As fascinating as all these different aspects of the early Roxburghe Club's activities are, they inevitably lead to the question of what effect it was having outside the realm of antiquarian book collecting. While it is, of course, difficult to prove categorically the effects on literature or culture that have proceeded directly from the activities of the Roxburghe Club, it can at the very least be stated that the club was in the vanguard of a number of changes that were going on at that time and that in some cases acted as the blueprint or inspiration for other pioneers in these fields. The most obvious, but also the most easily overlooked, way in which the early Roxburghe Club has influenced the modern literary world is in its longevity and continuity. Since its acclaimed publication of Havelok the Dane and despite a rocky period during which the club came perilously close to ending, it has attracted increasing praise for its volumes and continued to build on the legacy of the pioneers of its early days, gradually evolving into the more recognizably modern face of a club which produces editions acclaimed equally for their literary significance, scholarly value and typographic beauty.
While the present-day club has, no doubt, the satisfaction of having eventually received its due acclaim, scholars have remained slow to recognize the serious intent of the early club, often viewing its activities as uninformed, with shallow self- interest the prime motivation among club members and antiquarian literature acting as merely an excuse for forming a club. This is to overlook that the Georgian era, including its intellectual and scholarly life, was one of sociability and that it contained a multitude of easily accessible, fully established and socially approved clubs available to wealthy men in the early nineteenth century. Antiquarian societies, professional guilds, drinking clubs, sporting and gambling clubs, dining societies and clubs built solely on the qualification of class were all available and were indeed already frequented by the members of the Roxburghe. There was little reason to go to the expense and effort required to create a new club unless it specifically catered to an interest and answered a need not already being met by existing means.
The early nineteenth century was an age of letters; the written word was everywhere, in both published and private form. The construction of a reliable postal service made personal communication easier than ever before. On the wider public stage, the increase in the production of books, newspapers, periodicals and other printed matter created a heady atmosphere in which ideas and opinions could be made concrete with relative ease and swiftly transmitted to a public eager for the newest information. In this fertile environment of literary possibilities it is perhaps unsurprising to find that the men who made up the Roxburghe Club were authors, almost to a man, although this aspect of its membership has seemingly been overlooked.
This chapter looks at the texts written by club members in some detail, and illustrates how many of the men who belonged to the Roxburghe Club were not simply consumers of printed matter but also the producers of a surprising variety of publications. It is, of course, to be expected that in any large group of individuals there will be a distribution of abilities across a given spectrum, and the Roxburghe Club was no exception. The literary distinction of the members ranged from professional authors like Sir Walter Scott through to enthusiastic and often surprisingly talented, but strictly private, writers like the Duke of Devonshire. Between these extremes were gentlemanly semiprofessionals, scholars writing on academic subjects, professional men writing poetry as a hobby. There were also men, like Dibdin and Haslewood, who were employed in other fields but who made a significant part of their income or reputation from literary pursuits. Some members of the club, such as E. V. Utterson, did not write anything themselves (beyond introductory material) but instead preferred to act as editor, on their own behalf or in the employ of others, and in a related vein are those members who carried out labours of interpretation and transliteration such as George Neville Grenville who, as master of Magdalene, Cambridge, was instrumental in the efforts to decipher Samuel Pepys's shorthand, an undertaking which eventually enabled the diary to be published in 1825. Lastly, the Roxburghe members’ literary offerings sometimes inhabited the interesting area that lay between personal letters and commercial publication, in which pieces of writing that originated in private correspondence, or formed open letters, were published for public consumption, often as part of an ongoing intellectual dialogue.
The possession of a private printing- press is, no doubt, a very appalling type of bibliomania. Much, as has been told us of the awful scale in which drunkards consume their favored poison, one is not accustomed to hear of their setting up private stills for their own individual consumption. There is a Sardanapalitan excess in this bibliographical luxuriousness which refuses to partake with other vulgar mortals in the common harvest of the public press, but must itself minister to its own tastes and demands.
