A Very Early Victorian Christmas – Hector Bolitho

Not so much a book as a pamphlet, this sewn spine publication was privately printed in an edition of just three hundred copies in 1929 as a Christmas gift from Alan, Dick and John Lane. It is the second such Christmas book from the brothers after the previous years Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray which I wrote about in a blog two years ago. The story appears to have been specially written by Bolitho for this edition and I cannot find any other time that it has been published, indeed it is so obscure that it wasn’t included in the Hector Bolitho bibliography on Wikipedia until I added it this morning.The book is attractively bound with quite large french flaps and a paper label stuck onto the cover giving the title and author. The first thing you see on opening the book is the gift dedication from the Lane brothers.

Surprisingly what you don’t see is any indication as to who printed the book and for hints as to which company it is I have turned to the Autumn 1984 edition of ‘The Private Library’, which is the quarterly journal of The Private Libraries Association. In this edition Jonathan Gili wrote an excellent article dealing with all the Lane Christmas books and in it he suggests that The Curwen Press, which had suddenly closed down in January of 1984, printed it as the paper cover was definitely from one of their patterns and the Koch Kursive typeface used for the above dedication panel was introduced by them in 1926. The sudden collapse of the business and the subsequent rapid sale and dispersal by auction of their effects would however preclude a more detailed examination.

Born in New Zealand in 1897 Bolitho came to England in the mid 1920’s and settled there, initially working as a freelance journalist. He went on to write over fifty books, a large number of which are biographies and a significant number of those are of British monarchs but is now largely unknown and this is the only book by him that I possess. Indeed as I said at the beginning this is barely a book, finishing as it does on page fifteen. The frontispiece shown above features a portrait of Princess Victoria at the age of eleven which would mean it is from 1830 which is roughly when the book is set and is seven years before she would become queen so the title is not really accurate as her father King William IV was monarch at the time and the Victorian era was still a few years away. However the little princess features in this short tale if only in allusion.

The stories lead character is Michael Stranger, born on Christmas Day early in the nineteenth century, and at the start he is living with his older sister near Reading, Berkshire and she is wonderfully described by Bolitho as

a gaunt, hard woman, with a face like a horse. She moved within her clothes as if she were made of laths of wood

Michael is to go to stay with his uncle, Abraham Trotter, from Christmas Day and he had a fine house in the Edgware Road, London, he was apparently

a dealer in tea and spices and cloves and ginger. His wife had died of pneumonia and the spittings and he lived alone

However we never meet him as Michael is to stay overnight on Christmas Eve at an inn in Kensington and on the coach to there he chats with a fellow passenger who tells him of Princess Victoria and that night after his meal, where there is more discussion regarding Victoria, he wanders down the road until he comes to Kensington Palace where a watchman tells him that the lights he can see on are from the windows of the young princess’s rooms. Amazingly that is the end of the book, it has barely got going when it stops.

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