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startles the reader like a plover starting up in a dreary moor:
"Twenty-one members met joyfully, dined comfortably, challenged eagerly,
tippled prettily, divided regretfully, and paid the bill most
cheerfully." On another occasion the historian's enthusiasm was too
expansive to be confined to plain prose, and he inflated it in lyric
verse: -

"Brave was the banquet, the red red juice,
Hilarity's gift sublime,
Invoking the heart to kindred use,
And bright'ning halo of time."

This, and a quantity of additional matter of like kind, was good fun to
the scorners, and, whether any of the unskilful laughed at it, scarcely
made even the judicious grieve, for they thought that those who had
embarked in such pompous follies deserved the lash unconsciously
administered to them in his blunders by an unhappy member of their own

In fact, however, this was the youthful giant sowing his wild oats.
Along with them there lay also, unseen at first, the seed of good fruit.
Of these, was a resolution adopted at the second meeting, and thus set
forth by the historian in his own peculiar style: "It was proposed and
concluded for each member of the club to reprint a scarce piece of
ancient lore to be given to the members, one copy to be on vellum for
the chairman, and only as many copies as members."

The earliest productions following on this resolution were on a very
minute scale. One member, stimulated to distinguish himself by "a merry
conceited jest," reprinted a French morsel called "La Contenance de la
Table," and had it disposed of in such wise, that as each guest opened
his napkin expecting to find a dinner-roll, he disclosed the
typographical treasure. It stands No. 6 on the list of Roxburghe books,
and is probably worth an enormous sum. The same enthusiast reprinted in
a more formal manner a rarity called "News from Scotland, declaring the
damnable life of Dr Fian, a notable sorcerer," &c. This same morsel was
afterwards reprinted for another club, in a shape calculated almost to
create a contemptuous contrast between the infantine efforts of the
Roxburghe and the manly labours of its robust followers. It is inserted
as what the French call a _pièce justificative_ in Pitcairn's Criminal
Trials, edited for the Bannatyne, and there occupies ten of the more
than 2000 pages which make up that solid book.

It was not until the year 1827 that a step was taken by the Roxburghe
Club which might be called its first exhibition of sober manhood. Some
of the members, ashamed of the paltry nature of the volumes circulated
in the name of the club, bethought themselves of uniting to produce a
book of national value. They took Sir Frederick Madden into their
counsels, and authorised him to print eighty copies of the old metrical
romance of Havelok the Dane. This gave great dissatisfaction to the
historian, who muttered how "a MS. not discovered by a member of the
club was selected, and an excerpt obtained, not furnished by the
industry or under the inspection of any one member, nor edited by a
member; but, in fact, after much _pro_ and _con._, it was made a
complete hireling concern, truly at the expense of the club, from the
copying to the publishing."

The value of this book has been attested by the extensive critical
examination it has received, and by the serviceable aid it has given to
all recent writers on the infancy of English literature. It was followed
by another interesting old romance, William and the Wer Wolf, valuable
not only as a specimen of early literature, but for the light it throws
on the strange wild superstition dealing with the conversion of men
into wolves, which has been found so widely prevalent that it has
received a sort of scientific title in the word Lycanthropy. These two
books made the reputation of the Roxburghe, and proved an example and
encouragement to the clubs which began to arise more or less on its
model. It was a healthy protest against the Dibdinism which had ruled
the destinies of the club, for Dibdin had been its master, and was the
Gamaliel at whose feet Hazlewood and others patiently sat. Of the term
now used, the best explanation I can give is this, that in the selection
of books - other questions, such as rarity or condition, being set aside
or equally balanced - a general preference is to be given to those which
are the most witless, preposterous, and in every literary sense
valueless - which are, in short, rubbish. What is here meant will be
easily felt by any one who chooses to consult the book which Dibdin
issued under the title of "The Library Companion, or the Young Man's
Guide and the Old Man's Comfort in the choice of a Library." This, it
will be observed, is not intended as a manual of rare or curious, or in
any way peculiar books, but as the instruction of a Nestor on the best
books for study and use in all departments of literature. Yet one will
look in vain there for such names as Montaigne, Shaftesbury, Benjamin
Franklin, D'Alembert, Turgot, Adam Smith, Malebranche, Lessing, Goethe,
Schiller, Fénelon, Burke, Kant, Richter, Spinoza, Flechier, and many
others. Characteristically enough, if you turn up Rousseau in the index,
you will find Jean Baptiste, but not Jean Jacques. You will search in
vain for Dr Thomas Reid, the metaphysician, but will readily find Isaac
Reed, the editor. If you look for Molinæus or Du Moulin, it is not
there, but alphabetic vicinity gives you the good fortune to become
acquainted with "Moule, Mr, his Bibliotheca Heraldica." The name Hooker
will be found, not to guide the reader to the Ecclesiastical Polity, but
to Dr Jackson Hooker's Tour in Iceland. Lastly, if any one shall search
for Hartley on Man, he will find in the place it might occupy, or has
reference to, the editorial services of "Hazlewood, Mr Joseph."