When John Hill Burton made this tongue- in- cheek observation, he swiftly followed it up with a number of bibliophilic names to illustrate his point, including those of Sir Alexander Boswell and Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges. In fact the early Roxburghe Club contained among its members three men who were drawn to the ownership of a private printing press and the freedom that it gave them to pursue their own literary interests, both in terms of printing their own original work and of reproducing rare, largely forgotten works of early literature. As Hill Burton pointed out, the ownership of a private press perhaps indicates an interest in books that extends beyond the mere dilettante concern with novelty or the collector's obsession with fine bindings and auction prices; it certainly goes beyond a taste for the classics or any literature that could be termed mainstream as such tastes have long been amply catered for by the standard printing houses with their business eye on the requirements of the average consumer. While each owner will have his unique reasons for entering the printing world, it often indicates a deeper- than- average interest in unrepresented literature and in the art of typography, a desire to create, reproduce and broadcast literature – an aspiration to control the means of print production which goes beyond even that of employing a printer to work under the patronage of the customer at the printer's own establishment. These undertakings wholeheartedly fulfilled the description coined by Will Ransom when he wrote that ‘freed from the confining strictures of details, a private press may be defined as the typographic expression of a personal ideal, conceived in freedom and maintained in independence’.
What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man, who feels the book- disease.
As might be expected, such high- profile bibliophilic pursuits did not go unnoticed in the media of the day hungry for titbits of recyclable society gossip. Aristocratic activities represented a large percentage of the celebrity culture of the period, and unconventional, not to mention expensive, pastimes were certainly always going to be given plenty of column inches. In fact, bibliomania could be argued to have been, to some extent, a media construct. The high prices, obsessive collecting and identification (and often self- identification) of collectors as bibliomaniacs was defined, discussed and promoted by the newspapers, books and periodicals of the day, and the fiery debates that it aroused in the letters pages provided welcome fillips to sales figures. As so often when a previously private and solitary avocation gains sudden and visible popularity, it also becomes the cause of much public ridicule, criticism and hand- wringing. The Roxburghe Club, possibly as a result of its highly publicized aristocratic membership and a certain taste for self- promotion, provided a useful focus for this anxiety and opprobrium. There was no shortage of opinionated correspondents ready to blame bibliomania for every possible shortcoming in the contemporary literary (and in some cases moral) world.
In the satirical poem Bibliomania by John Ferriar, written in 1809 and dedicated to his friend the soon- to- be Roxburghe Club member Richard Heber, ‘bibliomania’ is delineated as the collecting or hoarding of books to a point where social relations or health are damaged – this obsessive- compulsive disorder gradually expanding in the public mind to include book collectors in general. Ferriar, a collector himself, was making a wry joke, a point often missed both then and now, perhaps in part because Ferriar's day job was that of a physician and pioneer researcher into psychiatric disorders.
Dibdin, while grasping the joke, readily acknowledged the dim view taken of bibliophiles, and their conflation with bibliomaniacs in the minds of the public, in his answering work, Bibliomania, which is part satire, part warning and part celebration of the obsessive collecting of books.
The scholler lookes upon his bookes,
And pores upon a paper.
The gentle bloud likes hunting,
Where dogs doe trace by smelling.
And some like hawks, some groves and walks,
And some a handsome dwelling.
Yet all these without sack, old sack, boyes,
Makes no man kindly merry.
The life of mirth, and the joy of the earth
Is a cup of good old sherry.
The Roxburghe Club, although destined within two years to find its vocation as the prototypical book club, at first started with a far more humble intention. According to Thomas Frognall Dibdin's later reminiscences, it was originally intended merely to commemorate, on a yearly basis, a particularly enjoyable gathering of book lovers at a dinner held to celebrate a red- letter day during the sale of a library reputed to be ‘one of the finest and most perfect ever got together’. The collection that had come up for auction had previously belonged to John, Duke of Roxburghe, a renowned bibliophile who had died on 19 March 1804. The sale took place over a period of 42 days and was carried out by the auctioneer R. H. Evans at 13 St. James's Square, the late Duke's residence. One of the most eagerly anticipated lots of the auction was the Valdarfer Boccaccio of 1471, believed at that time to be a unique copy, and which finally went under the hammer on 17 June 1812. Dibdin, in his extensive accounts of the day, trumpeted that ‘it has been said that the amount of that one day's sale equalled what had been given for the ENTIRE COLLECTION’. He goes on to say that on the evening of 16 June a number of ‘enthusiastic and resolute bibliomaniacs’ met for dinner at the home of Mr William Bolland in Adelphi Terrace, an agreement was made to meet for dinner at the St. Albans Tavern on the evening of the seventeenth after the sale and that the choice of venue was made ‘from an affectionate respect to the memory of the St. Albans’ Press’, a strong indication that the group were already meeting in a spirit of commemoration of the early printers and in celebration of their shared interests.
