Wednesday 13 April 2011

Collecting Eighteenth Century Literature

Over lunch yesterday I read Carl Spadoni's Collecting Eighteenth-Century English Novels in the Twenty-First Century, which was published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction in 2002 (vol. 14, no. 3). Carl gets a mention in the Acknowledgements to my Bibliography for the help he offered me during my lightning tour of North America in the summer of 1995.

He begins with an amusing anecdote about an novel by Elizabeth Blower that he was offered, which McMaster didn't have. He uses it is a way of introducing the subject of the astonishing rarity of eighteenth-century novels in general, and particularly the works of "minor" writers.

As a rare book librarian, he is particularly interested in what this means to librarians in terms of collection development: the need to move beyond high-spot collecting to preserve works which—despite microfilms, scanning projects etc—remain on the brink of annihilation. But also, the need to collect writers in depth. As a modest collector of eighteenth-century literature, particularly women writers, and one particular writer in depth (Haywood obviously), this was music to my ears!

Carl reminds his readers that McMaster's holdings in the eighteenth century "particularly with respect to novels, was, and continues to be, strong, the largest of its kind in Canada and one of the best in North America": similar to Monash in fact. The ESTC code-finder I mentioned in my last post provides a count of ESTC records as well as providing ESTC codes. A search for Australian libraries reveals that the top ten institutions (those with more than one thousand ESTC items) are:

1. University of Sydney Library (NU) 7511
2. National Library of Australia (ANL) 7452
3. Monash University (VMoU) 4837
4. State Library of Victoria (VSL) 4060
5. State Library of SA (SSL) 2873
6. University of Adelaide (SUA) 2597
7. University of Melbourne (VU) 2294
8. State Library of NSW, Rare Books (NSL-RB) 1199
9. Private collection, SA (PC-S) 1171
10. State Library of NSW (NSL) 1008

Of course, if you combine NSL with NSL-M etc you get a slightly different top ten:

1. University of Sydney Library (NU) [combined] 7515
2. National Library of Australia (ANL) 7452
3. Monash University (VMoU) 4837
4. State Library of Victoria (VSL) 4060
5. University of Melbourne [combined] 2900
6. State Library of SA (SSL) 2873
7. University of Adelaide (SUA) 2597
8. State Library of NSW (NSL) [combined] 2478
9. Private collection, SA 1171
10. University of Queensland 979

One third of the 303 Australian ESTC codes are recorded as holding nothing (!), a further one third have five or fewer listings, only about one tenth have one hundred or more works. Number 9 is a private collection in South Australia, which is certainly impressive, but it puts all institutional libraries with fewer than one thousand items in the shade (sorry QU: you're out).

* * * * *

Returning to Carl's article, although these ESTC holdings include all pre-1800 books, you can see that the Monash holdings are "strong" and one of the largest of its kind in Australia. So his reflections on collection development seem particularly apt. I will quote them as length:

As James Raven has rightly pointed out, the dominance of best-selling authors "inevitably introduces distortion into the history of the early period of the 'rise of the novel.''' Practically all discussion about collecting eighteenth-century novels focuses on the works of major authors … Competition for first editions of this kind will always be fierce … [but] a research library with an eighteenth-century collection will want to own not just first editions of major novelists but necessarily later editions as well. Scholars have learned the hard lesson that not all texts of a work are the same and even within an edition there are often textual variants. … While it may not be possible in practical terms to collect all major novelists in depth, certainly an attempt should be made to collect a few major authors in this way so that editions, issues, and reprintings of an author's works are housed in one institution.

Research libraries such as McMaster University … have a responsibility to collect these treasured resources before they disappear altogether from the antiquarian market. Under ordinary circumstances, and especially with an eye on budgetary constraints, one might be inclined to take a more measured approach to collecting eighteenth-century fiction so that one eventually acquires a collection representative of a variety of different narrative techniques … Indeed, one could push the point further by arguing that only the best novels from each sub-type should be collected … But this approach overlooks the dire fact that to a great extent we are in a race against time with diminishing resources to build collections.

