by guest contributor Jonathan Kearns in collaboration with Brooke Palmieri
Nor is the empire of the imagination less bounded in its own proper creations, than in those which were bestowed on it by the poor blind eyes of our ancestors. What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? […]
Guest blog post by Lynn Verschuren, Museum Studies project placement in Special Collections. Earlier this month, the University of Glasgow welcomed internationally renowned scholars in the fields of philosophy, literature, art history, linguistics and disability studies as part of the Understanding the Senses: Past & Present conference held on campus for the second year running. […]
Really should get back into the swing of Book of The Week, seeing as I have so much good stuff at the moment and, in between juggling my stock portfolio and refusing to allow Billie Piper to shamelessly objectify me (Stop it Miss Piper! Stop it.), I have a little time to show off.
Every now and then something comes along which…you’ve heard this before, try and imagine it said in the voice of that one man with the voice made of molasses and horseshoe nails who did all the movie trailers in the eighties; “Changes the face of storytelling…”
That’s a little hyperbolic, but the significance of Dorcas Dene, and a couple of her contemporaries, in radically changing popular fictional attitudes to women in the early part of the 20th century shouldn’t overlooked. I mean alright, this one was written by a man, but think of it as sexually progressive, gender swapped, Georgiana Cavendish style utopianism…I really tried to make that a thing. That’s not going to work. Anyway. Dorcas Dene is great and the three rarest issues I have chosen as my book of the week:
1. Sims, George R. Dorcas Dene, Detective; Her Adventures. [First and Second Series]. London: F.V. White & Co, 1897. First Edition. Two volumes, 8vo. 119pp + 1pp. ads., [both volumes identically paginated, which is rather odd] Publisher’s blue and green cloth titled in black and gilt to spine and front boards, respectively. I’m never sure if I am using that word correctly so perhaps I should have gone with “The First Series volume is bound in blue cloth, titled in gilt and black to spine and front board…” etc. Minor bumping and edgewear, slight rubbing to the gilt of the First Series volume…that’s it.
If I were the kind of bookseller who catalogued things as near fine on a regular basis, these would be near fine. I’ll go so far as to say that the Second Series volume is near fine, they are both lovely, strong, clean tight copies, internally clean and graced with toe-tinglingly charming adverts for Pear’s Soap and Mellin’s Food…that’s it, it’s just called “food” and it says you can add wine or spirits to it; for me (and for most other booksellers) this does not narrow it down to any particular foodstuff; seriously, it could be breakfast cereal. Or yogurt.
Anyway, they are very lovely copies. I’ve only ever seen one copy of the first series in the flesh and it was in a sadly charmless state. I admit I wasn’t expecting to see another, especially not accompanied by its equally scarce partner volume (the two series were published on each other’s heels, along with the impossibly rare paper wraps issue, they are all rather slight objects), so this is certainly rather lovely. It’s a bit like meeting that person from your past that you always had a crush on and then bumping into them whilst on vacation to recover from a dreadful relationship and discovering that they too had a crush on you and they disclose this to you over dinner in a small, rustic restaurant called “Il Monastero” overlooking a secluded backwater of the Arno in Florence…is this fantasy getting too specific? I feel as if perhaps I’m digressing. Florence though.
Anyway. Painfully rare, and well used if seen.
These stories, however, are not to be lumped in with the giant shoggoth-like mass of so-called “Holmesian Imitators” which the late 19th and early 20th century spawned like tiny, wriggling, know it all tadpoles in a rather stagnant pond of crumbling Imperialist pretension. Nope.
Dorcas Dene (nee Spencer, before hooking up with her archetypally sexist man-muppet of a husband, who is rather tragically a blind ex artist; perhaps in some way symbolising the fact that it’s about time we stop thinking we’re in charge, when we clearly don’t have the chops for it) is an ex-actress and private detective of considerable wit and intellect, who naturally and through sheer application of intelligence and merit enlists the support and complete co-operation of Scotand Yard in her crime fighting exploits:
“It isn’t usual,” the Superintendent said, “for our men to act under the orders of a private detective, even one so talented as Dorcas Dene, but under the circumstances I consent.”
Her “Watson” is a rather pleasant sort of chap, a Mr. Saxon (her theatrical agent originally, whose devotion and admiration know only the bounds of late-Victorian propriety), assisting her on a voluntary basis in her exploits. Unlike the occasional slightly token female detectives from the period, Ms. Dene is crisply procedural and methodical, no guesswork or conjecture, just exact, considered deduction and observation. She’s a master of disguise, stands no nonsense and brings her criminals to justice with no more manly assistance than Holmes might enlist from Watson and his service revolver.
Now it’s much less of a big deal, but in the male dominated world of 1890’s popular literature there usually had to be at least some capitulation to feminine frailty otherwise we chaps just felt all left out. Interestingly Ms. Dene is also considered attractive and charming. Steely determination, raw ability and being intellectually superior to the men around you are not, historically, things that are going to get you described as charming…not even by other women. I’m not even sure about the “historically” bit, to be honest.
In addition, Dorcas is an actress, which for a good chunk of time prior to the second half of the 19th century was almost exactly the same word as “prostitute.” So what you basically have is a complex, smart, attractive woman excelling in a male dominated field by virtue of ability and results whilst doing so without her ability being compromised by the prejudices or assumptions of the society in which she operates. Not only that, she’s solving crimes, goddammit, AND she’s the main breadwinner for her household, AND she does it whilst looking fabulous and having close non-romantic friendships with people of the opposite gender. I love this book, at the very least for what it stands for and for the fact that upon publication it was highly thought of…in a Britain that wouldn’t give the vote to women for another two decades, and only then so that they’d stop burning stuff and making us look like idiots.
