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…
The New York Shadow Fairs take place concurrently with the main Armory Fair every year.
Admittedly it sounds like they should be taking place concurrently with some sort of imminent apocalypse from which we can only saved by borderline perfect teenagers who can see into other dimensions…but that only happened that one time, couple of years back, no big deal.
They are colloquially known as the Getman and The Flamingo in deference (at least I think it’s deference) to their respective organisers. This year I was at the Getman, at St Ignatius Loyola up at 980 Park Avenue, less than a mile from the Armory and serviced by a regular shuttle bus, no less. The Flamingo fair is across the street from the Armory at the church of St. Vincent Ferrer; so we’ve got Jesuits versus Dominicans in the battle of ecclesiastical architecture and they are both doing very well..
I like both fairs, I have bought well at both in the past and mostly the competition between the two is fairly friendly. I have one minor issue with the promotional material for the Flamingo fair though…just saying…if you look at their flyers and posters there’s a monochrome skyline of New York city, which is all well and good until you look slightly closer and realise that the clipart skyline is actually a forest of gun barrels, which is either deliberate, and wrong on a number of levels, or accidental, and thus not terribly impressive either.
There’s a peculiar phenomenon with shadow fairs in general; the PBFA ILEC fair in London that runs concurrently with Olympia would be a good example of this; they are often where all the surprises are. The main fairs have the weighed and measured, lovingly selected and carefully catalogued crown jewels of the book world sitting there like carefully polished fruit in a Whole Foods. The shadow fairs are a Farmer’s Market, big piles of stuff, some of it a bit grubby and misshapen, some of it thrown on a truck the night before and carried straight from the source. There’s a lot less specialisation, the dealers are as eclectic as their stock and frequently just as eccentric. It’s a welcome contrast to the polished layout of the main fair, carefully spotlit cabinets give way to great, glorious heaps of ephemeral oddity and enormous flip racks of everything from daguerreotypes to carnival tickets, to flyers from a Klan Rally. It’s one of the things that emphasises the enormous diversity of the rare book trade and how much the perceived upper end desperately needs the input and participation of the people it occasionally and rather precipitately considers lower down the pecking order. That “lower end” of the pecking order produces some insanely high quality material.
There was the polished, beautifully bound loveliness of First Folio, always immaculate and adorable. Amir Naghib was present…committing the supremely courageous act of doing TWO fairs at the same time; this is the type of brave impetuosity normally associated with invading Russia in the winter, or being LGBT in North Carolina. Kara Accettola of Little Sages had some fabulously diverse and intriguing stuff from 19th century naval exploration to mimeo’d erotica and all points between. I picked up a hefty wodge of circus related material and a couple of other bits and pieces and roundly swore at the Kahn/Schwenk Axis of Opportunity for laying hands on the deliriously seditionary (not to mention beautifully bound) Chevalier D’Eon before I could. Janine Veazue was there indispensably from the start helping set up the booth I was sharing with none other than Abby Schoolman. It was a strangely workable contrast; my random collection of bits and bobs ranging from an inscribed first of Moonfleet to a magic lantern show of Peter Pan and a rather beautifully coloured engraving of a mandrake root; and her immaculately presented and described fine art bindings, each one unique, intriguing and challenging. Lord knows that people thought, probably that she’d been given her booth in a rather sadistic lottery.
With the multiplying glories and virtues of the book trade come its besetting sins:
“I’m not talking to you! I’m talking to the guy in charge!” Is the overly loud, finger jabbing rejection directed at my female colleague who, a native New Yorker, is very reasonably attempting to help the man in question solve his parking and setup problems.
First off, looming, finger jabby behaviour and shouting at women who are half your height and, conservatively, a quarter of your weight are the marks of a weapons grade twat, stop it. Secondly, if the person you are referring to as “the guy in charge!” is ME, you are going to be helpfully and very politely given directions to park next to the nearest fire hydrant, and gradually over the course of the fair you’re going to spend a lot of time looking for your chair, your rubbish bin, and any other bric a brac, the absence of which is going to irritate you. You’re also a blithering idiot.
As a trade incorporating both highly professional, motivated women and men, and the legion of young enthusiastic apprentices, interns and assistants who accompany them, the rare book trade definitely isn’t the most aggressively sexist and misogynistic one out there; it’s increasingly held up and best represented by female booksellers.
This manifest velocity will only increase, the majority of students coming through YABS, for example, and subsequently making a noise in the trade, are women.
It has its moments however, and although I am reasonably certain that they will become fewer and further between as the blisteringly smart (and considerably more socially aware) new crew establish themselves, it’s really a case where any is too many.
If there’s a woman on a book fair booth she’s there to sell books to you…she’s not decoration, eye-candy or there because there’s a diversity quota. I can guarantee that regardless of how much ink she has, what colour her hair is or how she is dressed, she knows her shit.
Just experiment with joining the 21st Century by asking her a question or two before gesturing at her male colleague and saying “That’s ok, I’ll wait for the book guy.” The first thing you’re going to learn is that she probably has an MA or two from Princeton or Oxford and could beat you up and down the room with whatever you consider your area of speciality, the second is that she’s probably too polite and professional to do so, and the third is that you are the one who needs to up their game, not the other way around.
Also, for any who are wondering, the above example of galactic crassness is the most often repeated comment directed at some of my female colleagues, and I swear one of the few actually repeatable ones. I know this, because I did a survey.
Admittedly I’m kind of on the other end of the spectrum; I was having a conversation about something I’m supposed to be good at with a female colleague recently and half way through I realised, with a humbling mixture of shame and gratitude, that she was deliberately simplifying concepts and details that she was very keenly aware I knew far less about than her.
This is rather obviously not something that reflects well on me, but hey, that material is thin on the ground these days…basically there is no universe in which she should feel she has to do that.
I wonder about her interior dialogue throughout the last two decades or so: “How come I know this and you don’t, despite you being the guy with the big sign saying this is YOUR thing and the status to back it up?” endlessly repeated through a myriad of dispiriting professional encounters.
I’m sure there’s a number of my male colleagues who have refrained from pointing out that I’m a muppet…but I can assure you that number is smaller, and have the bruises to prove it.
That’s what institutionalised sexism basically ends up with; you can’t teach and you can’t learn, because you’ve abandoned your common ground.
That PSA was brought to you by Jonathan’s understanding that he misspent his youth and should have paid attention in school.
Next…The build up to Olympia Antiquarian Book Fair will be a blizzard of goth. In the meantime…Retaliate first.