What a fun romp through the history of Horace Walpole’s library! I knew Walpole from his work The Castle of Otranto, the first gothic novel. I also have a strong passion for book porn, and this volume fit the bill.
This book is based on the 1957 Sandars Lectures by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, given at the University of Cambridge. The Readership in Bibliography is a fantastic idea, created with a £2,000 bequest from Samuel Sandars. He created an appointed position to Cambridge that funded a person to study bibliography and to deliver one or more lectures a year on “the subjects of Bibliography, Paleography, Typography, Bookbinding, Book Illustration, the science of Books and Manuscripts and the Arts relating thereto” (p. ix).
Lewis gave three lectures. The first focused on the books in Walpole’s library. What they were, where he got some of them and where they were physically placed within his library. The second lecture covered how Walpole read and used these books. The final lecture dealt with the 1842 sale of the library and what became of some of the volumes. This sounds like it could be boring or only for hardcore bibliophiles, but Lewis’s talks draw one in with anecdotes, contemporary gossip, links to history and persons, etc.
Speaking of the physical library, Lewis writes that “… books that have stood unmoved for years acquire a presumptive right to their place on the shelves, which their owner violates at his own peril” (p. 19). This is something I can relate to, although I don’t have quite the size of library that Walpole had. In my opinion, books must be more than pieces of art, they must be used. Walpole believed that, his was a working library. But, they are also living beings and they have their places where they, and we as readers, find them best suited to be.
In discussing the variety and specifics of the books that Walpole amassed, Lewis makes a great point: “Close as we may feel ourselves to be to the eighteenth century, merely reading the names of these books and authors, which were the standard works in all eighteenth-century libraries of any pretension, makes us realize how much we have not looked at that was common knowledge to the well-read man of that day” (p. 33). So many books have been lost, not physically, but to the tastes of readers and reviewers. Several of the volumes I have in my own library aren’t popularly read or even remembered. But, they were important at one time, or at least popular, and reading them now helps me to connect to the past. My understanding of the Gothic and Romantic movements has grown as I’ve slowly moved outside the modern canon of those genres.
As I said, Lewis throws little things into his lectures that make them fun. He notes the sleaziness of some booksellers, who soaked off prized Walpole book plates from poor condition books and attached them to other volumes to pass off as from his original library (p. 56). He also mentions how even though some books from the original library have been rebacked or rebound, some still have their press-marks (notation as to where they belonged physically in the library) and book plates underneath (p. 60). They may be lurking on a shelf near you.
I love that Lewis covers the “pedigree” of Walpole’s volumes, referred to as their provenance. How he acquired them, what he did with them and what became of them. Some books are valuable because they are rare or because they are extremely old. Others are valuable due to who owned them or their history. I like knowing that a book I have came from somewhere, whether that somewhere is considered important or not. It makes the volume more three-dimensional, more whole. From what Lewis writes, Walpole felt the same way, as do many collectors and bibliographers. Speaking of that, Lewis relates a fun history of two books that Walpole bought in the 1730s that were sold together, then separated and eventually brought back together at the time of the lectures, more than 200 years later (p. 63)!
Overall, a fantastically entertaining, informative and fun read. I highly recommend it.