Antiquarian Book Blogosphere

The Last Woman: Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic vision

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

By Madeleine Joelson

In May of 1823, Mary Shelley found herself widowed and alone.  She had returned to England from Italy after the deaths of her husband Percy and their three children, as well as the dissipation of the literary coterie that had defined the second generation of Romanticism in Britain.  This period of desolation left Shelley thinking about an apocalyptic concept that had become prevalent and popular at the time: stories about the last man left on earth, his landscape and his experiences.  She wrote in her journal on May 14th: “The last man!  Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me—”.  She was at work on a novel that would seek to combine her personal grief with the larger implications of a growing eschatological genre.  The Last Man (1826) is both extremely personal and ambitiously political: Shelley uses the genre not only to examine her period’s considerable political upheavals, but to reckon with her own circle’s idealism and its consequences.    

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has often overshadowed its author’s life and other works.  Two centuries of films, sequels, and spin-offs have created a vast canon set quite apart from the author’s original 1818 text; the most recognizable effect of this expansion of course is the frequent confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.  This particular idiosyncrasy of literary legacy, however, is fitting because it mirrors that of the author herself: Mary Shelley has become synonymous with her creation, Dr. Frankenstein, who has in turn become synonymous with his own. 

This is a shame, and 2020 is a fitting year to correct it.  Unfortunately for us, this year has proven Shelley’s work to be (once again) eerily prescient.  While Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first science fiction novel, Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) arguably deserves equal recognition as the first example of dystopian fiction.  Lambasted by early critics as “the product of a diseased imagination and a polluted taste,”  the novel has since been reconsidered and is of particular significance today.  It tells the story of a global society ravaged by plague: an international crisis that reveals and intensifies a set of pre-existing political conflicts. 

First edition of The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826.

The novel is narrated by Lionel Verney, the eponymous last man of the title, who transcribes his story after finding himself alone on the European continent.  Verney’s tale is set in England near the end of the 21st century, just after the monarchy has dissolved and England has become a republic.  The novel’s plot is largely engineered by the power vacuum that follows, and is marked by conflicts between the different political ideologies that defined Shelley’s era.  For Shelley, this political criticism is deeply biographically embedded.  Verney’s social circle consists of a series of thinly veiled portraits of Byron, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont: depictions that not only allow Shelley to mourn her friends, but also to think critically about their ideals and the ideals of their cultural moment.  Shelley’s idealism, Wordsworth’s naturalism, Byron’s ego and heroism—even the progressive politics of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin—are each examined and rejected in turn.

What’s left is a novel that, like Frankenstein, fiercely but thoughtfully criticizes the extreme individualism of the Romantic period.  It is crucial to this story that the plague does not in fact kill any of Verney’s immediate circle.  Disease in The Last Man is devastating, but these characters for the most part bring about their own demise: the dissolution of Verney’s social circle stems from the cracks and fissures that already exist at its core.  In fact, the plague’s ability to decimate the human race is directly related to an act of cruelty and hubris: it is not unleashed globally until after the Byronic Lord Raymond decides to attack the city of Constantinople in an attempt to “subdue all Asia.” 

Though Shelley’s narrative does not blame Raymond directly for the epidemic, she is severely critical of his imperialistic impulses.  She also understands both the practical and cultural implications of that imperialism in aiding the spread not only of disease but of ignorance, hatred, and fear of the racial other.  As news of the disease spreads, European populations are beset by terror and disbelief, but also take comfort in the ignorant conviction that Europeans will not be able to contract the plague.  Needless to say, western Europeans are not immune to Shelley’s epidemic.  Like Raymond, they suffer for their hubris and their complacency, and the world is soon engulfed: “On no one spot on…[the whole earth’s] surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips, Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

Shelley’s novel is striking—and disturbingly prophetic—for its understanding that infectious disease is not only a physical or biological phenomenon, but a sociological one as well.  She is keenly aware of the complex political and cultural systems that affect the human experience of disease, but The Last Man often portrays a natural world that is ultimately indifferent to this humanity.  Where other, similar tales of the period portray the destruction of nature alongside man, Shelley’s landscape thrives as man is destroyed: 

Hear you not the rushing sound of the coming tempest? Do you not behold the clouds open, and destruction lurid and dire pour down on the blasted earth? See you not the thunderbolt fall, and are deafened by the shout of heaven that follows its descent? Feel you not the earth quake and open with agonizing groans, while the air is pregnant with shrieks and wailings, – all announcing the last days of man? No! none of these things accompanied our fall! The balmy air of spring, breathed from nature’s ambrosial home, invested the lovely earth, which wakened as a young mother about to lead forth in pride her beauteous offspring to meet their sire who had been long absent . . . Where was pain and evil? Not in the calm air or weltering ocean; not in the woods or fertile fields . . .

