John Collings Squire.

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hand at something else. In the nature of
things the novel can never be exhausted ;
human nature can never be exhausted. But
that a general feeling of staleness should
come, if it has not already come even were
it to pass away again is to be expected.
We have had for generations a tremendous
output of novels. Convention has succeeded
convention. Length has been almost stereo-
typed. The spell of the established is strong.
Fashion has (or seems to have) almost boxed
the compass of methods. Novelists find (or
appear to find) it difficult to sit down and
write as if no one had ever written a novel
before. Almost from the mere title a novel
can usually be classed as a novel of a certain

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Books in General

school or type. The writer of a novel must
often be haunted by the suspicion, as he
writes, that he has seen all this sort of thing
before ; and the more original a man's mind
the more likely he is to want to turn his back
on a form that everybody has used for genera-
tions. I do not suppose it will ever again be
considered rather disgraceful to write a novel.
Even were the novel out of fashion, the exist-
ence of great novels in the canon of literature
would prevent that. The epic (pace Mr.
Noyes's Drake) is out of fashion ; but it is
not considered disgraceful to write epics,
for Homer did the thing superbly and it is
therefore respectable. But it does seem to
me possible, though at the moment every
shelf groans with novels, that the novel, as
we know it, will be no more permanent than
any other art-form or any mechanical device.
The tale is as enduring as the walking-stick ;
but the modern novel is as temporary as
the steam-engine.

Please note the reservation. I say the
" novel as we know it." I am quite prepared
to admit that there are things worth doing
that can only be done in a hundred thousand
words or more of prose. It is conceivable,
I think, that there was truth in the conten-
tion of that critic (I think Mr. Abercrombie)
who said that the novel began with Thomas
Hardy, by which he meant that with Mr.

238



A Friend

Hardy began a new kind of novel. The kind
he would (I suppose) say had been carried
one stage further by Mr. Conrad, and there
may be great figures ahead. This I do not
dispute. What I said was that I thought
that the stream of intelligent novels had
begun to shrink and would go on shrinking,
and that the novel would become an intel-
lectual fashion again only when it had markedly
changed and the mass of artists had had a
rest from it.

This is what I thought when I left the

Sablisher. There are possible answers to it.
ne is that I may be wrong. The other is
that I could not write a novel myself and
want to keep myself warm in the outer dark-
ness of that incapacity. Any reader is fully
at liberty to make either answer or both. I
am not inclined to be very positive on the
subject, and even if I were, people would still,
alas, think what they pleased.



A Friend

I WAS talking, a week ago, to a collector
of books, a veteran with a great col-
lection. The talk turned, as it will
on such occasions, to the irrecoverable good old
days when a man with a small income could,

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Books in General

granted knowledge and enthusiasm, form a
collection full of rarities. The American mil-
lionaires had not come properly into the
market. A hundred transatlantic universities
were not forming libraries, scouring all the
English catalogues, and giving booksellers
the assurance of ever-rising prices for early
books. Good quarto plays were still procur-
able for a few shillings when my interlocutor
began ; minor classics who are now names
to conjure with in the salerooms were still
unboomed ; early volumes of verse were still
scatttered about of which almost every copy
has now found its way to the shelves of some
public institution never to emerge again failing
the end of our civilization in some ultra-Bol-
shevist revolution or an invasion from Mars. I
was not quite so regretful as my friend. I found
consolation in the fact that for every author
who is put out of reach of the impecunious
book collector, another author comes into
his sphere of action. F ; fty years ago you
might pick up, or buy cheap in an auction
room, a Herrick or a Lovelace, but the Caxtons
were already expensive and, for the most
part, labelled and shelved. To-day, if the
Hesperides costs 130, and there is small
likelihood of unrecorded copies coming to
light, the poor collector has only to move his
attention a half-a-century forward and he
may still discover Restoration and Queen
Anne and Georgian rarities, purchasable in
240



A Friend

out-of-the-way shops for a few shillings ;
books some of which fetch their pounds in
the salerooms but which have not yet been
hunted for with searchlights, as they will be
when the last of the Carolines has found its
way into a museum. And Victorian first
editions are still lurking in plenty in the
corners of provincial shops.

So did we put the best face on things and
console ourselves for the fact that we could
no longer, as Charles Lamb could do, find first
editions of the Anatomy on barrows, or get a
great folio of plays at the price of a new pair
of shoes. We reminded ourselves of " A,"
who had recently got Lamia and Endymion
for two shillings, and " B," who found
Shelley's juvenile novels in the penny box
at Wandsworth But we had exaggerated
even the difficulties of finding the earlier and
more sought-after books. The collector of
genius can still find them.

