A Word or Two from Dickens

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 volumeswith 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.

Leo Berkelouw at the Berkelouw Book Barn, Bendooley, Berrima

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.




34 thoughts on “A Word or Two from Dickens

  1. Dear Gwendoline,
    you wouldn’t believe it, we have the same edition of Dicken’s work in our library.
    That’s always hard work to trace back the owners of books but interesting. You have done a great job.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your detective trail is fascinating even though I think I got lost along the way. But it makes me regret the number of times I have given away some of my books knowing now that they won’t be as loved as they were.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a sweet memory and post Gwen. After my parents died, I was left to sort through their belongings and found many old books that had passed between family members. My favorite is a book of Robert Frost poems with a lovely inscription inside. The written word will always be cherished, especially when the book has been in your family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed it. I can think of one grandchild who will have the capability to absorb Dickens. I doubt it will appeal to the others – but who knows? Tastes change as one matures.

      Robert Frost, methinks, will always be with us. If for no less reason than the number of times advertising manipulates “The Road Not Taken” 🙂
      What a lovely book to have in your family.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We’ve also go a family collection of Dickens books – currently in my brother’s bookcase – I’ve never looked at them! I’m not a lover of Dickens’ writing (is that sacrilege?). I’ll have to see which edition they are.
    I love inscriptions in old books – I have a first edition copy of J B Priestley’s Angel Pavement with this one:
    “To learn and gain that we may give, [and] love to serve and so be free, To give our all, nor count the cost, and find our wider selves in Thee” with Best Wishes from the Girls’ League at Lund Park September 1930.
    I suspect it was either a School Prize or given to a teacher as Lund Park was a Grammar School in Keighley, W. Yorkshire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am not sure myself whether I can still read Dickens. I guess I’ll find out over the coming years.

      I must say when I first got to Leeds in 1978 I was very surprised to find that only a short distance from the city one could relax in green fields and open spaces. My impression from reading Dickens was that everything up north would be grim and industrial. Of course, people did not have the money nor time to get out of the mill towns in the time he was writing of.

      What a lovely treasure you have from Priestley. I have a copy of his play Time and the Conways which is marked up in my grandmother’s hand – as she was doing a spot of radio acting at the time with her “thespian crowd”. Her mother came from Bradford. Whenever I am doing family history and the Priestley name intersects I am on alert in case there was a connection. A common surname of the area.

      I wonder if the Girls’ League was actually a football side? Playing in what is now Lund Park? The inscription sounds religious though, so as you say, probably connected with a teacher or student.


  5. That is a fine collection to have assembled 60 years ago and kept intact. As a writer you must be very happy and proud to have it in your family. Interesting research and written inscriptions proving to be very useful for future generations. I wonder how personal book collections are going to fare in our digital world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hard to imagine an eBook surviving whatever device it is loaded on don’t you think? On the other hand, entire books are now posted on the internet (even if they are not out of copyright, grrrrr) so they will be available to the reader – but not with the same personal connection.

      I wondered if you might have noticed the photo in the background – of a young girl? It is called Study in Brown and painted by Norman Carter. I did a similar dig around into its background to establish that the sitter is my great-aunt Lucy. I’m tempted to write a post on that, but I think it would be too convoluted. There were many steps and hours involved.


      • Oh wow – identifying a sitter that’s a relative and possibly adding context to the painting from a new or different social/familial viewpoint and then posting and the tagging info could be valuable to any art historian writing a monograph on Norman Carter or who is working on 20th century Australian artists more generally. Detailed context for paintings is nectar.

        eBooks – think they will evaporate in the early morning sun. Can’t see how personally annotated texts are going to survive.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well perhaps with your encouragement I will write such a post. It will by necessity be extremely detailed, so not too many will follow the trail. But!
          I have incorporated elements of the story into the manuscript I am writing. Unfortunately, like many other aspects – such as the detail of Victorian death and funeral – that story line may not survive the subsequent editing, given it is a novel and not a non-fiction work.


          • If it survives the edit or not I think the story/info is most definitely worth getting out there as they say. It might just provide an accurate source that collaborates a point, or even a whole theme, for somebody working on Norman Carter.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Food for thought Agnes. My research is from a purely amateur, and potentially biased, view. I got it to the point that the relevant curator was happy to include my information, but not “name” the sitter in their official records. Not sure how these things work in the art world.

            What happens if I insert a photo on the post? The image is subject to copyright. The NSW Art Gallery gave me a hi-res email copy for personal use only.

            I guess to be safe I should only include a link to the gallery’s website and leave it to the reader’s discretion as to whether they click through?

            Also, do you think anyone working on Norman Carter (is that likely?) would come across a random blog post as opposed to an official uni document? And if they did, would they lay any store in it?

            Isn’t it all a bit like trying to quote Wikipedia? Dismissed out of hand by the relevant professors?


          • Regarding the copyright issue I would probably provide a link to their website. Some museums and art galleries are more awkward than others and it’s not worth the fuss.
            If somebody is working on Norman Carter and, I can’t see why somebody at sometime shouldn’t be, then they may well have a proper dig around for extra info. You will have tagged your post so a search will find it and even if the curator didn’t want to name the sitter, a little bit of social detail as to possibilities adds to the context. Professors and curators et al are never keen to be challenged, but some young researcher may be trying to find something new to say (always hard in Art History) and putting forward a case to identify a sitter could be one way. I hope that helps. My old prof used to be unimpressed with Wikipedia, but thought the Internet in general could be a very valuable place to track down people and connections particularly for artists within living memory.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for this feedback and helping me to decide what to do about the image. I feel you have inspired me to write a post. Exactly how to do that succinctly I will mull over for a while.

            And in complete contrast, Paol Soren (one of his several aliases) is suggesting I write about wool dumping. Might do that also.

            Liked by 1 person

I love comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s