Shelley’s portrait of a world bursting into an abundant spring—a world not designed to nurture man, but indifferent to him—again resonates with the timing of our own pandemic, which sent us indoors just as “the balmy air of spring…invested the lovely earth.”  

Verney answers his question–where was pain and evil?–with a post-humanistic nihilism that has more in common with the dystopian fiction of the 20th century than with the apocalyptic genres of Shelley’s own period: “Look at man! — ha! I see plague!”  Re-reading The Last Man in the light of our own pandemic (and its positive effects on the environment) helps prove the value of dystopian fiction for imagining a different kind of world: in this case, one in which man is not its center.

Madeleine Joelson is a PhD student at Princeton University, studying 19th century literature.

The Last Man is part of our recent catalogue In Other Worlds: Fantasy, science fiction and beyond.

The post The Last Woman: Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic vision appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

History, sex and identity: exploring the legacy of Mary Renault

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For a novelist often regarded as ‘middle-brow’, twentieth-century author Mary Renault’s books are striking in their historical accuracy, psychological complexity and meaningful social impact. Scholars agree that her historical fiction is remarkably faithful: ‘The only bonafide Hellenist in twentieth-century fiction,’ Professor Bernard F. Dick wrote of Renault in 1972; ‘a real grip and feeling for the realities of the ancient world,’ observed Oxford University Fellow Robin Lane Fox in a 2013 interview for the BBC. Indeed, Renault’s historical novels, which are set against the backdrop of Greece and its former empire, can offer gripping reading material for budding classicists: in a tribute to Renault in The New Yorker, American writer Daniel Mendelsohn, a life-long fan of her work, quotes an Oxford don who once ‘told an eager amateur that to get a sense of what ancient Greece was really like one had only to read Renault—“Renault every time.”’ Although she studied English at Oxford University, Renault had no formal education in Classics and only visited Greece twice herself. Her high level of repute among academics is thus impressive.

Through the lens of her work it appears that Renault, who lived between 1905 and 1983, viewed the classical world as the cultural golden age. Had she joined the ‘ancients versus moderns quarrel’ of the 1700s, which saw academics debate the superiority of ancient literature over modern, and vice versa, Renault would almost certainly have advocated for the former. Particularly revealing was her definitive switch in 1956 from writing contemporary works set in Britain to solely publishing novels that fictionalise the ancient world. She had found a new formula: her Mediterranean backdrops are deeply transportive; her admiration for cerebral, pioneering Greeks, such as Alexander the Great, Socrates and Plato, brings them to life. 

Mary Renault

Renault’s work has both united and divided readers over the years: powerful touchstones for many gay readers in their positive depiction of homosexual love, her books also contatin some problematic attitudes. These more unappealing aspects of her work can often be grounded within the context of Renault’s veneration of the mores and values of the ancient world. In a BBC documentary to mark 60 years since the publication of Renault’s groundbreaking book The Charioteer (1953), radio broadcaster Sue MacGregor pertinently observed that ‘Mary had quite rigid ideas about noble societies, and she felt we’d lost this in the 20th century world’. Her Greek heroes, most often young men of aristocratic birth, are idealised for their embodiment of adventure, morality and honour, and her novels place a high value on individual triumph and acts of valour. In The Last of the Wine (1956), the novelist’s first Hellenic tale, the qualities which elevate her characters are captured in a letter from a father to his adolescent son, whom he advises to search for valiance and rectitude in future lovers. At times, Renault seems to fixate on championing attributes like these in her characters, overlooking the structural inequalities in the ancient societies of her novels which set limits on who was able to evince these prized qualities.