Though the Roxburghe, when it came under the fostering care of the
scholarly Botfield, and secured the services of men like Madden, Wright,
and Taylor, outgrew the pedantries in which it had been reared, and
performed much valuable literary work, yet its chief merit is in the
hints its practice afforded to others. The leading principle, indeed,
which the other clubs so largely adopted after the example of the
Roxburghe, was not an entire novelty. The idea of keeping up the value
of a book by limiting the impression, so as to restrain it within the
number who might desire to possess it, was known before the birth of
this the oldest book club. The practice was sedulously followed by
Hearne the antiquary, and others, who provided old chronicles and books
of the class chiefly esteemed by the book-hunter. The very fame of the
restricted number, operating on the selfish jealousy of man's nature,
brought out competitors for the possession of the book, who never would
have thought of it but for the pleasant idea of keeping it out of the
hands of some one else.

There are several instances on record of an unknown book lying in the
printer's warerooms, dead from birth and forgotten, having life and
importance given to it by the report that all the copies, save a few,
have been destroyed by a fire in the premises. This is an illustration
in the sibylline direction of value being conferred by the decrease of
the commodity; but by judiciously adjusting the number of copies
printed, the remarkable phenomenon has been exhibited of the rarity of a
book being increased by an increase in the number of copies. To
understand how this may come to pass, it is necessary to recall the
precept elsewhere set forth, and look on rarity as not an absolute
quality, but as relative to the number who desire to possess the
article. Ten copies which two hundred people want constitute a rarer
book than two copies which twenty people want. Even to a sole remaining
copy of some forgotten book, lying dead, as it were, and buried in some
obscure library, may collective vital rarity be imparted. Let its owner
print, say, twenty copies for distribution - the book-hunting community
have got the "hark-away," and are off after it. In this way, before the
days of the clubs, many knowing people multiplied rarities; and at the
present day there are reprints by the clubs themselves of much greater
pecuniary value than the rare books from which they have been

Some Book-Club Men.

No one probably did more to raise the condition of the book clubs than
Sir Walter Scott. In 1823 the Roxburghe made proffers of membership to
him, partly, it would seem, under the influence of a waggish desire to
disturb his great secret, which had not yet been revealed. Dibdin,
weighting himself with more than his usual burden of ponderous
jocularity, set himself in motion to intimate to Scott the desire of the
club that the Author of Waverley, with whom it was supposed that he had
the means of communicating, would accept of the seat at the club vacated
by the death of Sir Mark Sykes. Scott got through the affair ingeniously
with a little coy fencing that deceived no one, and was finally accepted
as the Author of Waverley's representative. The Roxburghe had, however,
at that time, done nothing in serious book-club business, having let
loose only the small flight of flimsy sheets of letterpress already
referred to. It was Scott's own favourite club, the Bannatyne, that
first projected the plan of printing substantial and valuable volumes.

At the commencement of the same year, 1823, when he took his seat at the
Roxburghe (he did not take his bottle there, which was the more
important object, for some time after), he wrote to the late Robert
Pitcairn, the editor of the Criminal Trials, in these terms: "I have
long thought that a something of a bibliomaniacal society might be
formed here, for the prosecution of the important task of publishing
_dilettante_ editions of our national literary curiosities. Several
persons of rank, I believe, would willingly become members, and there
are enough of good operatives. What would you think of such an
association? David Laing was ever keen for it; but the death of Sir
Alexander Boswell and of Alexander Oswald has damped his zeal. I think,
if a good plan were formed, and a certain number of members chosen, the
thing would still do well."[71]

[Footnote 71: Notices of the Bannatyne Club, privately printed.]

