive hardbound book. From the 1980s desktop publishing and cheap colour photography greatly improved the general appearance of booksellers’ catalogues. Nowadays, the influence of digital platforms is beginning to show in the formats of print catalogues. Many innovative dealers are beginning to chafe against the old restrictions and dare to try different layouts and presentations. But rare bookselling and collecting is by definition a refuge for traditionalists – old habits die hard.


What goes into the creation of a Peter Harrington catalogue?

We start with the choice of books, whether it’s going to be a specialist selection or one of our seasonal miscellanies. If it’s a selection, one of our book specialists will be closely involved, choosing the books and arranging their order, as well as writing an introduction. All the books will have been photographed beforehand, but sometimes we might ask Ruth, our photographer, to take additional shots that will suit a particular spread we have in mind.

We then gather the books together and the editorial team reads through the descriptions once more, checking for consistency, accurate condition reports, and any little errors that may have crept in. We also use this time to freshen supporting notes that may have been too frequently used in the past, sometimes rewriting them altogether to suit a new context.

In a collaborative process with our print designer, we then create layouts of the text and images, usually aiming to produce a 100-page catalogue. At that point there is often more photography required; an index is a useful addition, if necessary; then proofreading, more proofreading, another round of proofreading. And then, off to the printers, who usually take two weeks to print, bind, and post them out (which gives us time to spot the errors we’ve missed!)


How do the print and digital spheres interact and collaborate at Peter Harrington?

That’s a fascinating question, and the answer is that they’re still in flux. For several years now we’ve been able to send our catalogues in PDF format, which means that the customer can print the pages themselves, much as they would see them in the physical catalogue, although not so well reproduced. New digital publishing formats mean that we can design much more interesting multimedia digital publications, but there is still some resistance to novelty. Collectors are like cats – they don’t appreciate change.

There is no doubt that   requires a briefer presentation. It’s tough to read long descriptions on a screen. In the digital age catalogue descriptions need to be shorter, snappier, pithier. That’s the challenge – to tighten up our descriptions without sacrificing accuracy and vital information.

Our website offers the same full-length descriptions as our print catalogues, but we present the elements of our descriptions in a slightly different order. It’s a new mise-en-page, a new visual grammar, and we’re still learning how to do it best. The advantage the website has over a printed catalogue is that we can attach as many photographs as necessary to each description and also add 360° videos which allow the customer a much more detailed look at bindings, and give a more accurate picture of the book as a physical object .


What do you think the future of catalogues will be?

Given the fact that the rare books trade is centred on love for and appreciation of the printed book, I think that the printed catalogue and its digitally formatted first cousin will show a remarkable resilience. If you love old books, you probably love reading booksellers’ catalogues, even if they are occasionally a little fusty and filled with obscure jargon.

The more innovative rare booksellers who produce catalogues are showing ways to create more attractive publications – less stuffy but without sacrificing honest, accurate descriptions.



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Amazon PrintersWomen and the private press movement

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Illustration from CUALA PRESS: YEATS, Jack B. A Broadside. Series 1-7, comprising nos. 1-84 (complete set). Dun Emer and Cuala Press, 1908-1915.

By Suzanna Beaupré

In our Summer catalogue Peter Harrington is proud to present a unique Arts and Crafts calligraphic manuscript of John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, produced in 1903 by the renowned binder and calligrapher Anastasia Power.

POWER, Anastasia (illus.); KEATS, John. Calligraphic manuscript of Ode on a Grecian Urn. 1903. £4,000.00.

Power was born in Whitby, the ninth, and youngest daughter of a local occultist. Initially a student of book binding grandee Douglas Cockerell, she soon set up a binding studio on Museum Street in London with fellow binder (and family friend of Virginia and Vanessa Stephen) Sylvia Stebbing, where they were regularly visited by the two sisters. There, in 1901, the young Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) “asked for lessons in binding old books of sheet music, and engaged in her book binding with purpose and application”. Writing to her cousin Emma Vaughan, she said “I have been making endless experiments… there seem ever so many ways of making covers… which the ordinary lidders never think of”. Undoubtedly these early experiments with Power had significant bearing on the first books she was to create at her own Hogarth press, providing a direct influence from the earliest women in the private press movement to its later continuation.