The Charioteer, which despite its classical-sounding title paints a moving portrait of a young corporal’s sexual bildungsroman in post-war Britain, secured Renualt’s place in the gay literary canon for its postive and nuanced depiction of homosexual love, rare in literature at the time. It also, unsurprisingly, caused controversy – particularly in the United States, where it remained unpublished for six years. In her ancient Greek novels, however, Renault was able to accurately situate romantic and physical relationships between men as social convention, and writing about this period allowed her to portray these relationships with significantly less backlash. In ancient Greece intimacy between men (notably of the pederastic form) was not viewed as other; there is, in fact, no equivalent ancient Greek word for ‘homosexual’, only distinct terms to denote roles (such as erastes – the mature male, and eromenos – his adolescent lover). Ironically, The Last of the Wine, which Renault wrote following The Charioteer and which also deals with a romance between men as its central theme – this time, in ancient Athens – saw great success in America. 

RENAULT, Mary. The Charioteer. 1953. £375.00.

According to Renault the presentation of ‘acceptable’ homosexuality, made possible by her novels’ new context, was inspired by the belief of one of her own characters in The Charioteer: ‘it’s not what one is; it’s what one does with it.’ In the ancient world Renault imagined a place where her characters were not restricted by their sexual identity. This may reflect a desire to avoid in her narratives what she, harshly, deemed self-pity; in a letter to Mendelsohn, with whom she maintained a decades-long correspondence – she described Radcylffe Hall’s notorious lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness  as containing an “impermissible allowance of self-pity”. Renault and her lifelong romantic partner, Julie Mallard, lived together for fifty years, until Renault’s death, but neither identified as ‘lesbian’, disliking the term for themselves. 

Renault seems to have wrestled with her own identity, and remarked on more than one occasion that she wished she had been born male, and felt better suited to what was considered boyish behaviour when she was a child. Her mother was hostile about this, and apparently made clear her preference for Renault’s more feminine sister. These biographical aspects may help to illuminate why Renault chose to write predominantly about male love and adventure, while a disheartening majority of her female characters fulfil marginal, stereotypical roles. Renault did not identify as what she saw as typically female, and made problematic comments in letters to friends about women whom she judged lightweight and domesticised (traits her traditionally-minded mother would probably have approved of), while David Sweetman’s 1993 biography of Renault quotes a letter in which she describes spending time with housewives: “I have a terribly sad feeling like looking at a lot of animals that have moulted and got silly from being kept in a cage”. Convention considerably restricted women in Renault’s lifetime, and her inability to live openly with a female partner would have represented another check to her freedom. This is likely the reason she and Mallard chose in 1948 to emigrate to Durban, South Africa, where they were able to live more freely in the comparatively liberal atmosphere of an artistic ex-pat community. We may speculate, however, that Renault’s choice of homosexual love between bold heroes, in command of their own fate, as a subject for her novels was driven by these factors: the freedom she sought may, justifiably, only have been imaginable as male. 

RENAULT, Mary. The Last of the Wine. 1956. £800.00.

That The Charioteer and her subsequent Hellenic novels dealt straightforwardly with homosexual attraction served as a source of solace and affirmation for millions of gay readers, who would likely have been prosecuted or persecuted had they been ‘discovered’ in the 1950s, and in decades afterwards. Daniel Mendelsohn’s retelling of the impact Renault’s work had on his formative years illustrates the beacon of hope she offered even in the 1970s:

Reading Renault’s books, I felt a shock of recognition. […] Until that moment, I had never seen my secret feelings reflected anywhere. Pop music meant nothing to me, since all the songs were about boys wanting girls or girls wanting boys; neither did the Y.A. novels I’d read, for the same reason. Television was a desert. (“Will & Grace” was twenty-five years in the future.) Now, in a novel about people from another place and time, it was as if I had found a picture of myself.

It is hard to overestimate the impact such a moment must have had on a young person’s sense of self, and it led Mendelsohn to secrete his feelings in a letter to Renault in South Africa. Though her initial response was characteristically unsentimental, the exchange marked the beginning of the long correspondence between them.

RENAULT, Mary. The Praise Singer. 1978. £50.00.

RENAULT, Mary. Return to Night. 1947. £65.00.

Renault’s books also gained new meaning for some during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. In a Guardian article entitled ‘Mary Renault’s The Charioteer is antidote to shame’, English Actor Simon Russell-Beale touchingly describes the comfort he found in her work:

At a simple, visceral level the picture of handsome men falling in love without guilt or shame was the perfect antidote to life in a city traumatised by the arrival of a hideous disease.

