Friday, 15 December 2017

Something Old, Something New #1: 'Impressions of Theophrastus Such' by George Eliot

I thought it was about time I started a new series of posts and the perfect opportunity came last evening when I dragged my mother into an antique bookstore to finally indulge once again in my favourite hobby: browsing for antique books! And so came about the birth of Something Old, Something New: Adventures on my Antique Bookshelf! I have a whole collection of antique books at home, widely ranging in topic, language and age and I love researching their provenance and their peculiarities. Now, I will be sharing what I find out with you in these posts! If you yourself would like to share something about one of your books, please share a link to your post in the comments and feel free to use the banner, as long as you don't remove my name from it.

The book I found yesterday was one I had never heard of before. I have only read one book by George Eliot, which was Middlemarch, her enormous psychological novel detailing the lives, hopes and disappointments of the villagers of Middlemarch. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected and I developed an appreciation for Eliot, yet it didn't equal the fervour I feel for authors like Emily Brontë or Jane Austen. Yet when I spotted this small book with its bright red cover and George Eliot's name on its spine I was still intrigued. Even more so when I realised it wasn't one of her more famous other works like Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede, but rather the obscure Impressions of Theocrastus Such. And so I bought it. Now what is this book about? Let's find out!

Title: Impressions of Theophrastus Such
Author: George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Original Pub. Date: 1879
Original Publisher:

Price: €1
Edition: Collections of British Authors, Tauchnitz Edition, Vol. 1828 (1879)
Bought at: Fächerstadt-Antiquariat, Karlsruhe, Germany

My first action was to Google it and to find out that Wikipedia has exactly two sentences dedicated to this novel. Apparently it was her last work, published in 1879, a year before her death, as well as her most experimental work. The novel consists of 18 essays by an imaginary scholar, whose "eccentric character is revealed through his work" (Wiki). So I broadened my search and stumbled upon a great blog post on this strange novel. In it, Eliot struggles with her own philosophy, her ideas about the world, which she initially present through a character study of her main character, Theophrastus. (For a more detailed analysis of the book's content, please do read this brilliant post by The Lectern.) Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher who became a follower of Aristotle. A book called Characters is attributed to him, in which he wrote the first ever character sketches, outlining thirty moral types. Eliot was clearly inspired by him while writing Impressions, as the title makes beyond obvious.

So what about this specific edition, then? It was published by Tauchnitz, which was a German family of publishers who published English language literature (rather than translation) in mainland Europe. The Bernhard Tauchnitz business was founded on the first of February, 1837, in Leipzig, Germany. The Collection of British and American Authors, of which I believe my book to be part, was begun in 1841 and was something of a precursor to the paperback with its inexpensive reprints of classics. Despite there not being copyright protection for English and American authors in Germany at the time, Tauchnitz paid the authors royalties nonetheless. Once such protections were in place though, Tauchnitz' editions became 'Copyright Editions', and my book is one of those as the title page below states.

An incomplete list of Tauchnitz' English collection's contents exists and it's something of a Who's Who of important English authors. They published the Brontës under their male pseudonyms, Dickens was their first English publication. Thackeray is there, Sheridan, as well as Charlotte M. Yong. The list, created by Amherst College, lists the countless titles published, as well as new editions published of the same books, by year. It is absolutely fascinating to look through, especially just to get a sense of which English books were released to the German audiences through Tauchnitz and how early on. Eventually I found my edition on the list:

As you can see from the photo of the cover I shared above, the description in the list matches my copy exactly. It was quite thrilling to find the exact match and to realise that this book is then, by all accounts, from 1879. That makes this tiny book 138 years old. And all that for only €1. (Find out more about Tauchnitz here.)

So, I had figured out what the book is about and which edition it is I have. But the beautiful thing about antique books is that they come with history. There are little notes scribbled away sometimes, or perhaps your book was once a library book and it has a stamp or sticker from that library. Perhaps there is even a little note or a bookmark tucked away in the pages, forgotten about when it was sold or given away. There is only one immediately noticeable mark of history in my book, and that is a note on the front page.

It is an example of something many of us do, or at least used to. On buying or receiving a new book, you'd write the date and your name in it as a memory. My Impressions has a relatively straightforward note, seemingly. A year and a date. The year is easy to identify as 1901, and the first name is most definitely Therese. I think there are two or three options for the last name. Either it is Rout/Rous or Ront/Rons. The cursive used here could very well be Kurrent, an old form of German handwriting. Although quite recognisable, some letters do have slightly different shapes. The 'n' and 'u' for example, are practically identical except for a small wave-like symbol written above the letter for 'u'. (See the Kurrent alphabet below.) If we accept it's Kurrent, however, then her 'e's are also technically wrong. Then again, we all know what it's like to write cursive, you don't always do it perfectly. Ease of writing is as important as style, after all.

Naturally, I couldn't find anything about a 'Therese Rout' or any other form online. Most likely, she was as normal as I was, and as eager to read this book. But I like knowing someone else once held this book, that a love for reading and an interest in what a book has to offer connects me and someone from over a 100 years ago.

File:Deutsche Kurrentschrift.svg

There are also some small scribbles on the opposite page, numbers they seem to be. I think it most likely that this book was part of a personal collection or home library and that the then-owner marked it as such. The last, blank, page of the book also now has a vague pencil scribble, pricing it at €1. That is now also part of this book's provenance. I'm always tempted to write my own name into a book, perhaps below Therese's. Maybe one day this book will be found by someone else in a different bookstore, and they will trace it back all the way to 1879, but also back to 2017.

That's a nice thought to finish on, no?

No comments:

Post a Comment