The Roxburghe Club has enjoyed a rich, unbroken history spanning over two hundred years. This book has concentrated on the significance of just the first two decades of its existence and has hopefully established a clearer, more factual account of this period than has previously been available, one which provides a plausible counternarrative to that formerly available and underlines the need for a more complex view of the club demographic and motivation than has previously been acknowledged. It is apparent that in contrast to commonly held views the club membership, although mythologized as aristocratic, contained considerably more middle- class professionals and representatives of the gentry than nobles and that the members were not dilettante playboys but men of serious intent, committed to books, especially early printed texts. They were also politically active in their various spheres, and this was sometimes reflected in their choice of texts. Although, as might be expected, some were Tories, a surprisingly large percentage of the club were Whig, at least one was radical and most were unexpectedly sympathetic to political reform and Catholic emancipation, a position underlined by the club's willingness to reprint works of pre- Reformation Catholic provenance during a period when this could be considered provocative, and despite what has been seen as the wider anti- Catholic conservatism of antiquarianism at this time.
The club's genesis and the onset of its early members’ association together for the investigation and discussion of early printing and texts are two other topics where the powerful existing myth – that the club owes its existence to the chance occurrence of a contested rare volume raising an extravagant auction price followed by an absurdly gluttonous dinner – proves to be misleading, and not just for the lack of seriousness it conveys. The men who would become the Roxburghe Club were in most cases already well known to each other, and the formation of the club can be seen as the result of their literary interests and the pooling of their individual expertise rather than as the fortuitous and frivolous genesis.
Having looked at some of the commonly held opinions and assumptions made about the demographics of the early Roxburghe Club and how these views have influenced appraisals of their literary activities, it is now time to examine the actual membership and how it measures up against those claims. It is probably not spoiling any potential surprise to say that, far from being the homogenous group assumed by many commentators, the men who made up the early Roxburghe Club represented a wide spectrum, with a bewilderingly complex range of belief and opinion. It may be true to say, for instance, that all the members were comparatively wealthy. They obviously had to be to collect rare books during the high tide of auction prices, but the differences in wealth between the richest among them such as the Duke of Devonshire and the least wealthy such as Dibdin or Haslewood was vast. One might state too that they were largely establishment figures, but they ranged from the ultraconservative, almost rabidly antiradical, political activist such as George Watson Taylor or Alexander Boswell to the somewhat surprisingly radical Archdeacon Wrangham. In terms of religion many were clerics, some were High Church, some evangelical, one Catholic, but in character with the time, none were publicly atheist.
Of the first 31members, 10 were at some point in their life an MP. The majority of the aristocratic members were MPs in the Commons until the subsequent succession to their title pushed them into the Lords, and a number of the landed gentry held a seat at some time. Of the 21 men not formally involved in Parliamentary politics, most were either clergymen or practised law, although of course not being officially parliamentarian does not imply an absence of political opinion, activity or influence. A number of the members held positions that could be interpreted as politically active outside of Parliament, such as Francis Freeling, who, while secretary of the post office, was accused by William Cobbett of acting to suppress the circulation of Cobbett's series of radical political pamphlets the Porcupine. Freeling denied the accusations but was also speculated to have been instrumental in founding or overseeing a government financed newspaper, the Sun, published with the intention of counteracting public subversion.
Presented in alphabetical order with the title shown in square brackets being that held by the individual at the time of joining the Club.
A Club member from 1834 to 1848, he was elected to replace a founder member.
He presented Illustrations of Ancient State and Chivalry, from MSS. In the Ashmolean Museum, with an Appendix to the Club in 1840.
A Club member from 1812 to 1837 and one of the first 18 who met on the evening of the Roxburghe auction.
He presented Ceremonial at the Marriage of Mary Queen of Scotts with the Dauphin of France to the Club in 1818.
Bolland, William (1772– 1840)
A Club member from 1812 to 1839 when he resigned and one of the first 18 who met on the evening of the Roxburghe auction.
William Bolland was a lawyer, a Recorder of Reading and a somewhat successful amateur poet. He appeared in T. F. Dibdin's works as ‘Hortensius’.
Bolland was most notably the host of the meal held on the eve of the sale of the Valdarfer Boccaccio at which Dibdin alleges that the decision was first made to meet for dinner at the St. Albans Tavern the next evening. He was further instrumental in the direction that the Club would take as he is credited with the idea of reprinting rare items of early poetry for distribution among the membership (an idea he raised at the first anniversary dinner held in 1813 and made concrete by donating the first Club edition at the dinner of the following year) and also with the notion of printing the alphabetical list of members’ names in the front of the volume with the intended recipient's name in red, a custom adopted thereafter in Roxburghe Club volumes.