In Renault’s novels readers may find as many questions as they do answers, but this only adds to their depth and interest. For an aspiring classicist, her historical fiction can add colour to ancient Greek culture and society; for feminists, her novels may raise challenging issues; for LGBTQ+ readers, they have confirmed, excited and reassured. What is certain is Renault’s ability to capture the imagination; to draw you into an ancient world.

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An interview with Peter Harrington Cataloguer Theodora Robinson

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Introducing Peter Harrington Cataloguer Theodora Robinson

Tell us a bit about the importance of cataloguing – where does it sit within the rare book industry?

Rare-book cataloguers inspect and write descriptions of the items acquired before they are presented to customers. At Peter Harrington every book, manuscript, photograph, or artwork is catalogued individually, which involves delivering a report on the condition of the item, checking the bibliographic details, and writing notes that explain to the client what the item is and why it is valuable.

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

I had finished my Masters degree in Greek and Latin Literature and was looking for jobs working with books and manuscripts. I came across Peter Harrington slightly by accident, as I actually hadn’t heard of the rare-book trade at that point! I had been searching for positions at auction houses or in the heritage sector when someone helpfully pointed me in the direction of rare-book dealers; I scoured the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA) vacancies page for about six months before the advert for my role came up.

In Her Own Words: Works by Exceptional Women, Peter Harrington’s 2019 catalogue

What do you most enjoy about your role?

I enjoy pretty much every part of bookselling, but discussing our books with customers and researching items to buy or that we have acquired are my favourite aspects. There are so many projects to be a part of at Peter Harrington that it makes for a varied life, and because we exhibit at numerous international fairs there’s travel involved, too (mainly to the U.S., for me). One of my highlights so far has been creating Peter Harrington’s first catalogue of works by women, In Her Own Words: Works by Exceptional Women, which I produced with my colleague Emma Walshe. We’ve also just completed our latest Children’s Literature catalogue – it’s been about five years since we last published one with this theme, so it’s well overdue!

What does a day at the bookshop look like for you? 

I wear a lot of different hats at Peter Harrington, so no two days are the same, but typically I’ll be editing a print catalogue, researching books to acquire, or cataloguing items we have bought. My role is quite dynamic, and it can change quickly if there is a customer who needs something urgently or if a new project starts swiftly. Recently, I had a very last-minute trip to New York which was booked just the day before I flew. That is unusual, though; usually I know about trips well in advance.

(POTTER, Beatrix.) Christmas gift of a gilder’s set for her friend Gertrude Mary Woodward. [c.1896-1911]. £4,500.00.

You’ve catalogued thousands of items – can you pick out a couple that have stood out to you as particularly special?

There are two pieces that just left my desk that I really enjoyed researching. The first is a Christmas gift from Beatrix Potter to her close friend Gertrude Mary Woodward [no. 133403]. It’s quite unusual: a gift of a gilding set, not a book, and there was a lovely connection between the two women, who were both artists. Gertrude also helped Beatrix choose a printer to publish Peter Rabbit

The second item [no. 137776] is a manuscript account of the friendship and exploits of six young women during the Second World War. It is such an interesting and surprisingly entertaining insight into their lives against the backdrop of the war – despite their bombed houses and war work, there are amusing accounts of raucous evenings when they are on leave, including a run-in with a policeman on their way home one night. I also particularly loved the tale of how, on a day out, the girls got drenched in a sudden rain shower, so hung their wet clothes from the luggage rack of their train to dry: ‘the compartment soon looked like a gipsy encampment, so much so that a man, attempting to enter our carriage at a wayside station, gave one look at our wet belongings, exclaimed “Good Lord!” and shut the door again quickly!’

(WOMEN; WORLD WAR II.) Original manuscript notebook. April 1942 – March 1943. £1,250.00.

Cataloguing our copy of Gone With the Wind, inscribed by Vivien Leigh, was also special, and I visited The V&A Museum archives to compare her inscription in it with early samples of handwriting in her diaries. It is quite a remarkable item because the inscription pre-dates her landing the career-defining role of Scarlett O’Hara in 1938. Leigh had read Gone With the Wind at Christmas, 1936, and became obsessed with the idea of playing the female lead in producer David O. Selznick’s forthcoming film adaptation; she was so sure that she would get the role that she even presented a few copies of the book, including the one I catalogued, to fellow actors on the opening night of a stage play she was starring in, a bold two years before she was cast!

Finally, last year I was very excited to track down a copy of The Goodness of St Rocque by Alice Dunbar – the first published collection of short stories by an African-American woman – which we included in our women’s works catalogue. 

