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.

Siné – Massacre

As this post goes up onto the blog I will be on my way to Hay on Wye to give a talk on the Gentle Art of Penguin Book Collecting as part of the Hay Independence celebrations for 2018, as part of the talk I’m going to cover the strange story of Siné’s Massacre in it’s only Penguin edition.

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The title of the cartoon on the cover is a sort of pun in French, dessin morbide means morbid drawing but mord translates as belly so the vampire biting the belly of his victim covers both meanings. The fact that this was chosen as the cover and therefore amongst the least controversial of the cartoons included says a lot about the content of the book. Through the rest of this blog I will include other cartoons from the book although I have been careful not to include the most offensive examples, Siné had a fascination with toilets, hangings, amputation, sex and the catholic church sometimes all in one cartoon and I don’t feel many of the cartoons are suitable even now.

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Given this controversial nature, why was he considered for a Penguin book dedicated to him? Well Penguin had a long history of publishing books of cartoons featuring selections of a particular artist, anything from Thelwell and his little girls at their pony club, through Osbert Lancaster, Peter Arno, Charles Addams (and his famous family) and Gerald Hoffnung with his musical fantasies to name just a few. On 5th October 1966 therefore a Penguin Books board meeting was convened to discuss the advisability of including Siné, as he was regarded as a major French cartoonist and a range that had the gentle work of Thelwell at one end and Siné at the other would definitely appear to be inclusive of all styles. It is worth pointing out that this board meeting would appear to have been very very late in the process, as the books had already been printed and were in the warehouse, orders had been placed but they hadn’t yet been distributed to retailers. So technically the book had not yet been published, but it really was a technicality at this point.

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Sir Allen Lane, the founder of the business back in 1935, was still chairman of the board at this time although he no longer had total autocratic control of the business as he once had. He had given way long ago to the consensus of the board of directors as he had had to due to the huge increase in the size of the company, which was way beyond the ability of one man to control; however he still thought of Penguin Books as his. Nevertheless the minutes of the meeting show that the overall position was to back Tony Godwin, then Chief Editor and therefore a board member, with some reservations expressed. Backing Godwin was particularly forcefully put by Charles Clark who felt that not doing so at such a late stage would put Godwin in an untenable position; Sir Allen was not happy but, at the meeting at least according to the minutes, backed the decision to publish.

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A draft press release was prepared announcing the publication on the 1st November 1966 which included a statement that the board were not in full agreement with the publication, however after the internal legal advisor was consulted it was decided to remove references to the disagreement and all was set for 3 weeks time. So far just a tale of a controversial book being prepared for publication, there had been several before at Penguin and there didn’t seem anything to make this different but the story was about to become bizarre…

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George Nicholls recalled in 1970 (after the death of Sir Allen Lane) the events of a night in October 1966 which is almost certainly unique in the annals of UK publishing. He was in bed, as it was around midnight, when the phone rang and he was summoned to the office. When he got there he found Sir Allen along with 3 other men and he wanted the warehouse unlocking, Nicholls had the keys so they set off. On the way the reason for the late night escapade became clear as Lane explained.

I’ve got Singleton round the back with the farm wagon, I’m going to pinch all those Siné’s … that bloody board outvoted me, but I’ll have my own back on them.

Nicholls was shocked but as he said Sir Allen was “the governor” so he did what he was told. After a while they managed to load all the palletised stock onto the trailer and then realised that there would be boxes ready for shipping in the distribution area so went and found all those as well and loaded them onto the truck. It took a few hours but eventually Nicholls locked up the warehouse again and Allan Lane set off with his cargo after saying to Nicholls that this would be their secret.  What happened next is largely speculation, various accounts say that when Lane got back to his farm near Reading he had a large bonfire, some say the books were buried, others that he composted the lot and eventually spread it on his fields, what is certain is that the printed books were never seen again and Penguin never did officially publish Siné’s Massacre. Allen Lane also briefly vanished from the scene heading off on an impromptu holiday to Spain whilst things quietened down.

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The odd thing was that there was apparently no hue and cry about the missing books; it all seems to have been quietly ignored, the few orders that had come in were cancelled as the book was ‘out of stock’. I used to design warehouse systems so know that so much stock going astray would definitely be noticed very quickly especially with unfulfilled orders this close to the official publication date but nothing was said. The only copies that survived are the few examples that had been sent to people to get their opinions about publication and some trade samples that had made it to representatives on the road. It all adds up to this being one of the rarest, and consequently most valuable, paperbacks produced by Penguin in the last 60 years. Checking abebooks reveals only one copy available at the time of writing this, across all the dealers on there around the world, and that is priced at £145.

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1894 - Lane Christmas Book- The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley- 2 title pageWelcome to my book shelves, home to some 6500 volumes dating back to the mid 1700’s right up to the present day. I’m going to use these as the basis for short essays or reviews not just of these books but where ever they wish to take me.  The aim is to pick a book, or group of books each week and look at its significance, or just tell a tale as to why it has found itself here.

The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley featured with this first article is a good entry point as the Bodliean Library in Oxford takes its name from Sir Thomas who came to its rescue in the 1590’s and put it finally in the secure position it now holds as one of the worlds greatest libraries. So immediately we have a book leading to more books

When John Lane founded his publishing company in 1887 he chose to call it The Bodley Head in honour of Sir Thomas and for Christmas 1894 printed a very small number of copies of Bodley’s autobiography as gifts to friends and people who had helped set up the business.  Very few of these books have survived the intervening 123 years but it’s an interesting work that should perhaps be better known.

I have two copies of ‘The Life’ one still in the original card covers and one rebound in boards and this also includes the original compliments slip from John Lane.

My main interest in The Bodley Head however is in one of his employees in the 1930’s, Allen Lane, who went on to found a far more famous publishing company namely Penguin Books, which now owns The Bodley Head imprint and uses it for non-fiction titles.

Well over 2000 of my books are Penguins and I specialise in the first 10 years of the company 1935 to 1945 which led to some fascinating books and stories about how they came about as the firm struggled with wartime restrictions but also the greater need amongst the population at home and also servicemen/women for something to read.  More to come about those in future entries to this blog…