He presented Certaine Bokes of Virgiles Aenaeis, turned into English Meter to the Club in 1814.
Boswell, Alexander [Sir] (1775– 1822)
A Club member from 1819 to 1822, he was elected to replace a founder member.
Everybody knows that if a shabby tract may be lost or thrown away, a book once handsomely clothed in morocco is practically safe from destruction.
This quotation from Seymour de Ricci highlights the immense importance of the act of placing a book into a collection, that is, the degree of safety imparted by the ennoblement of a text through its proximity to other equally beautifully preserved volumes. This is a frank admission of the truth that, however much scholars might stress the intrinsic value of a text over the aesthetic value placed on it by many book collectors, everyone in the end loves a beautiful book in a handsome binding. Such a binding will ensure that a text might last long enough to be appreciated for its intrinsic value. On this level alone it can be said that the Roxburghe founding members provided a solid service to literature by preserving between them a vast quantity of early printed books and manuscripts within their personal collections as well as helping create the wider appetite for and awareness of such items. That would be faint praise if they are viewed as mere bibliomaniacs, collecting indiscriminately and on purely aesthetic grounds.
Much information is available about the collections owned by these men because most of them were catalogued, if not for their own use and the convenience of their friends, then certainly when they came to auction. A look at the books contained within these collections reveals that their owners were not only collecting books that fell within the usual collector's remit such as rarities, first editions, large paper copies and so on but also that most of these bibliophiles were also constructing libraries that reflected their personal intellectual interests and expertise. It is easy to be dazzled by the expensive rarities that appeared in every big collection of the day, but often the greater interest lies in these more personal collections that coexist alongside the more famous works. In this chapter I attempt to give an, unavoidably brief, outline of the books collected by the Roxburghe Club members during this period in order to illustrate how diverse and specialized these collections really were.
In the year that the Roxburghe Club was established, the first steam- driven printing press was receiving its initial trial for The Times and the true mass production of books was fast becoming a reality. During this period when many men of letters, including Isaac Disraeli, were voicing their concerns about the avalanche of books that was threatening to overwhelm the discerning reader, the Roxburghe Club were unconcernedly revelling in the printed word. While the Roxburghe members’ collections did, of course, contain many rare and beautiful manuscripts, some of which later became important Roxburghe editions, the main focus of collecting for most of the members were blackletter works, and, tellingly, the first items that they chose to reproduce were not manuscripts but reproductions of early printed volumes. Public opinion towards the collecting and study of black- letter items, as we have seen, was not overall a positive one, and a heated debate was carried on in magazines of the day, with the Roxburghe Club soon being seen as the epitome of this desire to ‘grub up all the trash’, as it was dismissively described by one detractor. James Beresford, in his satirical work Bibliosophia, wryly acknowledged the public view when he described the features of black- letter type as ‘the uncouthly angular configuration – the obsoletely stiff, grim and bloated appearance of its characters’, while asserting that it is exactly this lack of appeal to the general reader which recommends it to the collector.
There are a number of possible reasons for this cultural antipathy towards early texts, especially those reproduced in black- letter facsimile. One possibility is that, at a time when Catholic emancipation was a highly contentious subject, black- letter volumes could be seen as somehow too reminiscent of medieval Catholic hegemony. While anti- Catholic sentiment has been perceived in antiquarian culture, it was certainly not present in the activities of the early Roxburghe Club, who as a group worked to produce a number of reprints of books and manuscripts of Catholic origin, that is, pre- Reformation, including excerpts from Mystery cycles: the Chester Mysteries, edited and presented by James Markland, and Judicium, a Pageant, presented to the club by Peregrine Towneley.
The Roxburghe Club, a name well known to book collectors but often unfamiliar outside of their circles, was founded in 1812 and has enjoyed an unbroken record of private publishing to the present day. It was formed against the backdrop of bibliomania, that delirious period during which book prices soared beyond all expectations, creating a financial bubble that would eventually dissolve, taking with it more than one patrician fortune. Antiquarians, a group who were already often ridiculed for their perverse taste in old and forgotten works of literature, now suddenly gained far more ostentatious and objectionable facets to their dusty character by a display of conspicuous wealth and social prominence that confused the comfortable stereotypes. The Roxburghe Club was founded by a group of wealthy bibliophiles, led by the flamboyant bibliophile and bibliographer, Thomas Frognall Dibdin (see Figure 0.1). Sharing as they did an interest in the earliest printed books, the group wished to distribute among themselves reproductions of rare volumes published at their own expense. The print runs were normally small, and the volumes were usually made available only to members and occasionally to close friends. The membership is still small, but today the club publishes volumes for its members with an additional limited number for sale to the public. The modern incarnation of the Roxburghe Club is that of a respected printing society publishing highly collectable modern editions and facsimiles of rare and important texts from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century, with high standards of scholarly editing and luxurious presentation. Posterity has tended, however, to view the early years of the Roxburghe Club and its founder members in a distinctly dismissive manner, sometimes with ridicule, often with belligerence, but seldom with open- minded serious enquiry. If one wishes to examine the Roxburghe Club and its long and complex connection with, and contributions to, the world of literature and the histories of editing and literary studies in Britain, it appears to be necessary to look almost anywhere but in British literary history for answers.