MANSFIELD, Katherine. Prelude, printed and Published by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, [1918]. £6,750.00.

In 1902 Power was invited to run the Essex House bindery, a key element of the private press arm of Charles Robert Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, which moved out of London to Chipping Campden in the same year. While Janet Ashbee’s active involvement “had already done much to dilute the male ethos of the Guild, in the summer of 1902 they found themselves adjusting to the Amazon figure and long mannish strides of Annie (usually known as Statia) Power” (Crawford, p. 117).

Alongside her role as binder Power was “an accomplished artist and calligrapher” and practised illumination with Fred Partridge (Dowd, p. 61). She consequently provided the illumination for much of the Press’s output at this time. This manuscript, which is rendered entirely on vellum, appears to have been for her personal practice; Essex House never produced an edition of this work.

Power is a standout example of women in the private press movement, excelling in her work and directing the output of the press, however, she was far from the only example. Bookbinding was a key component of the press movement and there were several remarkable female binders working adjacent to the presses at the time. These included the renowned Sarah Prideaux, Katharine Adams, and Sybil Pye, with the Guild of Women Binders established in 1898.Marianne Tidcombe’s crucial work Women Bookbinders 1880-1920 (1996) explores many more.

GUILD OF WOMEN BINDERS. The Bindings of To-morrow. A record of the work of the Guild of Women-Binders and of the Hampstead Bindery. 1902. £650.00.

Women were employed across the book production process as compilers, designers, authors, artists, and illuminators, roles which have been explored more broadly by writers such as Anthe Callen in Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870-1914 (1979).

A key example of a fully female-run press, aiming to provide an education in these processes and work for girls in all of these roles, is the Cuala Press, one half of Cuala Industries, which came out of another female-run press, Dun Emer. In 1903 Elizabeth Yeats (known as Lolly) and her sister Lily joined embroiderer Eveyln Gleeson in forming Dun Emer, with Lily running the embroidery arm, Evelyn the weaving, and Lolly the printing.

GREGORY, Lady Augusta. A Book of Saints and Wonders. 1906. £3,750.00.

Artistic and financial tensions between the Yeatses and Gleeson eventually led to the split of the organisation in 1908, the sisters reforming as Cuala Industries. Cuala was founded with the aim of reviving the craft of book printing in Ireland and especially “to give work to Irish girls, the production of books being incidental to the encouragement of crafts among Irish women” (McMurtrie, p. 472). Each element of the book production was carried out using Irish materials, using  all-rag paper that was produced locally and creating “clearly legible, slender volumes with distinctive paper labels, seen as the sole survivors of the handcrafted ideal established in 1900 by Walker and T. J. Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves Press” (ODNB). The press was instrumental in the early printings of W. B. Yeats’s works, as well as works by other influential Irish authors such as Lord Dunsany and Oliver Gogarty.

YEATS, W. B. – BAX, Clifford (ed.) Florence Farr, Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats. The Cuala Press, 1941. £750.00.

Another example of a press equally concerned with localised art and craftsmanship, this time in Wales, was the Gregynog Press. This influential private press was founded in 1922 by sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies at their house, Gregynog Hall, in rural mid-Wales. The press established a reputation for its woodcut illustrations, harmonised with the type page. Two of the key artists working at the press were engravers Gertrude Hermes and Agnes Miller Parker.


Crawford, Alan, C.R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer & Romantic Socialist, Yale University Press (2005); Dowd, Anthony in Bookbinder: Journal of the Society of Bookbinders and Book Restorers, Volumes 7-8, The Society, (1993); Humm, Maggie, Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press (2010); McMurtrie, Douglas C., The book : the story of printing & bookmaking. Oxford University Press (1948); Thomson, John Mansfield, Farewell Colonialism: The New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, 1906-07, Dunmore Press (1998); Tidcombe, Marianne, Women Bookbinders 1880-1920, Oak Knoll Press (1996).