Scott gave the Bannatyners a song for their festivities. It goes to the
tune of "One Bottle More," and is a wonderful illustration of his
versatile powers, in the admirable bibulous sort of joviality which he
distils, as it were, from the very dust of musty volumes, thus: -

"John Pinkerton next, and I'm truly concerned
I can't call that worthy so candid as learned;
He railed at the plaid, and blasphemed the claymore,
And set Scots by the ears in his one volume more.
One volume more, my friends, one volume more -
Celt and Goth shall be pleased with one volume more.

As bitter as gall, and as sharp as a razor,
And feeding on herbs as a Nebuchadnezzar,
His diet too acid, his temper too sour,
Little Ritson came out with his two volumes more.
But one volume, my friends, one volume more -
We'll dine on roast beef, and print one volume more."

I am tempted to add a word or two of prosaic gossip and comment to the
characteristics thus so happily hit off in verse. John Pinkerton was,
upon the whole, a man of simple character. The simplicity consisted in
the thorough belief that never, in any country or at any period of the
world's history, had there been created a human being destined to be
endowed with even an approach to the genius, wisdom, and learning of
which he was himself possessed. He never said a word in praise of any
fellow-being, for none had ever risen so much above the wretched level
of the stupid world he looked down upon as to deserve such a
distinction. He condescended, however, to distribute censure, and that
with considerable liberality. For instance, take his condensed notice of
an unfortunate worker in his own field, Walter Goodal, whose works are
"fraught with furious railing, contemptible scurrility, low prejudice,
small reading, and vulgar error." Thus having dealt with an unfortunate
and rather obscure author, he shows his impartiality by dealing with
Macpherson, then in the zenith of his fame, in this wise: "His
etymological nonsense he assists with gross falsehoods, and pretends to
skill in the Celtic without quoting one single MS. In short, he deals
wholly in assertion and opinion, and it is clear that he had not even an
idea what learning and science are." Nor less emphatic is his railing at
the plaid and blaspheming at the claymore. Donald and his brethren are
thus described: "Being mere savages, but one degree above brutes, they
remain still in much the same state of society as in the days of Julius
Cæsar; and he who travels among the Scottish Highlanders, the old Welsh,
or wild Irish, may see at once the ancient and modern state of women
among the Celts, when he beholds these savages stretched in their huts,
and their poor women toiling like beasts of burden for their unmanly
husbands;" and finally, "being absolute savages, and, like Indians and
negroes, will ever continue so, all we can do is to plant colonies among
them, and by this, and encouraging their emigration, try to get rid of
the breed."

This fervency is all along of the question whether the Picts, or Piks,
as Pinkerton chooses to call them, were Celts or Goths. If we turn to
the books of his opponent on this question, Joseph Ritson, we find him
paid back in his own coin, and that so genuine, that, on reading about
gross ignorance, falsehood, and folly, one would think he was still
enjoying Pinkerton's own flowers of eloquence, were it not that the
tenor of the argument has somehow turned to the opposite side. I drop
into the note below a specimen from the last words of this controversy,
as characteristic of the way in which it was conducted, and a sample of
the kind of dry fuel which, when ignited by these incendiaries, blazed
into so much rage.[72]

[Footnote 72: "See Pinkerton's Enquiry, i. 173, &c., 369. He explains
the _Vecturiones_ of Marcellinus, '_Vectveriar_, or _Pikish_ men, as,'
he untruly says, 'the Icelandic writers call them in their Norwegian
seats _Vik-veriar_,' and, either ignorantly or dishonestly to
countenance this most false and absurd hypothesis, corrupts the Pihtas
of the Saxons into Pihtar, a termination impossible to their language.
It is true, indeed, that he has stumbled upon a passage in Rudbeck's
Atlantica, i. 672, in which that very fanciful and extravagant writer
speaks of the _Packar_, _Baggar_, _Paikstar_, _Baggeboar_, _Pitar_, and
_Medel Pakcar_, whom he pretends '_Britanni_ vero _Peiktar_ appellant,
et _Peictonum_ tam eorum qui in Galliis quam in Britannia resident
genitores faciunt.' He finds these Pacti also in the Argonauticks, v.
1067; and his whole work seems the composition of a man whom 'much
learning hath made mad.'" - Ritson's Annals of the Caledonians, &c., i.

