Friday, 1 February 2013

In their own hand

As I'm on the subject of books, I'd like to tell you about one of my prize possessions. This is a huge leather-bound volume, a limited edition of 1899 authorised by the Trustees of the British Museum. These three photos explain the appearance and provenance of the book succinctly:

Inside are 150 high-quality reproductions, in colour, of holograph documents, 'holograph' meaning 'written in the author's own hand', the authors in this case being the kings and queens and (later on) prime ministers of England, a few foreign rulers such as Napoleon, and a fair number of poets, novelists, historians and persons of renown. So Erasmus, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Francis Drake, Oliver Cromwell, John Wesley, General Gordon and Tennyson are all there, as well as Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots. The documents are mostly letters, written in these people's own handwriting, and in many instances touching on important historical trends or occasions. To me, fascinating stuff.

I found the book in a Croydon book fair in May 1995. The seller wanted £80 for it, but I knocked him down to £59. Still a lot to pay. And it is a big, heavy book: getting it home was very awkward! But I was glad I'd bought it, taking the view that if I didn't, I would never see another example again. It was Now Or Never, as Elvis would have said.

Here are three examples of what this book has to offer. (I won't bore anyone with more)

First, King Edward VI, the young king of dodgy health who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, and reigned for only a few years before dying and then, despite attempts to block her, being succeeded by Queen Mary I - the queen who became known as 'Bloody Mary' for her unpopular acts in defence of her religion. Her insistence on adhering to the old faith is the subject of Edward's private diary entries in early 1551:

Next, Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first authoritative (though quirky) English Dictionary, the man who was the subject of James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). In this letter of 1781, Johnson asks Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal, to sponsor a certain Mr Hoole, who is going to translate some poetry:

And finally, Charles Dickens. This is a letter (probably not the only one, as he was busy up to the end) written on the day before he died in 1870. By the look of the writing, he definitely wasn't feeling at all well:

Poor Dickens. He never really recovered from a dreadful train crash in which he was badly shaken. He was a passenger when a boat train was derailed crossing a river bridge near Staplehurst in 1865 - see, referred to also in L T C Rolt's famous treatise on railway accidents and their relation to the development of signalling and safety practices, Red For Danger (1955, The Bodley Head; and in a revised edition 1966, David and Charles).

You can see that the format of the British Museum's book is to have a document and its printed transcription (with a brief explanation of the background) on facing pages. The fingers are mine.

I think it brings all these famous people down to earth a little, the fact that their letters and so on are not as a rule stratospheric in content. Although the Museum's choice for an era like the 1500s is obviously very limited, because so little has survived that is in any way informal and revealing of the genuine human face of the writer.

If you love and value books, especially historical books, then this one is surely a winner.

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