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.

The Golden Age – Kenneth Grahame

Originally published in 1895 by The Bodley Head without any illustrations, my copy is also published by them and is the 1928 first edition illustrated by Ernest H Shepard who is probably best known for his Winnie the Pooh drawings for A A Milne’s classic children’s works. The book is simply beautiful even before you open it with the cover silhouette and text embossed into buckram covered boards. Kenneth Grahame of course is famous for his own children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’ which was published thirteen years after ‘The Golden Age’ and was converted into the play ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ by Milne in 1929. Surprisingly after such a major hit with ‘The Wind in The Willows’, and despite living for another twenty four years after that, he published no more books and ‘The Golden Age’ is the second of just four other books he wrote before ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

Kenneth Graham was born in Edinburgh in 1859 but when he was only five years old his mother died and his father, who was probably alcoholic, couldn’t look after Kenneth and his three siblings so they were sent to live with their grandmother in a small village in Berkshire. This sudden change from the centre of a Scottish city to a rural English parish had a lasting effect on Grahame and his explorations as a child of the countryside surrounding him undoubtedly led decades later to ‘The Wind in the Willows’. His earlier writings, especially ‘The Golden Age’, feature a group of children having fun growing up in just such an idyllic environment written entirely from their point of view and are clearly fictionalised versions of his own life in the mid to late 1860’s in Cookham Dean. The book is made up of seventeen short stories and a prologue which refers to the, largely distant, adults as The Olympians and the children as the Illuminati because only they could see the pirates, knights, soldiers, wild animals etc. of their playing and truly enjoy themselves.

Looking back to those days of old, ere the gate shut to behind me, I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect. But to those whose nearest were aunts and uncles, a special attitude of mind may be allowed. They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. … These elders, our betters by a trick of chance, commanded no respect, but only a certain blend of envy—of their good luck—and pity—for their inability to make use of it. Indeed, it was one of the most hopeless features in their character (when we troubled ourselves to waste a thought on them: which wasn’t often) that, having absolute licence to indulge in the pleasures of life, they could get no good of it.

From the opening paragraph of The Golden Age

The stories are delightfully and really evoke a long gone period in mid-Victorian England, as well as harvest time depicted above they encounter mounted soldiers in one of the lanes all dressed up in regimental finery with red jackets and plume helmets so very different to the modern military. There are stories of Charlotte, the youngest girl, playing with her dolls and telling them off for misbehaving, the three boys are always in and out of the river or exploring the woods or generally being where and doing what they shouldn’t be, often in the company of Charlotte if not her elder sister Selina. The relatives the children were staying with were clearly quite well off, the house appears to be quite large and there are servants hence the opportunity for them to enjoy their childhood despite regular complaints about having to do schoolwork. For those wondering ‘dreeing his weird’ is a Scottish expression meaning to accept your fate, so clearly Harold had ended up with a tummy ache after all that raw turnip but had recognised that his illness was entirely his own fault so wasn’t complaining about it. None of Grahame’s actual brothers and sisters match the names of the children in the book or its sequel ‘Dream Days’ where Charlotte appears again in the short story ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ which of all of Grahame’s short stories is easily the best known although the rest of ‘Dream Days’ doesn’t really live up to this gentle fantasy.

The illustrations by Ernest H Shepherd are as charming as you would expect from this master of book illustration but for me the real joy in the book are his silhouettes, they are just so beautifully done and as can be seen above sometimes continue across a double page spread. The children are enjoying some ginger beer purchased with the reward for Edward being steadfast under the dentists attention and having a tooth removed that morning. The misunderstanding as to what corked wine meant with the subsequent worry about expanding pieces of cork being dangerous inside you is quite funny and behind Selina can be seen one of the children’s rabbits chosen as the “most self-respecting of the rabbits … let loose to grace the feast”.

The book is still easily available and as far as I can tell has never gone out of print in the 125 years since it was first published, maybe not very well known now but still worth searching out. I’ll leave the last word however to Kenneth Grahame himself.

Well! The Olympians are all past and gone. Somehow the sun does not seem to shine so brightly as it used; the trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres. A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego—I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?

Closing paragraph of the prologue to The Golden Age

Welcome

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…