For I heard next day of a death ; a life,
short as lives go ; and a friendship, old as
friendships go, had ended. I will not mention
his name here ; it would not be known. He
had published nothing. He had spent his
working life learning, and the one manuscript
he left complete was a modest bibliography
of a college library. It will be published,
and the little world of bibliographers will learn

Q 241



Books in General

that a man, for his years rarely skilled in
their lore, has died, and that in his maiden
and modest research he made a few discoveries,
in a narrow area, which generations of librarians
had missed. And he had a genius for the
collection of books.

His library was small as libraries go : a
few hundreds of old volumes. But all of
them he had " found." He united a wide
knowledge which often enabled him to spot
a book which to the ignorant bore no obvious
clue to its nature, no obvious indication of
its exceptional interest, with something which
one could only call instinct, which often led
him straight to the only shelf in a shop which
contained anything worth looking at. I re-
member a few things casually. On a barrow
in the Whitechapel-road, the stock of which
had all passed through the salerooms, he
found a beautiful large black letter, a Pynson
with the most delightful woodcuts, one of the
most agreeable of early sixteenth century
English books. Three times in as many
months he found in three several shops, and
purchased for a couple of shillings a piece,
fine copies of another book which has scarcely
ever come into the salerooms and which has
fetched nearly 20 when it has done so. Here
it was a question of his out-of-the-way know-
ledge the book's value is under the surface
against the bookseller's lack of it. I have
242



A Friend

gone into a shop in Bloomsbury with him and
seen him, in a languid, careless way, mount a
ladder to a top shelf and bring down, with
impassive face, three rare little black letter
volumes of the Statutes (I think) of Henry
VIII., one of which was not at least in

Eerfect condition in the British Museum.
f he went away for the week-end it was the
normal thing to ask him when he came back
whether he had found a book shop and what
he had got there ; the usual and expected
answer being that he had dropped into one,
or a furniture shop with a shelf of books, for
five minutes, and bought (I give a few instances)
the folios of Donne's Sermons, including the
very rare third volume, for a matter of
shillings, or a perfect Herbert, or a fine early
North's Plutarch. He went to Dublin, and
after a day or two I received from him a
charming little incunable Claudian from Parma
(he took but a passing friendly interest in
early foreign printing) for which he had given
half-a-crown ; and from under the noses of
the most respectable and knowing booksellers
of Oxford and Cambridge he bore off, for next
to nothing, volumes for which I am certain
I should have had to pay, or to decline to
pay, pounds. The most churlish, secretive
and suspicious of booksellers would, at first
sight, allow him into their hidden stores and
cellars, where he would (his hand usually
flying to the right thing spontaneously) unearth

2 43



Books in General

books stowed away and forgotten thirty years
ago. As it happened none of the greatest
and most valuable books came his way
during the few years of his hobby ; but one
always felt he was " liable " to secure even the
proverbial Mazarin Bible or a First Folio.
He made one feel that rare books were as
common as blackberries,

He was not a recluse, or an eccentric, or a
stooping bookworm. He did not see life
through books ; until his last illness he did
his job, pulled his oar, drank his bottle, looked
at the earth and the sky. The pursuit of the
odd and scarce book, of the false collation,
the printer's error, the unknown edition, the
fragment at the binding's back, were an amuse-
ment in health and a consolation in sickness ;
done with thoroughness and immense enjoy-
ment, but not taken more seriously than they
should be. But he liked books. He spent a
great deal of his leisure on them. He read
catalogues at breakfast, rectified entries in
works of reference at lunch, usually carried
something in vellum or old calf wherever he
went ; and had a life of moneyed ease been
his lot he would have found his chief occupa-
tion in the discovery, examination and proper
arrangement of our old poets. With such
toys do we amuse ourselves during our brief
passage between birth and death, knowing
that the shadow is over us and that we can
244



A Friend

take nothing to the grave. And, for so we
are made, I think that even at the last, when
life in retrospect seemed no longer than a
day, and the door into dark mystery was
open wide, he would, looking back for the
last time, have wished, if it were possible,
that some memory of his brief researches
among books should be preserved, and that a
friend should commemorate him in no other
way than this.



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Online LibraryJohn Collings SquireBooks in general → online text (page 13 of 13)