Ritson was a man endowed with almost superhuman irritability of temper,
and he had a genius fertile in devising means of giving scope to its
restless energies. I have heard that it was one of his obstinate
fancies, when addressing a letter to a friend of the male sex, instead
of using the ordinary prefix of Mr or the affix Esq., to use the term
"Master," as Master John Pinkerton, Master George Chalmers. The
agreeable result of this was, that his communications on intricate and
irritating antiquarian disputes were delivered to, and perused by, the
young gentlemen of the family, so opening up new little intricate
avenues, fertile in controversy and misunderstanding. But he had another
and more inexhaustible resource for his superabundant irritability. In
his numerous books he insisted on adopting a peculiar spelling. It was
not phonetic, nor was it etymological; it was simply Ritsonian. To
understand the efficacy of this arrangement, it must be remembered that
the instinct of a printer is to spell according to rule, and that every
deviation from the ordinary method can only be carried out by a special
contest over each word. General instructions on such a matter are apt to
produce unexpected results. One very sad instance I can now recall; it
was that of a French author who, in a new edition of his works, desired
to alter the old-fashioned spelling of the imperfect tense from o to a.
To save himself trouble, on the first instance occurring in each proof,
he put in the margin a general direction to change all such o's into
a's. The instruction was so literally and comprehensively obeyed, that,
happening to glance his eye over the volume on its completion, he found
the letter o entirely excluded from it. Even the sacred name of
Napoleon was irreverently printed Napalean, and the Revolution was the
Revalutian. Ritson had far too sharp a scent for any little matter of
controversy and irritating discussion to get into a difficulty like
this. He would fight each step of the way, and such peculiarities as the
following, profusely scattered over his books, may be looked upon as the
names of so many battles or skirmishes with his printers - _compileër_,
_writeër_, _wel_, _kil_, _onely_, _probablely_. Even when he
condescended to use the spelling common to the rest of the nation, he
could pick out little causes of quarrel with the way of putting it in
type - as, for instance, in using the word Ass, which came naturally to
him, he would not follow the practice of his day in the use of the long
and short ([s]s), but inverted the arrangement thus, s[s]. This strange
creature exemplified the opinion that every one must have some
creed - something from without having an influence over thought and
action stronger than the imperfect apparatus of human reason. Scornfully
disdaining revelation from above, he groped below, and found for himself
a little fetish made of turnips and cabbages. He was as fanatical a
devotee of vegetarianism as others have been of a middle state or adult
baptism; and, after having torn through a life of spiteful controversy
with his fellow-men, and ribaldry of all sacred things, he thus
expressed the one weight hanging on his conscience, that "on one
occasion, when temptéed by wet, cold, and hunger in the south of
Scotland, he ventured to eat a few potatoes dressed under the roast,
nothing less repugnant to feelings being to be had."[73]

[Footnote 73: See an Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral
Duty. By Joseph Ritson.]

To return to the services of him of mightier renown, whose genial
drolleries led to these notices. Scott printed, as a contribution to his
favourite club, the record of the trial of two Highlanders for murder,
which brought forth some highly characteristic incidents. The victim was
a certain Sergeant Davis, who had charge of one of the military parties
or guards dispersed over the Highlands to keep them in order after the
'45. Davis had gone from his own post at Braemar up Glen Clunie to meet
the guard from Glenshee. He chose to send his men back and take a day's
shooting among the wild mountains at the head of the glen, and was seen
no more. How he was disposed of could easily be divined in a general
way, but there were no particulars to be had. It happened, however, that
there was one Highlander who, for reasons best known to himself - they
were never got at - had come to the resolution of bringing his brother
Highlanders, who had made away with the sergeant, to justice. It was
necessary for his own safety, however, that he should be under the
pressure of a motive or impulse sufficient to justify so heartless and
unnatural a proceeding, otherwise he would himself have been likely to
follow the sergeant's fate. Any reference to his conscience, the love of
justice, respect for the laws of the land, or the like, would of course
have been received with well-merited ridicule and scorn. He must have
some motive which a sensible Highlander could admit as probable in
itself, and sufficient for its purpose.

