Saturday, September 12, 2009

Yacht Sybarite or, a Minor Bibliographic Digression


Caught by the Nose:
Each day in the twitter world, there are hundreds of links to articles concerning the rise of ebooks, the pleasures of ebooks, the challenges of the Google Book Settlement and other topical items relating to the rapid changes in the world of publishing. It is all of interest. And yet, I am still very much in the old world of the physical volume. My content containers are either hard with dustwrappers or soft without. But I do read books online, mainly from The Internet Archive where difficult to find books are easily available to read in a presentable scan of the original pages. (Examples: Isabella Bird's Among the Tibetans , Ford Madox Ford's The Brown Owl , Abydos by W. M. Flinders Petrie, or The Ipane by R. B. Bontine Cunninghame Graham, for four random choices.) I think how fortunate for the youth of today to have access to such an astounding collection of printed materials, and to be able to read them on portable devices when and wherever they desire. Such freedom. I think of my youth in Montreal and how difficult it was to access books. It was a world of closed stacks and memberships. Much time and effort was required to look at a book and many of the books, due to age, scarcity, and crumbling condition, were for in-library use only. The second-hand bookshops were vital sources of reading material, as well as the major and minor booksales throughout the city. I have many memories of attending sales, and one in particular comes to mind.

In the fall of 1978, I arrived early one Saturday morning for the annual booksale at The Fraser-Hickson Institute, but a few minutes' walk from where I lived. One hour and a half later, 9 a.m., the doors opened and the few of us early bookscouts, pickers and book dealers led the now long line of book fanciers on up to the auditorium. My purchases were always modest. A small box or two depending on the combination of my financial situation, the selection of books for sale, how quick my eye to hand coordination was that morning, and how willing I was to jostle and scrape in the mild scrum that was to ensue. Luck sometimes helped. The book that holds this sale in memory is one which I picked up for a lowly 10 cents, a copy of Virgil's Aeneid translated by John Dryden. It was an edition issued by George Routledge & Sons, full red pebbled leather, raised bands, gilt titles and ruling, marbled endpapers and gilt all round. The half-title and title page were headed "Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books." A short introduction was initialed "H.M." and dated March 1884. At the time I knew nothing of Lubbock and his list of books. Hadn't a clue who "H. M." was and why they were hiding behind their initials in so old fashioned a way. Since the title page and its verso lacked a publication date, I had to judge the 1884 as an unreliable witness. Finding information in 1978 entailed a bit more time and legwork than today. Reference books had to be sought out. Wooden library catalogue drawers had to be consulted, the stiff cards perused, their corners yellowed by many a thumb and finger. Requesting closed stacks materials was often greeted with heavy sighs, raised eyebrows, head scratching and the occasional "hmm, yes........". "The Pleasures of Reading by Sir John Lubbock, hmm, yes......". "The Life of Sir John Lubbock by Horace G. Hutchinson.......hmm, yes...". Dust had to be disturbed.

It was fairly easy to find out about Sir John Lubbock, one of those extraordinary polymaths of the Victorian period, but to discover bibliographic information about this particular edition of Virgil's Aeneid, was however, a bit more of a challenge. More dust to be disturbed. Consulting those large brown cloth volumes of Bookman's Price Index was painfully tedious and slow, but occasionally they offered up some useful information. Auction records, bibliographies, and periodicals were not as easily available. I seem to remember spending a few moments of time on trying to pin a date on this relatively unimportant volume, a finely bound issue of a standard text in a series initiated by Lubbock's then, influential list. As it was, Lubbock didn't publicly conceive his list of hundred best books until the autumn of 1885, so the 1884 introduction by "H.M." was no doubt from a previous Routledge edition, and brought out to get a piece of the action swirling around the controversy of Sir John Lubbock's One Hundred Books. [An essay on the subject can be found here.] I figured it was published around the 1890s to the turn of the century and left it at that.

The introduction was in fact written by Henry Morley, a prolific editor and writer perhaps best remembered, if at all, for editing the "English Authors" series. He also edited a series of texts called "Morley's Universal Library" which were issued by George Routledge and Sons. What Henry Morley thought of having his introduction used for Sir John Lubbock's Hundred Books is unknown to me. Morley must have known Lubbock, or at least, known of him. The London literary milieu must have been fairly tight at that time. However, since Morley died in 1894, it is likely he wasn't alive when the publishers availed themselves of one series introduction for another. Posthumous recompense was unlikely at the time. Publishers had to be versatile, innovative and thrifty; they had to know how to cut their coat according to their cloth to use an old phrase.

John Dryden's publisher, Jacob Tonson, was fairly innovative. Dryden's translations of the works of Virgil were published by Jacob Tonson in July 1697 when Dryden was 66 years of age. The first edition sold out in a few months. Henry Morley's short introduction is very good and he provides a brief bibliographic backcloth:


In modern form there was only John Ogilby's very poor translation of the works of Virgil, which had been first published in 1649, and reproduced in 1654 as a handsome folio, adorned with plates by Hollar, Faithorne, and Lambert. Jacob Tonson, Dryden's publisher used for his edition Ogilby's plates touched up, and published Dryden's Virgil by subscription, engraving under successive plates the arms of one hundred and one subscribers of five guineas, who contributed towards the adornment of the work with engravings; besides these, there were heraldic honours in part payment. The profit from the work to Dryden himself seems to have been about twelve hundred pounds. A generation later Pope earned very much more by translating Homer. As Dryden would not make friendly advance to King William, by dedicating the translation to him, Jacob Tonson, as publisher, did his loyal best by directing that, in retouching the plates, the Roman nose of the pious "Aeneas" should be made to conform to that of William III. And so Tonson hoped that His Majesty might be caught by the nose.