(LEIGH, Vivien.) MITCHELL, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. [1937]. £12,500.00.

DUNBAR, Alice. The Goodness of Saint Rocque and other stories. 1899.

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“to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight”: Wordsworth’s Daffodils

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By Madeleine Joelson

On April 15th, 1802 Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William were walking around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, in the Lake District.  The diary entry in which Dorothy records the afternoon is characteristic of her record-keeping.  Short, informative sentences—”the lake was rough…people working.  A few primroses by the roadside”—are interrupted with a description of a sea of daffodils that reaches a more poetic register:

[A]s we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and above them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.

This sea of personified daffodils, alternately weary, laughing, dancing or resting, breaks into Dorothy’s journal entry the way the daffodils themselves must have broken into the siblings’ walk.  The rest of the entry returns the day to its ordinary rhythm: Dorothy runs an errand and William reads in the library before retiring.

Dorothy's daffodil entry in her diary. Photograph: Heritage Lottery Fund

Two years later, William would re-write this incident as one of the most famous, and possibly the most memorized, poems in the English language: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (often referred to as “Daffodils”).  We can read Dorothy’s influence over the poem in more than subject matter: for example William’s daffodils “toss their heads in sprightly dance” just as Dorothy’s “tossed and reeled and danced.”  Critics began to recognize this influence as soon as Dorothy’s journals were first published nearly fifty years later in 1851.  One reviewer went so far as to write that “Wordsworth’s pretty stanzas on the Daffodils are only an enfeebled paraphrase of a magical entry in her [Dorothy’s] journal.”

But where Dorothy’s journal records a spectacular sight on an otherwise ordinary day, the poet transforms their shared experience into a solitary one.  The poem’s climax is not really the dancing daffodils but their effect on the poet’s memory:

                            For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

The process of storing up restorative images as memories for later use is a common theme in Wordsworth’s poetry—reminiscent of “Tintern Abbey” and the “spots of time” episodes of the Prelude—but moments of confluence such as this one reveal Dorothy’s active role in this process.  As Virginia Woolf put it in an essay on Dorothy:

[B]rother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood so that they hardly knew which felt, or which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry.

Dorothy’s record-keeping has come to be recognized as an essential part of the relationship between Wordsworth’s memory and his poetry.

First edition of Wordsworth’s Poems, in two volumes in contemporary binding. 1807. £4,250.00.

William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” first appeared in print in 1807 in Poems, Two Volumes—Wordsworth’s first publication since the 1800 edition of his and Coleridge’s groundbreaking Lyrical Ballads.  The volume contains several of Wordsworth’s most famous and influential poems, including “Ode: Intimations of Mortality,” “Resolution and Independence,” “The Solitary Reaper,” and his famous cityscape sonnet, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.”  These poems have had disparate afterlives since their original publication. The “Intimations” Ode is considered essential to understanding Wordsworth’s entire poetic project, the sonnets are celebrated as part of Romanticism’s revival of the sonnet form, and “Daffodils” has become an emblem of Lake District tourism, enthusiastically excerpted in guidebooks as well as anthologies since long before the poet’s death in 1850.  In more recent years, it can be seen on magnets, calendars, in a Heineken beer advertisement, and in one rap adaptation produced by Cumbria Tourism.

Placing the poem back into its original context, however, helps to free it from two centuries of excerption and commercialization, and returns it to the context in which it was published.  “Daffodils” was far from universally acclaimed upon reception.  Wordsworth placed the poem in the middle of a section he called “Moods of My Own Mind”—a section which critics found baffling.  They were disappointed to see the poet of Lyrical Ballads attach his “exquisite emotions” to unworthy objects in the natural world (“weeds and insects,” as one reviewer put it), calling the poems “nauseating” and “namby-pamby.”   Lord Byron wrote that Wordsworth had “abandon[ed] his mind to the most commonplace ideas, at the same time clothing them in language not simple, but puerile.”  But arranged together, “Daffodils” and its companion poems represented something the poet saw as “eminently poetical:” the ability of natural objects to inspire and renew a lasting sensation in the mind of their observer.  Such deceptively simple observations are now recognized as one of the innovations of British Romanticism.  And Wordsworth anticipated as much, writing in response to the reviews of his Poems, Two Volumes that their “destiny” was to “console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight …long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves.”