John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn appears in our Summer Catalogue.

Our regularly scheduled miscellany for the summer months, this catalogue showcases a selection of new acquisitions to our shelves.

For this catalogue, we are proud to partner with Beat – the UK’s leading eating disorder charity. Peter Harrington will donate 20 per cent of the list price of all catalogue orders to Beat to support its efforts to provide prompt help to those affected.

View PDF catalogue

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Opening GambitPaving the way for women in chess

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The Chess Game, Sofonisba Anguissola (1555 – National Museum Poznań)

By Lauren Hepburn

The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix series about a troubled chess prodigy named Beth Harman, first aired in October, 2020. Within a month, it had been viewed by 62 million households worldwide. The Queen’s Gambit has become the platform’s most-watched series in 63 countries and, according to the streaming service, is also its most successful scripted limited series ever. Since then, chess websites and coaches have reported soaring interest in online matches, club membership, and private tuition. eBay alone saw a 276% increase in searches for chess sets following the show’s airing (The Guardian). Perhaps most remarkable is that an unusual proportion of those signing up are women; by December, 2020, had already seen a 15% uplift in female registerees (New York Times). To contextualise the significance of this, globally the ratio of male to female chess grandmasters (a prestigious title for the world’s best players) is, today, around 85 : 2. To put this another way, of roughly 1,700 chess grandmasters currently, fewer than 40 of them are women.  

When Mrs. W. J. Baird’s The Twentieth Century Retractor, Chess Fantasies, and Letter Problems was published in 1907, prominent women chess players were even fewer and further between. Edith Baird was one of the most prolific composers of chess problems of her day and was sometimes referred to in the press as ‘The Queen of Chess’. A quote from one of her male contemporaries in Lasker’s Chess Magazine neatly demonstrates, however, that her reception in the male-dominated sport would not always have been so plauditory: the author asserts that women simply lack the ‘qualities of concentration, comprehensiveness, impartiality and, above all, a spark of originality’ required in order to become great chess players.  

CHESS – BAIRD, Mrs W. J. The Twentieth Century Retractor, Chess Fantasies, and Letter Problems. 1907, £1,250.00.

The critique in Lasker’s Chess Magazine is echoed in comments made by male players decades later. Bobby Fischer, a chess legend and arguably the best player of all time, was deeply misogynistic as a precocious teen. In a 1962 interview, 19 years old and already a champion, he explained why women cannot play. 

Interviewer: Do women make bad chess players? 

Fischer: Oh, they’re terrible chess players… I don’t know why, I just guess they’re not so smart. […] They have never turned out a good woman chess player. Never one that could stand up to a man in the history of chess. 

Fischer goes on to say that women shouldn’t ‘[mess] with intellectual affairs’ but ‘should keep strictly to the home’ (though not cooking, he says, they aren’t good at that either). It should be noted that, when asked a similar question in the 1970s, Fischer did in fact express support for female inclusivity in chess. However, similarly sexist views continue to pervade the sport. In 2015, English grandmaster Nigel Short suggested that people “gracefully accept it as a fact” that men will always be inherently better players: “we just have different skills,” he argued (Time magazine). Short failed to mention the irony that he has been defeated by women (ibid.). 

It is important to highlight that women have played chess for centuries. The Chess Game, a 1555 painting by Sofonisba Anguissola, depicts an intimate family scene in which Anguissola’s own sisters play together under the supervision of a governess. The patron saint of chess, is St Teresa of Avila, who wrote wrote, as a senior nun in 1566, The Way of Perfection, a guide for her charges in which she playfully compared contemplative prayer to the discipline of mastering the game. 

