Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Frances Zabel, pioneering bookseller, book reviewer, journalist

Mrs Frances Zabel (1868–1933) was the copyright holder (and, I assume, publisher) of the poem in my January post: “The Lender’s Library” (here). Curious about the poem, I found myself quickly becoming intrigued by both the author and publisher too.

I have now completed my post concerning the author (here). Typically, what was intended to be a short post about the publisher has grown well beyond what I had in mind, such that it now threatens to become a collaborative research project!

Rather than leave Mrs Zabel completely neglected until the results of that research can be published I thought that—as a placeholder, a teaser, and an International Women's Day celebration—I'd transcribe and reprint an interview with Zabel that was written by the late, great Zora Cross (1890–1964): Australian poet, best-selling novelist and journalist.

The Cross-Zabel interview was published in the Sydney Mail (22 January 1930): 29 (on Trove, here), and is reproduced below in its entirety.

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Australian Women Pioneers: In the Literary World

When the story of Australian literature is finally told it will not be complete without mention of that brave band of pioneers who blazed trails for others to follow.

IN this field the name of Mrs. Zabel, the first woman to establish a literary journal—the ‘F.Z. Review,’ in Perth, in 1904—must, be remembered. Her little paper, which she managed, wrote, and distributed herself, is a credit not only to Perth, but to Australia.
  Born in Victoria. Mrs. Zabel, who now conducts a library in Sydney, was one of the first women on the goldfields in Western Australia. But her heart had been given to books from childhood, and when she later settled in Perth she wrote book reviews for a local paper.
  At, that time, there was only one woman bookseller in Australia—Mrs. H. Champion, wife of the late H. H. Champion, the man who was the first, daring enough to publish one of George Bernard Shaw’s novels. Mrs. Champion was selling books in Melbourne.
  “All honour to Mrs. Champion,” Mrs. Zabel says, “for she was the woman pioneer of book-selling, which I believe is a woman’s business, not a man’s. A woman has the intuition to fit the book to the reader more readily than a man has.”
  Mrs. Zabel was the second woman bookseller in the Commonwealth, and she also began on a small scale. She began in Perth at the Book Lovers’ Library, and it was from there she published her unique and admirable newspaper. Nothing commercial seems to have entered into her scheme, for here in her journal are reviewed rare and foreign books, belles lettres, historical studies, essays, poetry, as well as the latest in fiction, showing that as a buyer of books she discriminated.
  One is struck by the ability Mrs. Zabel had for judging a book for posterity as well as the day. Thus, in her review of Marie Corelli’s work she never gave extravagant praise, as so many papers of the time did, even though, as recorded in the “F.Z. Review,” 43 tons of paper were used in the first edition of one of Miss Corelli’s popular books of the time. Mrs. Zabel did not trade in best-sellers.

ABOUT five years ago this interesting woman took over the Roycroft Library, which Miss Peacock established in Sydney over thirty years ago. A charming historical library, this!
  I asked Mrs, Zabel recently if she did not become tired of books, having had them for daily companions so long.
  “Not a bit,” she replied, just as enthusiastic over the new writers now as she was twenty years ago. “I was born to sell books, and I put in twenty years’ spade work before I came here. But isn't this beautiful? It has only just come in.”
  I admired the new Lily Yeats masterpiece of framed embroidery—a veritable Irish garden of flowers woven of bright threads, reminiscent of something out of faerie or the Land of Heart's Desire itself.
  “This is from a most beautiful and interesting women’s industry,” Mrs. Zabel explained, “conducted by Lily and Elizabeth Yeats, sisters of the famous W. B. Yeats—the Cuala Press and Industries in Dublin. Jack Yeats, a brother, does coloured woodcuts characteristic of Irish life; Elizabeth conducts the Press, and has produced lovely editions (highly prized by collectors) of W. B. Yeats. Lily attends to the needlecraft industry; she has taught, and employs, Irish peasant girls, and from Cuala comes exquisite scarves, traditional Irish cloaks, as well as pictures; and their white linen with colour design is seemingly out of fairyland. Mrs. Lane-Poole, their cousin, now in Canberra, was one of the designers. I must show you some of their illuminated manuscripts, rare and beautiful—done on a hand press, of course. There! Isn’t that something like one of the old Celtic vellums?”

TRAVEL has broadened Mrs. Zabel’s out look on all things, and it is her delight to go to the source, for the beautiful glass and pottery wares which she self up as a coloured background for her books.
  About four years ago she began to import curious and quaint and beautiful objects of art and pottery as well as books. She did not do this purposely to create an ideal atmosphere for her beloved books, but naturally it became that.
  Though she hides her writing identity under pen-names her pen is never idle, and it is a very graceful and charmingly witty one.
  Specialising as she does in limited editions, foreign plays and poetry, children’s books and the books that are not ephemeral, it is a delightful experience to wander amongst them with her for a while and listen to her as she discusses literature.
  Old boys of the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School will recall memories of Mrs. Zabel's son, whose untimely end abroad deprived Australia of one of her greatest geologists.

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