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Madeleine Joelson is a PhD student at Princeton University, studying 19th century publishing.

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Jane Austen: How do bindings affect value?

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Adam Douglas, Senior Specialist at Peter Harrington, introduces a selection of Jane Austen’s first editions and explains how their bindings affect their value.

Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility (Uncut first edition in the original publisher’s boards: estimated: value £100,000):

Jane Austen’s novels were originally published in three volumes, also called three-deckers, the idea being that you could borrow the books from a circulating library and read them one volume at a time. Publishers of the time favoured this, as they could be circulated to more readers that way.


The original bindings of Austen’s novels were very simple: a paper binding with paper-covered boards and a paper spine, usually with a little printed label on the spine as well. Sense and Sensibility was published simply as ‘A Novel By a Lady’. Author’s names rarely appeared on novels of this kind at that time as novels were not considered prestigious enough.


Booksellers now will describe a copy such as this as being ‘uncut in the original boards’. ‘Uncut’ refers to the page edges, which are untrimmed along the fore and lower edges, with the top edge folded over; when you bought the book, you’d get a small knife or a piece of horn and slide it along the crease to open the pages before reading.


For serious collectors of Austen, the ideal is to acquire first editions of her novels in these original bindings, the state they appeared in at the time of their publication. The boards are fragile, and in some cases were regarded as merely temporary bindings, which readers would replace with a leather binding to preserve the book as part of their personal library. For this reason, first editions of Austen in original boards are rare, and this adds to their value.

Jane Austen – Mansfield Park (First edition with contemporary binding with half-titles: estimated value £27,000):

A rebound first edition of Austen will typically be found with its edges trimmed straight, and might also have been decorated. This copy has speckled red edges. A typical binding of the period would be what is called half calf, where the spine and the corners of the bindings are leather – usually calf, but sometimes sheepskin which was a little cheaper. The sides would typically be covered in marbled paper, which was popular in the era.


Contemporary rebound first editions of Austen’s work (that is, those which appear in bindings roughly contemporary with the publication of the book) are valuable, though they can usually be obtained for less than a first edition in the original boards.


A key factor which affects the value of rebound first editions is whether they retain the original half-titles. A half-title is a single leaf on which is printed the title of the book, without the author’s name or any imprint details. This was included by the publisher to protect the full title page while the book was being bound. It often suffered damage and was removed by the binder in a rebound book. Its presence here increases the value of the book.


Jane Austen – Mansfield Park (First edition rebound without half-titles, estimated value: £13,500):

Here’s another copy of Mansfield Park, which has been entirely rebound to style. This is a modern binding intended to resemble a binding that would have been contemporary with the publishing of the book.

It’s a hand-crafted binding using the same techniques that would have been used at the time of publication, but naturally as a reproduction it has less value in today’s collectors market.

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Democratic depravity: Curt Moreck’s Berlin

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By Andy Stewart MacKay

After the horrors of the Great War, “All values were changed” wrote the novelist Stefan Zweig of 1920s Berlin; the city “transformed into the Babylon of the world”. It wasn’t just Berlin that was changed: London and Paris offered the leisured and the artistic innumerable opportunities for bohemian indulgence too. (“Bright Young Thing” Stephen Tennant dragging up at drug-enhanced Mayfair parties immediately springs to mind – as does the artist Tamara de Lempicka enjoying riotous lesbian orgies in a marquee beside the River Seine). But the flavour of Berlin’s “depravity” was uniquely democratic, and the city quickly gained a distinct reputation for erotic possibility not to be found elsewhere.

Otto Dix, Großstadt (Metropolis), 1927-1928, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart.

Neon-lit Berlin and its intoxicating atmosphere of hedonist abandon remains vividly evoked by Otto Dix’s 1928 triptych Metropolis. The city’s relatively-unlicensed climate drew into its orbit everyone from Francis Bacon, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood to Djuna Barnes, Greta Garbo and, of course, Marlene Dietrich – described by historian Rory MacLean as “the singular Berliner”, who magically personified “sex without gender”. As exemplary Berlinerinnen of the period, alongside Die Dietrich, two others particularly stand out: sophisticatedly moderne journalist Sylvia von Harden (immortalised by a 1926 portrait by Otto Dix, recreated in the 1972 film Cabaret) and chic Egyptian-born Scottish singer Jean Ross (fictionalised by Isherwood as Sally Bowles and famously played by Liza Minelli in Cabaret). Sexually confidant and financially autonomous, these recently empowered “New Women” were, in almost every respect, strikingly different from their pre-war mothers.

