More Gothic Gold: The Sadleir-Black Chapbook Collection at the University of Virginia Library

Article excerpt

"Gothic Gold: The Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction" was one of Fred Frank's favorite articles, and he wrote to me shortly after it was published to tell me how much he had enjoyed his time surveying the collection in Charlottesville, VA. When I decided to follow in his footsteps and spend the month of August 2009 working in the collection, I sent an email to Nancy Frank, telling her how keenly I felt Fred's presence while I was working there. She wrote back saying, "Fred's ghost must be haunting that place because he loved working there so much." After Fred's death, Nancy donated eight books in Fred's core Gothic collection to the Sadleir-Black, and I had the pleasure of perusing his annotations in those volumes. But the Sadleir-Black has actually moved since Fred worked there and now is in the Small Special Collections in the basement of the Harrison Institute, to the left of the main Alderman Library building and directly across the street from the room that Edgar Allan Poe lived in while a freshman at the University. Fred considered the Sadleir-Black the most impressive Gothic collection in the United States, and certainly there is no disputing that assessment. In this essay I would like to supplement the survey that Fred did of the collection's holdings for Gothic aficionados who have not had the pleasure of working there and suggest that Fred's prescient quest for the "off-beat" and rare in Gothic studies is precisely where the field is heading right now.

As Fred noted, the Sadleir-Black collection holds 1,135 titles, and that number has not increased since the final bequests made by Robert K. Black before his death in 1975. Fred has told the tale of how Michael Sadleir (originally Sadler), British novelist, bibliographer, and bibliophile, originally built the collection over many years and finally sold it in 1937 to Black, an American of Scottish descent and a graduate of the University of Virginia, who then bequeathed it to the Library in 1942. Black himself wrote a description of traveling to England to buy the collection with his inheritance and having the books shipped to him in hundreds of crates before the start of World War II. The timing was certainly fortuitous, as Sadleir reports in his version of the collection's history, because many of the remaining Gothic chapbooks of the early nineteenth century ware burned in warehouses that were hit by Nazi air raids during the worst of the London bombings. Whole collections of rare British works were lost at that time, and the fact that the Sadleir-Black collection had been removed to America only a few years before was indeed lucky. Both Mr. Sadleir and Mr. Black have left detailed descriptions of the history of the collection, and those typescripts are available in the collection. Also of real interest to me were the letters exchanged between Black and the Gothic bibliographer and literary historian, the eccentric Montague Summers. No sooner were the books shipped to America and out of London than Summers began requesting that Black send him, back in a war-torn England, some of the rarest of the books. I found this exchange of letters strange to say the least. Why would Summers wait for the collection to be sold to an American before he would ask to borrow some of the rarest titles? Why would he not have asked the same from Sadleir when he owned the books and lived nearby in England? Anyone who has studied the checkered reputation of Summers and his behavior early in life will understand immediately. (1)

Apart from the documents that trace the personal histories behind the collection of this impressive array of titles, there are most importantly the books themselves. As Fred noted, there are 20 vault items in the collection ("Gothic God" n2), extremely rare Gothic novels, as well as numerous items of a unique historical interest, such as the second edition of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho owned and signed by Percy Shelley's mother Elizabeth and the edition that we know the poet read, or Jane Porter's copy of her Thaddeus of Warsaw, with her own handwritten corrections in pencil throughout. …