Accordingly the accuser said he had been visited by the sergeant's
ghost, who had told him everything, and laid on him the heavy burden of
bringing his slaughterers in the flesh to their account. If that were
not done, the troubled spirit would not cease to walk the earth, and so
long as he walked would the afflicted denouncer continue to be the
victim of his ghostly visits. The case was tried at Edinburgh, and
though the evidence was otherwise clear and complete, the Lowland jury
were perplexed and put out by the supernatural episode. A Highland
story, with a ghost acting witness at second-hand, roused all their
Saxon prejudices, and they cut the knot of difficulties by declining to
convict. A point was supposed to have been made, when the counsel for
the defence asked the ghost-seer what language the ghost, who was
English when in the flesh, spoke to the Highlander, who knew not that
language; and the witness answered, through his interpreter, that the
spectre spoke as good Gaelic as ever was heard in Lochaber. Sir Walter
Scott, however, remarks that there was no incongruity in this, if we
once get over the first step of the ghost's existence. It is curious
that Scott does not seem to have woven the particulars of this affair
into any one of his novels.

Among those who contributed to place the stamp of a higher character on
the labours of the book clubs, one of the most remarkable was Sir
Alexander Boswell. A time there was, unfortunately, when his name could
not easily be dissociated from exasperating political events; but now
that the generation concerned in them has nearly passed away, it becomes
practicable, even from the side of his political opponents, to glance at
his literary abilities and accomplishments without recalling exciting
recollections. He was a member of the Roxburghe, and though he did not
live to see the improvement in the issues of that institution, or the
others which kept pace with it, he, alone and single-handed, set the
example of printing the kind of books which it was afterwards the merit
of the book clubs to promulgate. He gave them, in fact, their tone. He
had at his paternal home of Auchinleck a remarkable collection of rare
books and manuscripts; one of these afforded the text from which the
romance of Sir Tristrem was printed. He reprinted from the one remaining
copy in his own possession the disputation between John Knox and Quentin
Kennedy, a priest who came forward against the great Reformer as the
champion of the old religion. From the Auchinleck press came also
reprints of Lodge's Fig for Momus, Churchyard's Mirrour of Man, the Book
of the Chess, Sir James Dier's Remembrancer of the Life of Sir Nicholas
Bacon, the Dialogus inter Deum et Evam, and others.

The possession of a private printing-press is, no doubt, a very
appalling type of bibliomania. Much as has been told us of the awful
scale on which drunkards consume their favoured poison, one is not
accustomed to hear of their setting up private stills for their own
individual consumption. There is a Sardanapalitan excess in this
bibliographical luxuriousness which refuses to partake with other vulgar
mortals in the common harvest of the public press, but must itself
minister to its own tastes and demands. The owner of such an
establishment is subject to no extraneous caprices about breadth of
margins, size of type, quarto or folio, leaded or unleaded lines; he
dictates his own terms; he is master of the situation, as the French
say; and is the true autocrat of literature. There have been several
renowned private presses: Walpole's, at Strawberry Hill; Mr Johnes's, at
Hafod; Allan's, at the Grange; and the Lee Priory Press. None of these,
however, went so distinctly into the groove afterwards followed by the
book clubs as Sir Alexander Boswell's Auchinleck Press. In the
Bibliographical Decameron is a brief history, by Sir Alexander himself,
of the rise and progress of his press. He tells us how he had resolved
to print Knox's Disputation: "For this purpose I was constrained to
purchase two small fonts of black-letter, and to have punches cut for
eighteen or twenty double letters and contractions. I was thus enlisted
and articled into the service, and being infected with the _type_ fever,
the fits have periodically returned. In the year 1815, having viewed a
portable press invented by Mr John Ruthven, an ingenious printer in
Edinburgh, I purchased one, and commenced compositor. At this period, my
brother having it in contemplation to present Bamfield to the Roxburghe
Club, and not aware of the poverty and insignificance of my

Online LibraryJohn Hill BurtonThe book-hunter : etc. → online text (page 24 of 33)