Inheriting books – that sets up a whole further range of problems. Problems I’m delighted to have but I’m also inheriting a responsibility. To a great aunt, who I knew well, but now I know her library – and I wish I’d known her better. Her books which take me through from 1910 to her death in the late 1990s are the story of her life – the intellectual, literary story. She read English at Oxford in the 1920s, but never worked, other than as a companion to a fierce-looking great-grandmother of mine, who I never knew.
When I downsized from house to flat I threw away some of the cheap novels (Everyman’s Library and the like) which had been her everyday reading staple – many duplicating books where I already owned copies, and others by authors hardly ever read today. But – for a few years now I’ve felt guilty. They were a mini-library, a personal story, and I wish we hadn’t parted company. I do sometimes imagine her up there, Auntie Frances, with a stern look and a gently wagging finger.
She was born in 1900 and her grandfather was the manager of a cotton mill, or so I understand, in Manchester, and he lived in Prestwich, and he was educated, a member of the new affluent middle class, that Manchester middle class which was the first real middle class in the whole wide world, and he was a book collector, and his books which my great aunt inherited were a pride and joy to her. And now to me.
As examples, two marvellous volumes, London City and London Suburb, which he subscribed for in the 1870s, and his name is in the back, along with all the other subscribers. Bound sets of Studio magazine. Beautifully bound volumes with tinted and tissued paintings of birds and flowers. Macauley’s History of England, in five volumes. Five – but I can only find four. I must have the fifth, surely? (I will be searching.) A middle section of binding on the spine of volume two has come away, and that is on a small pile of books to be repaired. The metal clasp on a miniature prayer book has already been repaired.
But my biggest puzzle is a volume where the front cover hangs by a thread, and the opening pages are missing. Two books are bound together – a bible from the 1730s and a prayer book from the 1780s. Don’t ask me why they’re bound together. I will need to research.
The more I explore behind the old bindings the more conundrums, and the greater my pleasure. I now have a bookbinder who can help me out. And I will read – in so many ways Victorian books are superior to those of our own time – finer bindings, and illustrations each one of which was a labour of love.
Thirty years ago my great aunt took one book from her collection and gave it to me as a present. Pigot’s County Atlas of England, from 1840. Individual county maps, and a four-way fold-out map of England. I loved it, and when I set up my own publishing company in 1989, the little-lamented Garamond, I published it as a facsimile edition. It looked and looks superb, and I took delight seeing it featured in bookshop window displays. But, the book itself, well, it had to be broken apart before being sent for repro, and it came back to me with the counties as individual parts, the boards (cover) intact, but unbound. And it stayed that way until a month ago, and now at a cost of £230 I’ve had it rebound, and I’m as chuffed as can be to have it there, on my coffee table.
There’s another story to the book. My great-grandfather, whose second wife was the fierce-looking (and black-robed) lady I mention above, was a successful builder – he built many the houses and shops which line the streets of Bramhall, my home village in Cheshire. And a young man, he’d worked for the rector of nearby Mobberley, the Reverend Herbert Leigh Mallory, the father of George Mallory, long a hero of mine, who lost his lfe along with Sandy Irvine somewhere above the Second Step just below the summit of Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999. So my atlas would have been in George’s library in the Mobberley rectory when he was growing up. I like that idea, and wonder if he might have perused and pored over it as I like to do.
I asked Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory alive, disappearing into cloud, when I met him thirty years ago at the Royal Geographical Society, whether he thought Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit – he was sure they had.
There will be other stories, I’m sure. More bookish adventures.