The Roxburghe Club, founded in 1812, has an unbroken publishing history from 1814 to the present day. The Early Roxburghe Club 1812–1835 offers a new narrative for the formative years of the Roxburghe Club, for the ‘bibliomania’ of the Romantic period and for early nineteenth-century antiquarian culture and its relationship to the emergent popularity and status of English vernacular literature. By examining in detail the make-up and membership of the club, including its social and political affinities, this revised history of the first two decades of its existence offers both an alternative view of the early club and its significant contribution to the move between antiquarian and scholarly areas of influence in the study of English literature.
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About the Author
Shayne Husbands completed her doctoral studies from Cardiff University, UK. Her areas of research include the Roxburghe Club, bibliomania, Joseph Haslewood and the culture of early nineteenth-century book collecting. She has contributed to Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350–1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption (2013).
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THE PERSISTENCE OF MYTH
The scholler lookes upon his bookes,
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. Though Dibdin states that the dinner took place on this date, an invitation for the event still held in the Roxburghe Club archives shows the date of printing as 12 June 1812. This obviously signifies that it would have been impossible for the decision to dine to have been made at the last minute on 16 June, casting doubt on Dibdin's account of events. Even at this early stage the gathering is described on the invitation as the 'Roxburghe Dinner', implying an intention of continuation and a beady eye cocked towards posterity, although Dibdin laid the responsibility for the actual wording of the invitation (the 'pleonasm' at least of 'to dine with the Roxburghe dinner') on the proprietor of the hotel.
That the meeting had been agreed some time before the eve of the sale is borne out by Dibdin's friend and fellow club member Joseph Haslewood in his journal the 'Roxburghe Revels'. He writes that 'upon Wednesday the 17th day of June "Il Decamerone di Boccaccio" was to be sold and that for being considered the rarest article in the whole of the Duke's library [...] the Rev. T. F. Dibdin, who therefore justly claims the title of Founder of the Club, suggested some few days before the sale, the holding of a convivial meeting at the St. Albans Tavern after the sale of that day.' It is possible that Dibdin, writing many years after the event, had become confused over the particulars or he may have intended to imply that the dinner was already arranged at an earlier date and that on the eve of the sale he merely convinced the group with whom he was dining to accompany him the next evening. It is, however, also possible that Dibdin, who over the course of his life wrote about and amended the 'lore' of the Roxburghe Club many times, considered the shorter time frame more romantically dramatic for the purposes of myth-making, carrying as it does, an implication of a passionate, spur-of-the-moment decision which led to the founding of the illustrious club. Dibdin was genuine in his bibliographic pursuits and aims, but in any of his more romantic, mythologizing writing about the club, it pays to treat him as a somewhat unreliable narrator. In the modern world he would have made an excellent public relations man. Returning to the dinner party, apart from Dibdin and the host, Bolland, the friends and fellow book enthusiasts present on the evening of the sixteenth included another soon-to-be-Roxburgher, Mr George Isted, a barrister and prominent member of Boodle's club, who later amiably contested with Dibdin for the honour of having been the instigator of the club's founding. Neither man was an aristocrat, so whichever of the contenders actually founded the club, the impulse was not aristocratic in its origin, a point of which the significance will later become apparent.
The club was born from friendship and a shared love for antiquarian books; most of the people who made up the original membership already knew each other, and its initial impetus had its roots and inspiration in the collecting of early printed books. Dibdin had for many years acted as an instigator, focus and hub for a network of collectors, and, rather than viewing the dinner as an impulsive act and the chance beginning of a new venture, it is tempting to see the foundation of the Roxburghe Club as the crystallization of this group's bookish enthusiasms and, in particular, Dibdin's ambitions for bibliography and early English literature. It seems likely that the decision to form a club had been discussed among the group for some time previously, with the significant (in book-collecting terms) date of the sale of the Valdarfer being chosen as an auspicious day for the founding of such a venture. Fate, in the form of an unusually high sales price (one that the members could have possibly guessed at, knowing as they must that several of their number would be bidding and willing to pursue the matter to extravagant heights) gave the day an added piquancy that ensured that posterity would remember the day as a central event of the bibliomania.
During the course of the following day's auction more avid book collectors were added to the invitation, bringing the party up to 18. These 18 original diners were Earl Spencer, George Granville Leveson-Gower, Mark Masterman Sykes, Samuel Egerton Brydges, William Bentham, Bolland, John Dent, Dibdin, Francis Freeling, George Henry Freeling, Haslewood, Richard Heber and his brother Thomas Cuthbert Heber, George Isted, Robert Lang, John Delafield Phelps and Roger Wilbraham, an interesting range of class and wealth which represented a cross section of the cream of antiquarian book buyers. The auction had been the triumphant scene of the notorious bidding war between Earl Spencer and Lord Blandford, later portrayed in such breathlessly romantic terms by Dibdin in the Bibliographical Decameron. The famous Valdarfer Boccaccio was eventually won by Lord Blandford for £2,260, which was an unprecedented amount of money to pay for a book and a sum that remained unequalled until the sale of the Syston Park 1459 Psalter in 1884. A mere five years earlier than the Roxburghe sale, William Beloe, recently the keeper of printed books at the British Museum, had estimated the future selling price of the Valdarfer at 'not much less than five hundred pounds', a misjudgement which indicates how quickly book prices were rising during this period, taking even the collectors by surprise.