By 1930 Berlin drew more than two million visitors each year, and many were thirsty for sexual adventure. Responding to international demand for its avantgarde scene, the following year Berlin-resident and writer Konrad Haemmerling (1888-1957), under the pseudonym “Curt Moreck”, published Fuhrer durch das “lasterhafte” Berlin [A Guide through “Depraved” Berlin]: a travel guide to what he called his beloved “metropolis of pleasure”. Perhaps the very first alternative travel guide, his was cleverly marketed and pitched at the youthful “New” reader – and for a brief period became the indispensable guide to everything in Berlin that was “naughty”, “immoral” and “depraved”. Deploying the city tourist agency’s slogan, “A Visit to Berlin for Everyone!”, Moreck led his readers on a previously uncharted psycho-geographic journey through Berlin’s queerest hotspots. Acknowledging that “Every city has an official and an unofficial side”, his was explicitly a sketch of the unofficial. Illustrated by well-known artists of the day, the curious traveller could find everything they needed to know about all the fashionable bars, clubs, dancehalls and brothels – including pointers on which ones had the latest thing: telephones on their private tables, designed to facilitate and accelerate not just flirtatious encounters but overt sexual cruising.

MORECK, Curt. Fuhrer durch das “lasterhafte” Berlin. [A Guide through “Depraved” Berlin]. [1931]. £2,000.00.

Featuring numerous women-only bars and clubs, Moreck advocates modern women’s demand for the same sexual rights as men. Illustrations by Jeanne Mammen clearly both represent and reflect a strikingly modern female gaze, and one by Paul Kamm depicts the most famous lesbian bar of the day, Café Olala on Zietenstrasse. Drag clubs feature too, and with about eighty “Man to Man” bars, gay and bisexual men were spoilt for choice; affirming what historian Leif Jerram calls Berlin’s newly “self-identifying, stable emergent gay identity” at this time. According to Moreck, make-up was now, both for women and for queer men, less a “label” for sex-workers in the way it once was and more simply today’s fashionable “cosmetic uniform”. No longer were young Berliners genteelly promenading in the Tiergarten like the pre-war Bourgeois of their parents’ generation; their performative modernity instead involved a need to see and be seen on the streets and in the clubs. Berlin, Moreck declares, was – in the best possible sense – one vast masquerade, suffused with desire and almost limitless opportunities for erotic pleasure. Visitors only needed to walk the streets, he advised, take a tram or a tube train to feel what seemed, according to Leif Jerram, “by many at the time to be a hyper-sexualised experience”.

The tolerance of ordinary Berliners for all this decadence rested, according to Moreck, “more on indifference than on understanding”. But, after Adolf Hitler’s election as premier in January 1933 and the infamous Enabling Act of March that year, everything was to change. Haemmerling’s work was banned and, two months later, his guidebook burned – along with 25,000 other “un-German” books – in what the Nazis called Die Säuberung, “cleansing” fires on the streets of Berlin. A rare copy of Moreck’s influential publication, and some of the original illustrations it features, was recently included in the London Barbican Centre’s exhibition Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art – not just because of its distinct visual appeal, but because it remains a unique historical document of unashamedly queer life in Berlin before its obliteration under Nazi rule.

MORECK, Curt. Fuhrer durch das “lasterhafte” Berlin. [A Guide through “Depraved” Berlin]. [1931]. £2,000.00.

Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.

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A plague on all your books: great works written in isolation

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By Adam Douglas, senior specialist at Peter Harrington

Many writers need isolation to get their creative juices flowing. Virginia Woolf reckoned that women writers of her generation simply needed a room of their own. She didn’t specify that the streets outside that room should be deserted and shops running low on supplies, but she might have liked it that way.

BOCCACCIO, Giovanni. [Decamerone, in English.] The Modell of Wit, Mirth, Eloquence, and Conversation. 1625. £10,000.00.

The starting point for the great literature of self-isolation must be the Decameron of Boccaccio, inspired by the outbreak in Italy of the Black Death of 1348 and completed by 1353. Fleeing from the plague-ridden city, a group of self-isolating Florentines while away the hours by telling each other stories. An English version of Boccaccio’s Decameron was first published in London in 1620. Many have assumed that the translator was the celebrated John Florio, who died five years later, a victim of a later recurrence of the plague.