Unless a library already has a core collection of good eighteenth-century novels and is prepared to add to it vigilantly on an individual basis, it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to build a great collection of this kind. While it is certainly true that there is still an abundance of good eighteenth-century books for sale, works of fiction appear much less frequently in antiquarian catalogues in comparison to other genres of literature such as poetry and drama. Antiquarian dealers are increasingly aware of the scarcity of eighteenth-century novels. In their catalogue descriptions they not only provide commentary about the novelist and the work, they also state the number of known copies available and where they are located. Scarcity itself has driven up all prices regardless of the stature of the author or the merit of the novel.

So, any library not already in the top half-dozen in Australia for this sort of material can probably forget building a great collection, and those that are in the top half-dozen need to "add to it vigilantly" now while the relative "abundance of good eighteenth-century books" persists.

* * * * *

As a collector, what stands out for me is that, since "practically all discussion about collecting eighteenth-century novels" focused on the works of major, male authors, there was an opportunity (until 2002 and to a much more limited extent now) to build a collection on a few major authors in depth, while collecting other, minor, works "before they disappear altogether from the antiquarian market".

In the last week I have received a few catalogues and found another online that have hammered home the "Time is—time was—time's past"-message. Bauman Rare Books have a handful of Shakespeare Quartos (including a 1639 Henry IV Part 1 for $185,000). Among the items listed is a book that I put on a wants list in 1984: the $20,000 price tag suggests that "time's past" (i.e., it is time to accept that I will never be able to afford) Cornelius Agrippa's Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy of 1655.

Bauman's cater to high-point collectors with deep pockets. They regularly have works from the eighteenth century, but these are mostly books of historical importance, rather than high-point eighteenth-century literature. However, they do have quite a bit of high-point seventeenth-century literature. Clearly, we have not quite reached the point where eighteenth-century literature in general is rare, and the high-point items are impossibly rare, as we have for seventeenth-century literature (almost all seventeenth-century books, let alone one in decent/complete condition, are quite rare). This rarity is a necessary pre-condition for the inventive prices—$20,000 for Agrippa's Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy—that Bauman's specialise in. After all, they can only really get away with this such prices when they are the only dealers carrying the books they are selling

Although Bauman's do not deal much in eighteenth-century literature, others do, and the stellar prices they ask are clearly not that far away. And a perfect example of this is a set of Haywood's Invisible Spy that has been circulating among dealers for four years!

The set turned up in March 2007 at Gorringes, an auction house in Lewes, East Sussex. The estimate was £150–200; I bid £420, but it went for £700 to James Burmester; who listed it in his Catalogue 75 in July 2009 for £1750. It was bought by David Brass Rare Books, who listed it at US$8,500. It hasn't sold. After all, it isn't rare and it isn't particularly important to a Haywood collector, let alone a collector of eighteenth-century literature. Betsy Thoughtless is important, though common; Love in Excess is important and rare as hen's teeth. But Invisible Spy?

I am not sure whether the under-bidder at Gorringes was also a dealer, but I do know that the value (the price at which a copy will actually sell to a collector/library) is less than the £700 paid by James. Most likely, it is £420, the amount I offered, since I suspect I was and remain the only collector in the market. I subsequently got a copy for USD125—one 68th of the price David Brass is asking.

The importance of David Brass's inventive price is that it is an indication that major authors of the eighteenth century are beginning to attract the attention of speculative dealers. Carl's message, that "time is" for those libraries and collectors who have already made a start on eighteenth-century literature to add to their collections "vigilantly" now while they can. Once Bauman-prices rule, we can give up and start on something else.

**A final note: another way of arranging the top ten is by state: ACT (14,967), Victoria (11,797), SA (6641), NSW (2478), QLD (979). Who'd have thought that NSW was so far behind the rest of Australia?!

[UPDATE 2023.03.24—I have updated the URL for the ESTC code-finder; see here for my "Eighteenth-Century Books in Australian Libraries, revisited"]

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