WILLIAM BECKFORD’S correspondence with his bookseller George Clarke is a fascinating and revealing record both of Beckford’s obsessional collecting and of the London book trade of the 1830s. The letters, with three volumes of late nineteenth-century transcripts of them, survive at the Beinecke library. They consist of some 359 letters from the five years from 1830 (when Clarke took over from his father William Clarke) to 1834, the year before Clarke descended into bankruptcy. Beckford used Clarke to negotiate terms with Richard Bentley for the publication of his well-received Italy; with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834), and in abortive negotiations for the publication of the ‘Episodes’ of Vathek—but principally he used him to supply books, bidding at auction, buying from booksellers, entreating publishers to provide the finest proof copies of any engravings for new publications, and dealing with the binders that Beckford used to dress his acquisitions in chaste morocco or Russia, displaying on their spines the heraldic ornaments of the Hamilton cinquefoil and Latimer cross—the books to be read and in many cases annotated with his often acerbic comments. But this bald summary gives no sense of the claustrophobic, insistent, compulsive nature of the sometimes daily correspondence, for Beckford was both the best and worst of customers: the best in his ceaseless acquisition of more books and his readiness to pay his bills, but the worst in his over-bearing demands, his hyper-criticism, and almost paranoid fixation that he was competing with a cabal of hostile bookdealers and collectors determined to frustrate his wishes. Take as an example the sale of the first two parts of the collection of the Hanrott collection in 1833. Beckford did not attend the view or the sale but bombarded Clarke with almost daily instructions and admonitions; he also did not give specific bids, so enabling him to criticize Clarke after the event for bidding too little or too much. He claimed to be aghast at the opposition conspiring against him—‘This bids foul to be a vile, extortionary, juggling sale, but unfortunately for my pocket, it contains, perhaps, more articles expressly & directly in my way than any collection which has been offered these many years …’—and urged Clarke to bid up lots and then drop them so the opposition overpaid for them. When books purchased were delivered to him at Lansdowne Crescent in Bath they were as likely as not to disappoint: ‘I cannot say that upon scrutinizing the books last received, I am much enchanted with them. Not above 2 or 3 are right entirely worthy to enter here… . It is evident that you are made [to] pay monstrously dear for every thing, hardly without any exception.’ And when a particularly coveted treasure eluded him, such as the Emblemata Varia, a lot consisting of one hundred drawings on vellum, Clarke was not spared his wrath: ‘Good God! Giving up 100 drawings, if beautifully finished, so very contentedly without a serious struggle with such [a] bustling impudent opponent as Mr. Bohn, passes my comprehension—a book so peculiarly calculated to suit my collection! … 100 nicely executed drawings given up to Bohn for 5.10—for 5.10 to Bohn! to Bohn for 5.10! Grant me patience gracious heaven. 100 drawings to Bohn for 5.10!! to Bohn! to Bohn! I shall never recover this stroke—it is worse than the palsy.’ There may well be an element of self-parody in such explosions, but that may not have been apparent to Clarke. Apart from the triumphs and frustrations of auctions, Clarke was heavily engaged in trying to satisfy the most demanding standards expected by Beckford of his book binders, in these years principally ‘the Angel’ Charles Lewis, and ‘the Beast’ Charles Smith—Beckford gave nicknames to various of the characters mentioned in the correspondence, such as Sir Richard Colt Hoare (‘Sir Coal Hole’), and that engaging recorder of 1820s English Society, Prince Pückler-Muskau, who was promptly transformed into Prince Macaw: ‘bless his name, it reminds me of my deceased parrot’. A binding that did not satisfy him would be rejected and if necessary returned to the binder to be stripped and re-bound. On 2 April 1833 Clarke sent him some newly bound books which ‘I hope will please. The beast has avoided all superfluous gilding & tooling.’ He was swiftly disabused: the very next day Beckford returned four of them as ‘insupportable. I make haste to return them with my warmest execrations. The Beast has neither taste nor eye.’ He was equally demanding in his insistence that even minor modern books had to have the finest proofs of their illustrations: ‘I loathe, abominate, & cannot endure bad impress[ions] even of the most trifling vignettes.’ The editing of this material creates serious problems with which Mr Gemmett has had to deal. Beckford’s hand is small and hurried and often difficult to decipher, but even that is nothing to the difficulty of deciphering the innumerable names and book titles which form the staple of the correspondence. Gemmett has had to consult the auction catalogues referred to, but many of the references to new publications or items in bookseller’s catalogues are slight and passing, requiring much detective work: the number that Gemmett has pinned down in over 1,100 endnotes is very impressive indeed. The publication history of the letters is not uncomplicated. Gemmett’s edition was originally published in 2000, handsomely designed by Humphrey Stone and produced by Michael Russell, and is now out of print. However, as was pointed out by Arnold Hunt in a harsh but not fair review in The Book Collector of Spring 2002, there were problems of transcription of which previous reviewers (including the current reviewer) were unaware: Beckford’s insistent use of dashes and underlining, which provides so much of the energy and variety of his style, was manicured away as commas and full stops—Beckford generally finished each sentence with a dash before moving breathlessly on to the next—and there were errors of transcription of the text, of which Hunt set out examples at length. Gemmett has now produced this revised edition, which he states is ‘based on the desire to make this important correspondence readily available again’, but he also confirms that he has taken the opportunity to collate the text against the original manuscripts to correct any errors that occurred in the first edition, and indeed the errors pointed out by Hunt are duly corrected. Furthermore, Beckford’s characteristic dashes and underlining (here rendered by italics) are largely reinstated, though some dashes in Beckford’s hectic and difficult script are still replaced with commas and, particularly, with full stops. Inevitably in a collection of some 383 letters a few errors are still apparent. For example, on page 32 the engraver Finden appears as Fiinden; on page 69 ‘than’ appears as ‘then’ in ‘more dashingly in the orig[inal] than …’, and ‘Do note that I have been’ is transcribed as ‘Do not [you know] that I have been’. On page 84 there is an example of the treacherous waters the editor must negotiate in dealing with Beckford’s dashes—by omitting the second dash in ‘Barrow is a good book, & I suppose a good copy—no doubt—with the Williams arms’, the meaning is changed so the ‘no doubt’ relates to the presence of the arms rather than the quality of the copy. In the letter from the long-suffering Clarke to Beckford on page 127 ‘I cannot day’ should surely read ‘I cannot say’, on page 149 ‘the copy however went herewith’ should read ‘the copy however sent herewith’, and on page 188 ‘visiting’ is rendered as ‘visitting’. However, given the nature of Beckford’s scrambled hand and individualistic use of punctuation, it is hard to know whether to sympathize more with the hapless Clarke, assaulted with this barrage of demanding letters, or the editor whose thankless task it was to transcribe such a dense mass of material. The new edition, with its glossy paper and cramped margins, cannot compete with the elegance of the original, and its fifty-two pages of endnotes are certainly less convenient to use than the notes at the end of each letter in the previous edition. But despite a few lingering errors it offers a corrected text of a fascinating correspondence, sixteen pages of colour illustrations, and an additional appendix reprinting the account of Beckford’s library from Clarke’s father’s Repertorium Bibliographicum (1819). It is a most useful addition to Beckford and book trade studies. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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