Now you will reprove me for talking about games, as we do not play them in this house and are forbidden to do so. That will show you what kind of a mother God has given you —— she even knows about vanities like this! However, they say that the game is sometimes legitimate. How legitimate it will be for us to play it in this way, and, if we play it frequently, how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will he desire to do so. (

St Teresa later removed this analogy but modern editors reintroduced it. According to the Christian History Institute, The Way of Perfection aimed to ‘enthuse [her charges] with a love of prayer and teach them how to practice it and therefore grow spiritually’. It continues to be influential in the Catholic approach to prayer.

Of course, there is also ancient precedent for hostility towards women’s participation.

There is, of course, ancient precedent for hostility towards women’s participation in chess. From its earliest days, chess was an intensely and inherently gendered game. Before the 15th century the movement of the queen was limited to just one diagonal square: ‘“aslant only”, as a medieval chess treatise put it, “because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice”’ (The Economist). It was around 1500 when the Queen was liberated and given free rein to traverse the chess board in one move. This apparently resulted in a new nickname for the game, ‘“madwoman’s chess” (The Independent). Nonetheless it is this later version that we know and play today. 

Illustration of King Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with an unidentified woman, Manasse Codex, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, f. 13r. Heidelberg University Library.

Although The Queen’s Gambit was praised for its technical precision (thanks to the guidance of former world chess champion Garry Kasparov), female experts identified a subtle yet crucial inaccuracy: the male characters were simply “too nice” to Beth Harman: this was the verdict of the world’s greatest woman chess champion, Judit Polgár, who has won more accolades than can be feasibly listed (though highlights include becoming International Grandmaster at just 15 years old, the youngest Grandmaster ever, as well as being the first woman to participate in a men’s world championship final). Sadly, Polgár was (and remains) an outlier. Today, only one of the world’s top 100 players is a woman, China’s Hou Yifan, and she is still just the third woman to have ever broken into this group. Polgár’s career continued to flourish until 2014, when she retired. She now runs a foundation and festival which promote and encourage chess among children and particularly girls. 

After The Queen’s Gambit aired, The New York Times published an article in which it quoted sisters Rowan Field, 12, and Lila, 11, who both auditioned for the role of Beth Harman and have competed in prestigious international competitions. Their response to the series is poignant: simply that it “shows that there are female chess players who can be extremely good”. 

In 1907, Edith Baird broke the norm with her chess , challenged expectations and became a leading voice in chess. Her Twentieth Century Retractor offers stimulating challenges to its owner; in Baird’s career she “composed more than 2,000 problems which… were noted for their soundness” (Hooper & Whyld 27), and there are remarkably few errors detected in her body of work. The book is also handsome – one of “the most elegant chess books ever to appear” (Hooper & Whyld 27), and uses Shakespearean quotes to enrich the solving experience and provide hints towards the solution.  

But Baird’s work also represents what female chess players – and women in general – can achieve when defying stereotype threat and misogyny. Baird regularly contributed to newspapers, as well as the British Chess Magazine, and was a pioneer in multi-move retractor problems, chess puzzles in which the solver must work backwards, taking back a specified number of moves before a forward mating move can be performed; The Twentieth Century Retractor is, in fact, one of the first known collections of such problems. Now seems the perfect time to celebrate this important book. 

Baird’s Twentieth Century Retractor is included in our catalogue Summer 2021.

Our regularly scheduled miscellany for the summer months, this catalogue showcases a selection of new acquisitions to our shelves.

For this catalogue, we are proud to partner with Beat – the UK’s leading eating disorder charity. Peter Harrington will donate 20 per cent of the list price of all catalogue orders to Beat to support its efforts to provide prompt help to those affected.


View PDF catalogue

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Behind the Books: An interview with cataloguer Suzanna Beaupré

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Interview by Lauren Hepburn

How did you come to be a cataloguer at Peter Harrington?

Slightly by chance! I wasn’t aware of the rare book world until I started job hunting upon completing my history degree. I had specialised in my final year in material and visual culture and was looking for a role that would let me continue research from that angle, and there was Peter Harrington offering the perfect mix!