The group of collectors who met that evening were in understandably high spirits and ready to celebrate the fortunes of book collecting after such a spectacle of unrivalled bidding. Dibdin later maintained that the purpose of the dinner was 'not so much for convivial, as for belles-lettres, or if the reader pleases, for bibliomanical, purposes', but critics had their doubts. The club weathered heavy disapproval regarding the lavish nature of the early dinners, but the social aspect did not undermine or negate the more serious purpose of those early Roxburghe meetings. Even today it is difficult to find any society or association, however learned or austere, which does not include dining or drinking as some part of its activities, even if it is only the annual Christmas or conference conviviality. Famously, at the first Roxburghe dinner a number of toasts were proposed that were thereafter used at all later meetings. These were
1. the immortal memory of Christopher Valdarfer, printer of the Boccaccio of 1471;
2. the immortal memory of John Duke of Roxburghe;
3. the same of Gutenberg, Fust and Schoiffher, fathers of the art of printing;
4. the same of William Caxton, father of the British Press;
5. of Dame Juliana Barnes and the St. Albans Press;
6. of Messrs Wynkyn De Worde, Pynson and Notary, the successors of Caxton;
7. the Aldine family at Venice;
8. the Giunti family at Florence;
9. the Society of the Bibliophiles Français at Paris;
10. the prosperity of the Roxburghe Club; and in all cases as the last toast, the cause of Bibliomania all over the world.
This series of toasts, with their (one assumes) slightly tongue-in-cheek emphasis on the names of the early practitioners of printing, could be viewed as acting as a sort of catechism, the repetition at each dinner ensuring that the raison d'être of the club has not been forgotten or sidelined. Although the toast may well have arisen from a lighthearted situation during the first dinner, its preservation displayed a dedication to those early printed books and their printers which had brought the members together and neatly encapsulated what was dear to the founders' hearts. If the club were to be established today, the toasts would undoubtedly form the framework of its mission statement.
The evening proved to be such a roaring success (Haslewood wrote up his exultant account of the dinner at 1 a.m. on the morning of 18 June, if that can be taken as an indication of how long the dinner lasted from its 6:30 p.m. start) that it was agreed that it should be repeated as a yearly anniversary, and so the club was duly formed. The number of members, it had been agreed, should be increased, and by the next meeting in June 1813 the membership stood at 24, with the addition of the Duke of Devonshire, the Marquis of Blandford, Lord Morpeth, Thomas Ponton, Peregrine Towneley and James Heywood Markland. By the third dinner the membership had reached 31, with the inclusion of Viscount Althorp, Mr Justice Littledale, Edward Littledale, Rev. William Holwell Carr, James Boswell and James William Dodd. It is interesting that although the first dinner had been held to allegedly celebrate the sale of the Valdarfer, Blandford, the winning bidder was not included in the group until the first anniversary and had little to do with the club afterwards, perhaps being a collector of a different stripe. The membership remained at this number, although Dibdin cryptically says that 'there have been many attempts to enlarge it, but unsuccessfully'. This is not overly surprising given the club's well-known and strictly exclusive approach to membership: the presentation of even one black ball sufficient to debar a postulant from inclusion. According to one source, 'it used to be remarked, that it was easier to get into the Peerage or the Privy Council, than into "The Roxburghe"'. This method of election was not, of course, unique to the Roxburghe and was the same process used by Johnson's Club to which Earl Spencer already belonged, and indeed Spencer may have been instrumental in carrying over this stringent means of preventing the acceptance of uncongenial nominees.
The idea of reprinting items for distribution among the membership is attributed to Bolland, who had volunteered at the first anniversary dinner to present the first edition himself the following year. Haslewood, in his journal entry for the 1814 dinner, hints at unexplained difficulties which delayed the production of the promised volume ('NB Mr Bolland's reprint was not ready'), but such problems notwithstanding, the volume carries the date of 1814; so presumably Bolland went on to present the company with the first Roxburghe volume at some point during the remainder of the year or at the following year's dinner. Bolland (see Figure 1.1) is also credited with formulating the idea 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. Although relatively unknown to history, certainly in the terms of the club's mythology, Bolland was instrumental in the formation of the club and its activities, not least because in printing the first volume he set a pattern for others to follow. From here onwards, the men (the club did not gain its first female member until 1985 when Mary Crapo, Viscountess Eccles, took that honour), theoretically working in alphabetical order of surname, took their turn to print a rare item for distribution among the other members. Some of these offerings were reprints of items in their own collections, others of texts that resided in the collections of museums and other libraries. There were no hard or fast rules about this process; in some years a number of editions were presented to the club simultaneously. In 1818, for instance, nine volumes by separate editors were presented at the dinner, but occasionally there would be a year such as 1823 or 1826 when nothing new was distributed. A few members, including Thomas Heber and Alexander Boswell, did not live long enough to present their copies, and several men produced more than one edition.
