Thursday, 11 January 2018

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! – Catherine Butler

Shelley’s traveller had his vast and trunkless legs of stone. Today, authors have second-hand bookshops.

It’s always bittersweet to find one’s own books being sold second hand. Nothing puts the ‘Ex” into “Ex Libris” like finding a story into which one poured a good portion of one’s soul on sale for pennies, but when it’s a presentation copy it coats the bitter pill in wormwood icing. I don’t want to say it’s exactly like seeing one’s own child being put up for adoption, but there’s a smack of that.

So anyway, I came across Death of a Ghost (2006) in the local Oxfam, and on opening it got the shock of dull surprise I always feel when I encounter my own handwriting in an unexpected place. There was my friendly dedication to a local school, written – I now remembered – during a visit there some ten years ago. My first instinct was to be a little offended that they had given the book away, but then I looked at the plate where all the library stamps should be, and got snow blindness:

My Badge of Shame

It seemed that no one had taken it out in all its ten years. At least I could comfort myself that it hadn’t been read and found wanting, but not to have been read at all? Is that really better?

I bought it, of course, and hurried it home, certain that every passer-by was looking at me and muttering “unsuccessful author” under their breath.

Ahem. That was all I had to say, really, but, looking at my watch, it seems I still have a few minutes left, so while I’m here, why don’t we lighten the mood by looking at a couple of other inscriptions in my possession?

Here’s one it took me over a year to obtain. This particular book belonged to my great-great-great-great grandfather, Weeden Butler. It is inside a copy of the clergyman William Dodd's Thoughts in Prison, which Weeden (who was Dodd’s amanuensis) helped copy and publish after Dodd was hanged for forging the Earl of Chesterfield’s signature in 1777 – the last person to be hanged for forgery in England. (If you want to know the rather colourful story of Dodd’s fall from grace, I’ve written about it here.) You can see Weeden’s own stamp, and then in pencil some notes made by his great-grandson Gerard in 1894, including these intriguing lines:

On page 8 is the reference to “Butler - midst a million faithful found”, which in the wave of popular revulsion after Dodd’s execution in 1777 made so much difference to Weeden Butler's fortunes.

At some point after Gerard wrote that mysterious note the book left the family, and I was very pleased to get it back into Butler hands, via an American bookseller.

I have no personal connection with my other example, which I bought second-hand for 75p about 35 years ago. It’s a copy of Dante’s Purgatorio, and the inscription is to one R. F. Gore Browne, dated September 1915. Gore Browne was a prisoner-of-war at the time, being held in an officer’s prison camp at Stralsund on the Baltic Coast. I was struck then, and still am, by what an appropriate gift the Purgatorio must have seemed in such circumstances.

Prompted by writing this blog, I’ve tried to find out a little more about the camp, and discovered an account by an American visitor, written earlier in the year (Gore Browne, a second-lieutenant in the artillery, was already a prisoner by that time). It sounds distinctly more comfortable than the conditions many of his comrades were experiencing on the Front:

The British officers live by themselves, occupying two good sized rooms, nine in one and 18 in the other, there being also one French officer in the larger room, which is partitioned off by wardrobes into three sections. All seemed well and in good spirits, and all were in communication with their friends at home. All agreed in saying that there was no discrimination against them, and none had any material complaint to make. Letters and parcels are received more promptly than they had been at Mainz. The commandant promised to consider their wishes in regard to the use of a special field for cricket. Tennis courts are already in use, and there is a large park in which the officers are permitted to walk.

Here's a picture of the place, taken the same year:

Possible Cricket Field?

In my last ABBA blog I talked about Carrie's War, a book set in the Second World War in which there are no bombs or battles. I like that book for showing a quiet corner of the world in a time of global trauma, and in similar vein it pleases me to think of Lt. Gore Browne spending most of the First World War in relative equanimity (after whatever early action resulted in his capture), playing tennis, or cricket if the commandant proved amenable, reading Dante on rainy days, and watching the war go by from his small island on the Baltic Sea.

What became of Gore Browne afterwards? His book, at least, returned to Blighty, where I eventually bought it. As for the man...

But alas, I have reached the end of my allotted blogging time, and must take my pedalo back to the man with the bag of change. Already I see the next blogger waiting impatiently. Still, perhaps it’s a research project for January?

Do you have any interesting inscriptions in books you own?


Clémentine Beauvais said...

Awww this was such an endearing/ hilarious/ fabulous post!

I do, actually - many. Because I buy so much from charity shope I guess. My loveliest find is a 1960s edition of Colette's Claudine à Paris, bought in an Oxfam I think, and inside a note that says 'En espérant que Claudine ne t'inspire pas trop pour tes cours, Maman Jacqueline, Papa, le 12/10/63' (hoping that Claudine doesn't inspire you too much for your lessons. The funny thing about this is that it's a book that's 100% composed of lesbian sexual tension, so I feel those were pretty liberated parents for the early 1960s.

Catherine Butler said...

That's pretty awesome!

Stroppy Author said...

Another possible way your book got into the charity shop: My daughter's primary school had a presentation copy of the first Harry Potter, donated by JK when she did a library visit. It was stolen, so probably didn't have many library stamps, if any. (Actually, I don't think their library even stamped things - the kids could borrow what they liked for as long as they wanted.)

Catherine Butler said...

So maybe a repentant thief decided to donate this rare first edition of my novel to Oxfam? A highly plausible scenario, to be sure.

Susan Price said...

Great post, Catherine. I think we all winced and identified with the first part!