What brings you the most excitement about working with a rare book dealer? 

I think, for me, it’s the very physical connection to the past that you experience when you discover an inscription or note laid into a book. I’m a big proponent of writing in your new books (although maybe not in the ones you buy from us…) so that historians have a future record to work from. I get huge excitement from seeing inscriptions such as the one in our copy of The Accomplish’d Housewife (1745), owned by one Mary Bacon, who wrote inside, “Mary Bacon – her book. 1775 Steal not this book for fear of shame for here you find the owner’s name Mary Bacon Her Book”. It’s likely this copy belonged to the Mary Bacon (1743–1818) who is the subject of Ruth Facer’s 2010 micro-history Mary Bacon’s World: A Farmer’s Wife in Eighteenth-century Hampshire (2010), and I was pleased, during lockdown, to see the inscription used for a Society for Renaissance Studies online event on early modern conceptions of book provenance. It’s always fun when a book you have started to research is picked up as part of a wider discussion. 

The Accomplish’d Housewife; or, the gentlewoman’s companion. 1745.

A similar example of this tangible connection with the past was in one of my favourite recent items, the Rebecah Childe manuscript ‘receipt’ book. I studied food history, which has led to me becoming involved in some of our cookery material here, and the immediacy of seeing authentic signs of use such as a cookery stain on a recipe is always a rush. 

Another simple joy that comes from working in this industry is the range of time periods we work across; the surreal nature of looking at your desk and seeing a 1595 Daemonolatreiae, a pulp edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and a book of Maya Angelou’s poetry published in 1971, as if, in some way, time has been collapsed.

How do you feel that the industry contributes to the preservation of culture and history? 

I used to feel like we were the shady underside to the more upstanding library and curatorship industry, but increasingly I see the potential for us to partner with these institutions to source items for public benefit. We have the time and resources to uncover unique and important items where institutions are often a bit more squeezed. 

An example of how my job now colours everything I do (beyond not being able to listen to my favourite history podcasts without madly searching for first editions of the books mentioned) was my visit to the excellent Thomas Becket exhibition, currently showing at the British museum. I loved it but I couldn’t help thinking a copy of the first edition, first impression, of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral would have sat well in it (750 copies were published in May 1935 and were sold at its production in Canterbury Cathedral). It might also have been fun to have included another item we have; actor Michael Miller’s working copy of the final script for the 1964 film Becket maybe with a clip of the film running alongside.

When certain things come up, such as the Honresfield Library sale, I can come over all Indiana Jones – “it belongs in a museum!” – so finding a perfect institutional home for an item can be rewarding. Institutional ownership doesn’t always guarantee that the item will be more accessible, however, and depends hugely on the resources a given institution has at their disposal. The painstaking research undertaken by cataloguers in the rare book trade is not always preserved, and items are sometimes not made available to view, either in person or through a well-maintained digital database. This basically can mean they disappear forever. 

We are always keen to increase access to the items we hold, and whenever we receive enquiries from researchers interested in learning more about a certain book or piece of ephemera, we are always happy to help by providing photographs and scans, or arranging in-person viewings.

You often focus on women’s work and helped curate Peter Harrington’s first catalogue dedicated to female authors and artists. How do you go about purchasing and spotlighting female authors and artists? 

We are continually on the lookout for authors whose importance has been hidden by the misogynistic mists of time and are currently gathering items for a second catalogue of women’s works to follow Our 2019 Works by Exceptional Women catalogue (cat. 151). There has definitely been a shift in the rare book trade to recognise the blindingly obvious importance of collecting female authors and, consequently, a lot of exciting material is emerging.

Two of my favourite items included in Works by Exceptional Women were a collection of fun fashion magazines that belonged to a successful female entrepreneur, and Mary Hays’ obituary of Mary Wollstonecraft in The Annual Necrology for 1797–8. 