This activity was not going unnoticed and in 1816, in the liberal literary and philosophical periodical the Monthly Magazine, 'bibliomaniacs' were criticized for neglecting the memories of men of literary genius in favour of the early printers. A contributor, Mr E. Evans, asserted that bibliomaniacs had failed to subscribe to a proposed memorial to John Locke, which had resulted in the abandonment of the project, but that should it be proposed to erect a memorial to Caxton they would be at the front of the queue to hand over their money. The Roxburghe Club appeared to respond in a typically insouciant fashion when in 1820 it attempted to erect a stone tablet in Westminster Abbey to the memory of Caxton. Dibdin describes this initial choice of venue as proceeding 'from the fact of Caxton having erected the FIRST PRESS IN ENGLAND within those walls'. Haslewood recorded the choice as at first falling between Westminster Abbey, where Caxton had installed his printing press in workshops belonging to the Abbey and St. Margaret's Church, where Caxton was buried in 1479. A committee comprising Earl Spencer, Heber, Bolland, Utterson, Hibbert and Dibdin was elected to organize the project, and Dibdin, Markland and another unnamed member chose a suitable spot for the memorial in the Abbey and sought permission from the clerk of the Chapter. Unfortunately the fees demanded to site the memorial in the Abbey proved to be unacceptable, and the club decided to install the monument in St. Margaret's Church instead as this site, apart from its equal claim to Caxton's memory, carried the added benefit of being free. Even this story may not be as straightforward as it might first appear. The sum demanded by the clerk of the Chapter of Westminster Abbey was £120, which would not appear to be an excessive sum to a group predominantly formed by extremely wealthy men, but perhaps the point was more one of principle than economics. Dibdin portrayed it in this light, announcing rather huffily that 'all that I choose further to say upon this subject is, that if any monument might have been allowed a gratuitous entrance within the walls of the Abbey, it was surely that of the FATHER OF THE BRITISH PRESS – who first exercised his art there'. Although it is perhaps tempting for critics to view this as a transparent attempt to disguise parsimony on the part of the club under a high-minded pretext, Dibdin's angle on the matter is somewhat borne out by the letter received by the club in reply to their application to the dean and the Chapter of Westminster Abbey. The clerk writes that neither of the prominent sites proposed by the club for the memorial have been approved and that instead a position in St. Edmund's Chapel is offered for its location. The reaction of the club members is expressed by Haslewood, who, writing in his journal at the time of the event, indicates that the club had already agreed to the amount to be paid but objected to the proposed site, saying that 'this day reversed all gone before [...] the Goths that guide there, can have no other God than gold: for they gave such a choice of situations that to have followed their sinister wishes wod have been not to bury the body, but to bury the monument'. Haslewood was not a particularly wealthy man and would, perhaps of all the members, have been most justified in resenting the demands of the Chapter for a high fee to be paid but instead objects most forcibly to the proposed site of the memorial. That the Chapter did not deem Caxton's monument worthy of a more prominent position is in itself telling of the generally held opinions of the time towards the reputations of the early printers. A memorial to Caxton was eventually installed in Westminster Abbey in 1954.
Excerpted from "The Early Roxburghe Club 1812–1835"
Copyright © 2017 Shayne Husbands.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures; Acknowledgements; Introduction; Chapter 1. The Persistence Of Myth; Chapter 2: Scandal, Libel And Satire; Chapter 3. The Roxburghe Club and the Politics of Class; Chapter 4: Politics, Religion, Money; Chapter 5. Club Members And Their Book Collections; Chapter 6. The Passion For Print; Chapter 7. The Literary Works Of The Roxburghe Club Members; Chapter 8. The Club Editions; Chapter 9: The Legacies Of The Club; Conclusion; Appendix 1: The Club Membership 1812– 1835 177; Appendix 2: Roxburghe Club Editions 1812– 1835; Bibliography; Index.
What People are Saying About This
‘A helpful study, distinguished by its careful archival research and insight into the relationship between the history of knowledge and the history of sociable networks. Husbands sheds new light on the early years of the Roxburghe Club and the role that Regency bibliophiles played in the development of literary scholarship.’
Deidre Lynch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, Harvard University, USA