The characterisation is very deliberate. Dorcas is meticulous, observant and unruffled in her exploits. There are also a number of occasions throughout the stories where Sims, through the medium of his detective, is able to offer a commentary on the sins and peccadilloes of Victorian male society; The Diamond Lizard, The Mysterious Millionaire and The Council of Four are all somewhat calmly giving the 19th century gender norms a long, hard look.
Finding another set of this title in attractive condition is about as likely as a disabled, female, democrat receiving towtruck assistance in North Carolina
As an added bonus here’s the description of the wraps edition:
2. Sims, George R. Dorcas Dene, Detective. Her Adventures. London: F.V. White, 1897. First Edition, First Printing. 8vo. 119pp. + 1pp. ads. Publisher’s original ilustrated card wraps, very good indeed, clean and sharp with a closed tear to the front lower spine hinge, minor edgewear and chipping, some very slight inoffensive creasing. An incredibly well preserved copy of a legendarily scarce Queens Quorum highlight. Internally clean and fresh. There’s some scruffy page trimming between pages 57 and 59 but it’s otherwise quite the fancy looking object.
I’m giddy. There’s been one copy of this book in auction in 30-plus years, and that was in the 2002 Lackritz auction…Mr L. being the man whose collection most closely approximates the Shangri-La of crime based bibliophilia. That’s it.
Fortune and Glory, kid, Fortune and Glory.
Aside form the usual frictions of 120 years or so this copy should be ever so proud of itself. My views on Dorcas Dene as an important addition to the genre of crime and detective fiction are well know (see the previous description!). Suffice it to say that this is kind of a pinnacle. It’s not every day that one can hold in one’s hand a tile from the mosaic of change, and fit it back into its rightful place.
(The original cataloguing was done specifically for the enjoyment of Rebecca Baumann, and I just decided to keep it for my last list)
The people of Norwich, CT celebrated the bi-centennial anniversary of their city’s settlement September 7th and 8th in 1859. To mark the occasion, the publishers of the local newspapers printed a hymn on brown paper to be sung during the festivities. The paper, measuring 25cm by 16cm, is unremarkable except for a statement at the bottom […]
I suppose you could say that every year is a year of important anniversaries. Every year in April, for example, I have a quiet drink to Francesca Woodman:
for no other reason than that remembering is kind of what we’re here for. We come from memories of one place and progress into memories of another.
This year is obviously and manifestly dominated by William Shakespeare [1564-1616], a man who basically could turn up and introduce himself thus: “Darlings, how do you do? I’m William Shakespeare and I AM literature!”
I mean if anyone were going to it would be him…he’s kind of a big deal.
I am, however, unfortunately me, so my frothing joy of this year is not that Shakespeare died four centuries ago…but that 200 years ago, in the gloomy depths of The Year Without A Summer, a supremely damaged collection of literary hipster geniuses all gathered together in the same rambling Italian villa and changed the landscape of literature. Admittedly they changed it to the kind of landscape where you think “The bastard GPS has really landed me in it this time…That does NOT look like a Travelodge.” but if you are looking for the perfect storm of death, sex, darkness and indeed dorkiness, not necessarily in that order…then 1816 at the Villa Diodati is the eye of that storm.
A recap is hardly necessary, but in view of the point of this post I’ll keep it brief:
Byron annoys everybody (especially his wife), mostly by having an affair with his half-sister which is tragic and dumb, and by no means the only example of those two states of being in this story. He has to ditch England and head for somewhere such behaviour is less frowned upon (apparently Norfolk wasn’t an option), he does this in fine Byronic “Check me out I’m an extremely complicated narcissistic shitlord.” style in a massive carriage accompanied by a 20 year old physician, hired at the last minute, called John William Polidori. There’s a bunch of other Byronites (Hobhouse etc.) that flit in and out en route as His Lordship progresses across Europe (“progresses” in this context being a word that should suggest a journey made up almost entirely of shagging everything that moved and fetishizing Napoleon), Polidori totters along in his wake with all the confidence of a baby horse on a skateboard and Europe loudly laments Byron’s lusty, sexy darkness whilst simultaneously bending over a lot and fluttering its eyelashes. Byron, Polidori, possibly a couple of STD’s and certainly a hangover, arrive in Italy around April. Byron meets Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who invented hipster before it was popular, and the two of them fall into an epic poet-bro swoon. Polidori is jealous, no-one cares. Byron rents the Villa Diodati in June, Shelley moves in round the corner with Mary “Jesus, who are these buffoons?” Godwin soon to be Shelley.
Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister arrives so that she can be traumatised whilst playing the role of “Byron’s Unfortunate Ex #632”. Polidori is jealous, nobody cares. Everybody gets drunk and falls in a heap…it’s cold and dark and gloomy because volcano, they stay in and amuse themselves by writing ghost stories. History is made, tragedy ensues, The Sisters of Mercy can happen.
Mary Shelley, coincidentally the only person present who is not a demented, flailing freak-show, is also the only one to arrive home wits intact, although the same could not be said for her heart.
The purpose of this comparatively bland recap is to point out to all you who have any interest that the theme of this year’s London Antiquarian Book Fair is this very occasion, what led up to it and what spilled forth from it. There will be lectures and guided tours…one of them by me…and you will be able to see a lot of delicious bits and pieces related to the sprawly gothic and indeed all the other chaotically beautiful things that normally show up at this most transcendent of bibliophilic events. So there. If anyone needs tickets, I have many, if anyone has questions, I have answers. I am very much looking forward to it, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing you all there.
I should probably just reblog this entire site:
A splendid read:
There was panic on the streets of London in 1760, and the city’s newspapers weren’t helping the situation. Hundreds of column inches, for week upon week, were full of terrifying reports abou…