There are certain days when it occurs to me that my job is, essentially, a privilege. In 18 years as a bookseller I have been fortunate enough to see some wondrous books. A signed Galileo first edition, a massive album of delicate water-colours of rare Indian plants from the 19th century faithfully reproduced on hand made paper that smelled tantalizingly of exotic spices, a previously unknown first edition of Wilde’s Duchess of Padua inscribed at length to an extremely handsome young actor. Roderick Murchison’s first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species complete with whiny, petulant annotations.
I also read William Hope Hodgson’s own, annotated copy of The Boats of The Glen Carrig on my lunch hour once. Which was nice.
I’ve crawled on my hands and knees through half-flooded cellars in Highgate, burrowed like a goatee-d rat through the stock of various auction houses that weren’t so much places of business as 17th century plague pits with signage, and encountered a significant number of people who lacked only a wooden leg, a parrot and a song involving rum to be fully qualified for a spot at Execution Dock.
Obviously the rare book trade produces more than its fair share of ugly, petty and irritating (you know who you are, and so does everyone else), but on the whole it is a job that succeeds in being far, far more than the sum of its parts, an endeavor in which I will never truly succeed but where the vain attempt to understand the significance of the things I handle is by far the worthier part.
Nobody does this for the money. I personally am only in it for the booze and the girls, but there are others out there with far nobler reasons.
Right, that was suitably self-important! This, dearly beloved, this, my joyous morsels, is a rare book:
WOOLF, Virginia. [BELL, Vanessa; WOOLF, Leonard.] Publication I: Two Stories. Contains “Two Jews” by L.S. Woolf and “The Mark on The Wall.” by Virginia Woolf.
London, Richmond: Hogarth Press. 1917 [37976 ]
First Edition. 8vo. 31pp. One of only one hundred and fifty copies. Publisher’s blue Japanese paper wraps (the binding materials for this first Hogarth Press publication were famously random and erratic; more frequently seen in patterned paper wraps, this particular binding is a coarsely cut blue woven paper overprinted in black).
Sunned and slightly discoloured to spine area. Strong and very attractive. Old paper tape repair to a virtually non existent crack in the paper backing to the inside front cover. Illustrated with woodcuts by Dora Carrington. Light spotting to front flyleaf. Internally clean and bright. Entirely hand produced by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Hogarth House in Richmond it is clearly a fledgling production, varying depths of type and slightly wonky woodcuts add to the charm of this important object rather than detracting from it. This copy is signed by Vanessa Bell to the front free endpaper and is thought to be one of her copies, it is accompanied by a typewritten note attesting to her ownership and to the fact that it was submitted to auction by Clive Bell in December 1962 and there purchased. It is also accompanied by a typewritten letter addressed to Clive Bell (in 1920) from a Berlin magazine editor (Paul Westheim of Das Kunstblatt) thanking him for his submission of a piece on the artist Duncan Grant (lover of Vanessa Bell, and father of Angelica Bell who later married David Garnett who was present at her birth and just proclaimed he was going to marry her; because that’s how the Bloomsbury Group rolled) and requesting some photographs to accompany another article. Ridiculously rare in any condition, this is a publication that heralded the appearance of one of the most important and influential creative collaborations of the 20th century. The Hogarth Press had begun production.
Prolific is one word that could be applied to what is referred to as The Bloomsbury Group. At its informal height it comprised such luminaries as Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Adrian Stephen and Duncan Grant, as well as Virginia and Leonard, Vanessa and Clive Bell and a number of other satellites who occasionally became stars, John Maynard Keynes being one that wouldn’t necessarily spring easily to mind. People that were strongly linked to Bloomsbury without actually being accepted as members (it was primarily a collection of close friends and intellectual and/or sexual partners united by a kind of mutual enjoyment of each other rather than a distinctly artistic league) include T.S. Eliot and Vita Sackville-West, who despite having a protracted love affair with Virginia Woolf was never really accepted as a Bloomsbury member.
It might sound somewhat flippant (shock! I’ll be fitting in superficial any minute now) but possibly their greatest achievement was that despite their interpersonal relationships being so tortuously complicated, not one of them actually murdered, hated or relentlessly abused any of the others. One of my favourite descriptions is “They lived in squares, but loved in triangles.” which simultaneously encompasses both the cliquey geographical, social and sexual aspects of their lives.
As a group they produced some wonderful “art”, love them or loathe them you cannot deny the importance of “Orlando” or “Mrs. Dalloway”, Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” or Forster’s “Howard’s End”. They began as a kind of “Occupy Brideshead” group reacting to the stifling post-Victorian social and artistic landscape of flag waving, jingoistic nationalism, much preferring an individualistic, “small-unit” lifestyle emphasising the personal over the social, for example the importance of the personal concept of love over the social concept of monogamy (told you I’d get superficial).
In the beginning as an artistic and social endeavor this is going to work quite well, there’s enthusiasm, intelligence, attraction feeding off attraction, a lack of social stricture and stigma and a youthful verve.
(Although I’m not sure Leonard Woolf was ever young, he was born wearing tweed and looking like a badly built marionette with rickets)
In the end however all such exploits seem to naturally devolve from new ways of living to old ways of hiding. In the stunned and traumatised aftermath of the Great War, there was definite traction for a group of people espousing what might have appeared as a new aesthetic and social vision, after all the old ways clearly weren’t working any more. Ultimately though their detachment would be seen as elitist superiority, their revolutionary concepts re-hashed selfishness at a time when everybody needed to pull together and and their adherence to their bizarre mannerisms (little more than private jokes that after a while grate upon anyone who isn’t in the know) came to be seen as little more than pretentious, self congratulatory poncing about.
In addition they had to contend with harsh realities in a way that is guaranteed to weaken anyone’s artistic resolve. Gravity gets everyone; Julian Bell was killed in the Spanish Civil War, Lytton Strachey died, Dora Carrington shot herself and Virginia Woolf eventually lost her lifelong struggle with mental illness. The 1930’s bought the growing shadow of doom over Europe, giving rise to new groups of writers, critics and artists who felt that gritty realism was the order of the day, and the foppish whiny meanderings of their predecessors were nothing more than elitist, masturbatory self congratulation.
It wouldn’t be entirely stupid (I aspire to not being entirely stupid) to say that any aspiration towards a more civilized, individualistic and tolerant way of life is to be applauded and appreciated, but it also probably has to be pointed out that when your response to the growth of the Third Reich and the lengthening shadow of fascistic genocide is to put on a velvet smoking jacket, pour yourself some sherry and murmur “How dreadfully un-civilized.”…that’s a Darwin Award waiting to happen.
Perhaps the most telling commentary was that of John Maynard Keynes, who became Britain’s best known economist, who commented regretfully and poignantly upon his time with the Bloomsbury group:
“We completely misunderstood human nature, especially our own.”
They produced some great literature though, and in my world that is of great, great worth.