Whether William III was "caught by the nose" is a question for scholars, but I was certainly caught by the nose in that the smell of this volume still infuses me with the initial pleasures of reading Dryden's translation, and makes me remember how his anastrophic sentences and heightened style, were, and still perhaps are, subtle influences upon the way I write a sentence. For quite awhile I carried this volume around with me. Not the most practical edition for such reading. How much more practical are the portable devices to read ebooks today. Not just the Aeneid, but a complete library could be had in one slim device. (I can imagine that the batsmen responsible for Napoleon's travelling library might have eased their weary bones with dreams of such magic.) Being more of a sedentary person, I don't have the overwhelming need for such a handy device, but such innovation I am certainly all for. One day, perhaps, I may find myself reading Dryden's translation of Virgil's Aeneid on a ebook reader of some kind. Perhaps, aptly enough, off the coast of Italy.

Diversional Voyage:
There is one peculiarity to this 10 cent volume. In the red leather of the upper board are the words "Yacht Sybarite" blind-stamped in gilt. I didn't know what the words signified. Strangely, in my ignorance, it struck me at the time as some kind of Latin phrase. The thought that the book might have been from a collection that once found a home on a yacht called Sybarite occurred to me but to pursue such a tangent seemed as darkly unpromising as Childe Roland's seeking out the Dark Tower. While the gilt letters of 'Yacht Sybarite' figuratively faded from my conscious mind, I went on to enjoy Virgil's narrative and Dryden's vigorous and influential style.

I had quite forgotten about the gilt inscription on the upper board, until this past week, when, doing some casual research related to George Jay Gould, I came across a reference to a yacht named Sybarite. I remembered the book and wondered if there could be a possible connection.

George Jay Gould was the son of Jay Gould, and he inherited much from his father, including the steam yacht, Atalanta, originally built for his father and launched in Philadelphia in 1883. The New York Times reported in July 1900 that George Jay Gould was selling The Atalanta to the Government of Columbia where it would be converted into a gunboat. It was later revealed that the South American country was in fact, Venezuela. So, George Jay Gould, an active member of The Atlantic Yachting Club during a period that was a golden age of yachting--he was their Commodore in the 1890s--was in the market for a new steam yacht.

Almost one year later, June 1901, the New York Times reported the he had purchased a 924 ton steam yacht with a water-line measurement of 220 feet. It was originally built for Lord Ashburton in 1893 and named Venetia. Lord Ashburton sold it but a few years later in 1897 to Whitaker Wright. The New York Times mentioned that Wright had renamed it the Sybarite. It was in London, in December 1900, that Whitaker Wright's financial empire collapsed and he was first accused of misuse of investment money. (Reminiscent of a certain Canadian Lord. A good overview of the scandal can be found here.) His sale of the Sybarite to Gould six months later is telling. Wright must have been in need of cash.

[A few odd facts: George Gould's daughter, Edith Gould, was born on the Sybarite in 1901. George Gould's wife, the former Edith M. Kingdon, died in 1921 of a heart attack on the golf course of their estate in Lakewood, New Jersey. Doctors discovered she had used a rubber body suit from neck to ankle to maintain her figure. No wonder she died of a heart attack. Since George married his mistress not long after and acknowledged his illegitmate children, one wonders at the pressures Mrs. Gould suffered. And George Jay Gould died of pnemonia on May 16, 1923 on the Riviera after having visited the tomb of Tutankhamun and contracted a fever. This no doubt helped to fuel the concept of the Mummy's curse since Lord Carnarvon had died on April 5, 1923 in Cairo. For all I know, George Gould could have been reading this very copy while visiting Egypt in 1923. It would make for good dinner conversation at least.]

So, from these few scraps of information from very casual research, I could possibly conclude that this volume of Virgil's Aeneid, was part of the library aboard the yacht Sybarite, a collection that probably contained the complete Hundred Best Books as listed by Sir John Lubbock, all bound in uniform red leather with gilt edges all round, and all with the blind-stamped gilt words on the upper board, "Yacht Sybarite." It seems likely, considering Wright's proclivity to excess that it was he who ordered such a collection for his yacht, though I can't rule out the possibility that the books came with the ship and Wright had them blind-stamped in gilt to show ownership. Then again, it might have been Gould.

The answer to the question of how the volume ended up in a library sale in Montreal in 1978 seems to live in the realm of speculation. Books have lives of their own. Most outlive us. They can pass through many hands and reside on many shelves in their lifetime. This Aeneid is an orphan in a way, a stray from a larger collection. More the rule than the exception since so many book collections are sold off at some time and dispersed among various owners. Most likely, when the Sybarite was sold or broken up, the library too was broken up and auctioned off. Or perhaps the collection was passed down through the family. Perhaps there is a descendant of George J. Gould who this very day is sitting in their library wondering where that hundredth volume in that collection had gone and how. Perhaps it was a guest who availed themselves of the library for some bedtime reading and their servant inadvertently packed the volume in the luggage upon leaving. Perhaps it was with George J. Gould as he passed away in the Riviera, and was misplaced in the aftermath of his death. Any manner of stories could be conjured up. Any one of them as likely as the next.

An ebook reading device will never enjoy a long and diverse provenance like that of old bound volumes, but these devices allow us to connect with books that do have interesting backgrounds. To be able to peruse old library volumes from the comfort of our homes is an extraordinary accomplishment. Library stamps, librarian's pencil annotations and call numbers, creases, foxing, markings in the text and marginalia are revelations of the books character. I can see how many will find ebook devices perfect for reading the latest publications, but I tend to see them as devices to explore the closed stacks of so many great libraries.

Considering the death of George J. Gould, perhaps a little archaeology concerning Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Life must have been good on the good yacht Sybarite if they bound up the classics in full leather. These days it would be a few paperbacks and some DVDs! A great tale, thanks. Flambard