Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

Bibliomania: The Felicitous Infection and the Comforting Cure (1)

Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

Bibliomania: The Felicitous Infection and the Comforting Cure (1)

Article excerpt


Collectionner des livres, des papillons ou des bouteilles est certes un passe-temps agreable et anodin mais peut cependant devenir une manie si l'on s'y adonne de facon irreflechie. L'auteur relate sa propre experience dans le domaine de la bibliophilie devenue une marotte en decrivant les nombreux volumes se rapportant a William Blake tous plus importants et couteux les uns que les autres ainsi que les albums qu'il a acquis avec la collaboration de son epouse, E.B. Bentley. Il donne comme pretexte qu'il est d'abord et avant tout un conservateur et non un collectionneur proprement dit. Il propose comme remede de se departir de ses tresors au profit d'une collection publique, et par ce geste il fera l'effet d'un mecene.


For fifty-six years, from 1950 to 2006, I acquired books, prints, and drawings by William Blake and his friends, such as the writer and artist George Cumberland, the sculptor John Flaxman, the book-illustrator Thomas Stothard, and the sensational painter Henry Fuseli. I felt myself to be not so much the owner of these works as their custodian. I thought of them not as "mine" but as "ours." My dearest wish was to make the collection sufficiently coherent and rewarding that it would be attractive as a whole to a serious research library.

My wife, Beth, egged me on, but she was nota collector. She is an accumulator. It's not that she buys things recklessly. It's just that, once something has entered the orbit of our household, it can never escape again. Beth's gravitational field is too strong. Oriental carpets, glass bottles, old children's books, handsome furniture, plastic bags, jade plants, beautiful boxes, scrap paper, handsome drinking glasses, and dolls; they don't so much get chosen--in out house they just seem to happen.

She only gradually discovered that she was a book-collector. She had a collection of cook-books from 1785; my favourite recipe was for Turtle Soup, which began: "Take one two hundred pound turtle." She went from reading Jane Austen yearly to acquiring contemporary editions of Jane Austen. This is not so difficult, as there are only six Jane Austen novels and only nine contemporary editions of them. Then she found that the children's books she had accumulated for teaching and for lending to children-friends were acquiring a shape of their own.

From time to time it was borne in upon her that the jade plants and empty bottles were being crowded by other, more ephemeral collections. She therefore gave her collection of dolls to the Museum of Childhood in Toronto; she gave her collection of cook-books to our dear friend Kaumudi Marathe, who writes about food; she gave her collection of children's clothing (chiefly out children's clothing) to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; and she gave her by-then major collection of children's books to the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at the Toronto Public Library on our 50th wedding anniversary on 22 June 2002. By then Beth was cured of collecting. But she still accumulates.

A singular instance of the working of Beth's magnetic force-field occurred when we were visited in Toronto by our friend George Goyder, an extraordinarily sweet-tempered and successful collector. While George was here, he wished to call on my colleague Northrop Frye, the greatest critic who has written on Blake. Beth arranged for the visit and took him to see Northrop Frye one morning while I was teaching. In order to refresh his memory of what Frye had written about Blake, George borrowed our copy of Frye's Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, as it happened in the first edition of 1947. When George walked into Frye's office carrying Fearful Symmetry, Frye, who by then was very famous, knew why George was carrying the book. After shaking hands, Frye reached out for the book, opened it to the half-title, and, to George's astonishment, silently wrote in it "With best wishes to | George Goyder, | Northrop Frye | Oct 1, 1985. …

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