Some time ago my cousin passed along to me the set of Dickens which had belonged to his mother – my aunt.
This particular set is The Fireside Dickens, Complete Edition in Twenty-Two Volumes, with Illustrations by Cruikshank, ‘Phiz,’ &c. This collection was published by Chapman & Hall, London; and Henry Frowde. The books were printed around 1905 by Horace Hart of the University Press, Oxford.
Who was the original owner of this collection I wonder?
I know that grandfather John Clark (my mother and aunt’s dad), was born in Cumbria England in 1865 and well-educated. Best I can figure, he came to the colony as a remittance man – “an emigrant supported or assisted by payments of money from home” – on the expectation that he stay away (the proverbial “and never darken our door again!”).
I know for sure he was a lover of Dickens, because I have a copy of Our Mutual Friend, which he gave to my mother in 1934 for her fifteenth birthday, in which he has written in perfect copperplate,
The cost of this little book was small indeed – yet I know, that you, my dear young daughter, will value it highly – and when you have read it, will perhaps think, as I do, that nothing the Great Master of our English literature ever wrote is finer than ‘Our Mutual Friend’.
So here’s a question. If the family were already in possession of a full set of Dickens by 1934, why would he buy another for my mum?
One answer is that they were not living as a family unit. In fact, when my mum was fifteen, she and my five-years-older aunt were living in a room in Woolloomooloo without either parent in situ.
The more likely answer is that they did not own this set at the time. Money was so tight in the family that I doubt Grandfather John Clark would have had them, and certainly not my Aunt Myra who was trying to bring up her baby sister in a single room with a primus stove.
So I went digging further for an answer . . .
Several of the volumes have dedications . . .
There are two dated 1/11/07: One says “To my dear husband with best love“, and the other – in the same writing – “Fondest love from Phoebe“. Another volume in different writing is inscribed, “With Rosie’s best love to Dad, Nov 1st, 1907“, and then yet another with the same date and hand, “with love & best wishes for many returns, from Rosie“.
So the detective in me surmises that Phoebe and Rosie were mother and daughter, and the lucky male recipient born on the 1st November scored four volumes that birthday of 1907.
That’s a fairly hefty investment for what was presumably a working-class family judging by the scratchy ink and hand-writing, so I’m guessing that even that early in the century they were bought second-hand.
Then on 9/9/08 Phoebe gifts another nine volumes “with fondest love from Phoebe“. She doesn’t says who she is giving her love to, so let’s make a massive assumption and run with the 9th September being Rosie’s birthday. Except why would she refer to herself as Phoebe and not mother? Perhaps she was a step-mother? Or perhaps I’ve made the entirely wrong assumptions?
Leaving that conundrum aside, I’ve mentally allocated 13 volumes as belonging to this family group.
Eight of the volumes have no dedication, so perhaps were never in the hands of this ‘dedicated’ family.
The last one has a different person’s name, together with their suburb, but no date. Checking the electoral records, I found the owner from 1930 onwards. At the outset, she is a 34 year old typiste, living at home with mum and dad. By 1949 she is still single and still a typiste, but living at the address on her own. Then I lose her.
Two of Phoebe’s 1908 books have been around. Sketches by Boz has a pencil inscription that I can’t make sense of. It looks like ‘Dietus emblem 7. Feb‘. Also on that same page, written at a different time in clear fountain pen, from Auntie 1938. I can’t marry this up with anyone. Grandfather John Clark died in 1937, so I guess that rules him out – for this book at least! And I can’t think of anyone in the family who had an Auntie in 1938.
Grandmother Florence Clark was almost thirty years her husband’s junior, in her mid-forties by 1938. Another of Phoebe’s 1908 books, A Tale of Two Cities, is inscribed, in pencil, with her trademark flamboyant “F” and the number X.A.1914. This, to the best of my knowledge, is the telephone number of a house I can place her in from 1941.
At this point of my research I do what I should have in the first place and ask my cousin what he knows. He “thinks” they were our grandmother’s, and then passed to my aunt. And then they came to him . . . and now to me. He also said my aunt loved them so much, that even when she went into a nursing home she always made sure she had at least one of the books with her, alternating the copies over the years.
My conclusion after this delving is that the set has come into our family through providential second-hand purchases – perhaps in full, but more likely assembled book by book. And knowing that grandmother died in 1956, then I can guess they have been with us for the last sixty years at least.
So, although this imprint was pitched in the lower price bracket – cardboard covers and thin paper – the set in its entirety is special. Special to our family as lovers of Dickens; special for the plethora of amazing illustrations; and special enough to invest in repair so that future generations of the family may also enjoy them.
So that is when I took the collection to Berkelouw Books in the Southern Highlands, for Leo Berkelouw to look them over. The Berkelouw family have been in books since 1812, and you can read more about their fascinating history here. That is also the source of the photo you see at left.
What a charming man! And what a professional group he has working with him. He gave me all the time in the world to rabbit on about my books, even though I wasn’t selling and even if I was they are not particularly valuable in comparison to other leather-bound sets of Dickens they have in their rare book section.
I had no hesitation in leaving the four volumes with the broken spines with him for repair by his specialist book-binder. When I went back to collect them, the work exceeded all my expectations. Even one page that had been slashed and crunched into little pieces has been ‘ironed’ out and re-assembled.
I am one happy little Vegemite, to coin a typically Australian phrase.
And if you would like to know where that comes from, this one minute clip enlightens.