I was also very excited recently to get hold of the first English edition of Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night (1954), the original version of which was first published in German in 1938. I came across the Pushkin Press 2019 reissue of Jane Degras’ translation and fell in love, so I immediately started the hunt for a first edition. It’s a remarkable work which has never been out of print in Germany, detailing Ritter’s 1934 stay on the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen.

RITTER, Christiane. A Woman in the Polar Night. Translated by Jane Degras. 1954.

You also specialise in more niche themes – what led you to specialise in them? 

Nosiness, largely! Spotting interesting books on my colleagues’ desks and asking questions or seeing if I could get involved with them. One example of this involved a sample catalogue of albumen photos of late Victorian London, which I was excitingly able to date after spotting a promotional poster in the background of one images for the German Exhibition of 1891, and an advertisement for the first performance of Charles Reade’s comedy Nance Oldfield, in which Ellen Terry took the leading role. This, I think, sparked my interest in the books we get which demonstrate the entanglement of Victorian cultural life and politics – the connections and overlap between the fight for suffrage, worker’s rights, socialism, vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionists, later Esperanto proponents, and , throughout much of it, a great deal of spiritualism and theosophy. Having also previously studied early modern witchcraft through the lens of visual culture, the adoption of the occult by these various left-wing movements is fascinating. From Matter to Spirit (1863) by Elizabeth Sophie de Morgan offers a good example of these conjoining forces. 

A slightly later witchcraft-related story I particularly love involves my favourite novel, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Upon reading it, Virginia Woolf asked Warner how she knew so much about the lives of witches, to which she simply replied, “because I am one”.

A related area which I love to catalogue is private press books. I am a devotee of the Cuala Press books, one half of the Cuala Industries, a co-operative business run by Lily and Elizabeth Yeats following a split from the equally attractive Dun Emer Press. Cuala Industries was founded with the aim of reviving the craft of book printing in Ireland and “to give work to Irish girls”. They combined Irish Nationalist, feminist, socialist and artistic interests into one press. Their output’s distinctive and simple style is beautiful. Women played a key role as binders and illuminators in the private press movement. Florence Kingsford Cockerell and Anastasia Power at the Essex House press produced some stunning pieces, and there was an upsurge in amateur calligraphy and bindings, often embroidered, during this time. I love getting examples of these into the shop; seeing the time and care put into the crafting of the printed book.

Peter Harrington is best-known for its rare book collections, but in fact offers precious material in diverse mediums. Can you describe some of the items you’ve worked with other than written texts? 

Absolutely – despite being a book shop you never know what you will end up with on your desk. One recent item that springs to mind is the Bea Nettles Mountain Dream Tarot set – the first known photographic tarot deck. Ours is signed by the artist.

Some other, older items I have worked with include photographs taken by Californian historian Frances Rand Smith in 1918 of architect Henry A. Minton’s model of the Mission Santa Cruz and a collection of woodcut proofs for Wuthering Heights, each signed by the artist.

Mountain Dream Tarot. 1975.

What has been one of your most standout experiences working with Peter Harrington? 

There have been many moments where I have stepped back and thought, ‘wow, what I’m holding is incredible’. Condolence letters sent to Vanessa Bell after Virginia Woolf’s death have this effect; a beautiful unrestored copy of the first edition, first issue of Dracula had a similar impact on me, as always do any books inscribed by Queen Victoria. Finally, I had this same sense of awe about a beautiful set of The Lord of the Rings in our recent fantasy catalogues In Other Worlds: Fantasy, Science Fiction and Beyond, which I had a ball cataloguing. 

As a full experience, cataloguing a collection of material relating to Hawaii has been my biggest and most rewarding challenge. It was a fascinating deep dive, taking me from the earliest printed works on the islands, through the colonial struggle for possession of the land islands, and – up to, following the inclusion of the islands as a U.S. state in 1959, American tourist guides from the 1960s.


Suzanna’s Picks

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