The Roxburghe Club, its publications and its place in the world of literature is a subject whose outlines frequently become hazy and unreliable because, as indicated in the previous chapter, it is almost invariably viewed through the lens of class politics or at the very least what could be described as a heightened class awareness. It is, for instance, difficult to find any reference to the club that does not, at least in passing, refer to its perceived aristocratic membership, even in contexts in which the make- up of its membership is entirely irrelevant to the subject under discussion. The idea of British class division, with its connotations of among other things breeding, education, land ownership, heritage and established bloodline, does not simply mark out a social or financial demographic but also creates a preconception, or ideal, of aristocracy and its imagined relationship with and responsibilities towards society, other social classes and especially activities that relate to culture and intellect.
There was, in actuality, a vast range of affluence, political persuasion and religious belief represented within the ranks of the club, all of which factors may have had a greater influence on the pursuit of cultural objectives than class alone, but none of which (with the possible and partial exception of money) have been so uniformly referenced in discussions on the club's activities. It is interesting to note that comments referring to a perceived class disparity between the founding members of the club came entirely from outside its ranks, except on those occasions when Dibdin felt stung into remonstration. It is difficult to ascertain what feelings the other members may have held on the matter, as published sources have little to say on the topic, and in private there may have been as many opinions as there were members. If that is the case, it did not provoke any reaction that reached print, and it did not apparently result in members resigning their place in the club or forcing the resignation of others. Through its early history there were few resignations, and those occurred due to ill health, advanced age and the difficulties of travel in the early nineteenth century.
Presented in chronological order.
1. Henry Earl of Surrey, Certaine Bokes of Virgiles Aenaeis, turned into English Meter, ed. by William Bolland (London: Valpy, 1814).
Originally printed in 1557. Presented to the Club by William Bolland.
2. T. Cutwode, Caltha Poetarum; or, The Bumble Bee, ed. by Joseph Haslewood (London: 1815).
Originally printed in 1599. Presented to the Club by Richard Heber. This poem (a political satire) was one of the works banned by the Archbishop of Canterbury on publication during the ‘Bishop's Ban’ in 1599.
3. Thomas Churchyarde, The First Three Books of Ovid De Tristibus, translated into English (London: W. Bulmer, 1816).
Originally printed in 1578. Presented to the Club by Earl Spencer. At the time it was reprinted it was believed to be the only surviving copy of Churchyarde's translation. Ovid had written what is now usually referred to as Tristia ex Ponto while in exile from the court of Emperor Augustus for reasons that are today unclear.
4. Richard Barnfield, Poems, ed. by James Boswell (Auchinleck: Auchinleck Press, 1816).
Originally printed in 1598. Presented to the Club by James Boswell.
5. John Raynolds, Dolarny's Primrose or the First Part of the Passionate Hermit (London: W. Bulmer, 1816).
Originally printed in 1606. Presented to the Club by Francis Freeling and reprinted from a rare edition in his own collection.
6. La Contenance de la Table (London: W. Bulmer, 1816).
Presented to the Club by George Freeling.
The text is a fifteenth- century French guide for children, offering advice in verse on the subject of table manners.
7. King James VI of Scotland, Newes from Scotland, declaring the Damnable Life of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie (London: W. Bulmer, 1816).
Originally printed in 1591. Presented to the Club by George Freeling. This is a pamphlet describing a notorious witch trial.
8. Anon., A Proper New Interlude of the World and the Child, Otherwise called Mundus et Infans (London: W. Bulmer, 1817).
Presented to the Club by Viscount Althorp. Originally printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1522.
A morality play based on a poem from the late fourteenth or the early fifteenth century called The Mirror of the Periods of Man's Life. The edition presented to the Roxburghe is taken from a unique copy of the earliest surviving printed edition.
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