Geoffrey Chaucer adored Boccaccio. His Troilus and Criseyde is directly based on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, and he adopted the Decameron’s story-frame structure for his own Canterbury Tales. As a child, Chaucer had escaped the Black Death, but in his adulthood lived an isolated life. He and his wife lived apart, she in a castle, while he held down a boring job in London, stamping duty-paid on bales of wool passing through London docks. His grace-and-favour apartment in Aldgate was a tiny garret above the busy city gates, through which he would have heard Essex peasants thundering on their way to burn John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace in 1381. The Peasants’ Revolt was another indirect consequence of the same Black Death that led Boccaccio’s storytellers to flee their city.

CHAUCER, Geoffrey. [The workes, newlie printed], London : 1532.

Isolation is not always a direct result of pandemic. Chaucer was also a fan of the Roman senator and philosopher Boethius, whose De consolatione philosophiae he translated. Boethius had been sentenced to death, unjustly in his opinion, and spent his final year trying to find the consolations of philosophy in his terrible situation. Boethius stands at the head of that closely related genre: great literature written in prison.

The Black Death probably reached Europe and the Near East along the Silk Road, borne on fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo had been plying his trade along the Silk Road for almost thirty years, seeing many things previously unknown to Europeans. In 1295 he returned home to find Venice at war with Genoa. He was thrown in prison, where he recounted his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, who compiled them into the seminal travelogue now known as The Travels of Marco Polo.

BOETHIUS. Of the Consolation of Philosophy. London : 1695.

Another intrepid traveller-turned-prison writer, Sir Walter Ralegh, was one of several European would-be colonists who introduced all manner of pathogens to the pre-Columbian natives of the Americas. After his repeated failures to find the fabulous treasure of El Dorado, Ralegh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he set about writing a monumental History of the World. He’d written no more than a million words before he was sent to the executioner’s block.

The golden age of Elizabethan theatre also happened to coincide with repeated outbursts of plague in London. A fresh episode reportedly began in Lisbon in 1599 and spread to Spain and elsewhere on the Continent, reaching London by February 1603. The London playhouses were closed, and many actors set out to earn their crust touring plays round the provinces. Not Shakespeare, though, who stayed behind to help present a series of command performances for James I. He also found the extra spare time to sit down to write Macbeth and King Lear.

[RALEIGH, Sir Walter.] The History of the World. 1614. £12,500.00. SHAKESPEARE, William. Macbeth, a tragedy: with all the alterations, amendments, additions, and new songs. 1687. £15,000.00.

The plague continued to haunt the imagination of writers. In 1722 Daniel Defoe published his Journal of the Plague Year, representing it as a true account of the climactic year 1665, when the bubonic plague struck London for the last time. While some think Defoe based his work on his uncle’s papers, many critics have seen the book as purely imaginative fiction, similar in technique to his earlier Robinson Crusoe, another classic text of enforced isolation.

No pandemic confined Anna Sewell to her writer’s desk, merely a sequence of misfortunes that began at fourteen, when she tripped while running home from school in the rain, injuring both her ankles. The injury never fully healed and she led a life of periodic invalidism until, from 1871 to 1877 at a time when her health further declined and she was confined to the house and her sofa, she wrote Black Beauty. She lived just long enough to get an early hint of what would prove to be her novel’s extraordinary success.

(KAUFFER, E. McKnight.) DEFOE, Daniel. The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York Mariner. 1929. £2,000.00. SEWELL, Anna. Black Beauty: his grooms and companions. The autobiography of a horse. [1877]. £17,500.00.

One of the most famous literary invalids of the nineteenth century was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose various serious illnesses started at about the same age as Sewell’s (though some have thought that her greater debility was the lack of opportunity she experienced as a woman in an isolated setting, with no access to higher education). The romantic version has it that she was rescued from her sickbed by Robert Browning, who awoke her poetic creativity and whisked her away from her doting but tyrannical father, the legendary Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street.

Which brings us back to Virginia Woolf, who chose to retell that romantic legend as seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, leading up to his later days in a bucolic Italy, in Pisa and Florence, the very city whence Boccaccio’s self-isolators had fled.

[BROWNING], Elizabeth Barrett. Poems. 1844. £8,500.00. WOOLF, Virginia. Flush. A Biography. 1933. £750.00.

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