Last week we discussed the Great Book Scare from the end of the 19th century. Back at the beginning of the century there was opposite phenomena: a great swelling of interest in
rare books. Lapham's Quarterly newsletter published an article September 3, 2019 on the good form of Book Disease: Bibliomania. Thanks to Anne Bentley of the
Massachusetts Historical Society for passing this along. -Editor
The early nineteenth-century cult of bibliomania was a bizarre episode, but one with long-lasting consequences. It culminated in the famous sale of the library of the
3rd Duke of Roxburghe, conducted by the auctioneer Robert Harding Evans, which took place in the dining room of Roxburghe’s house in St. James’ Square in June 1812. By then the
duke had been dead for the best part of a decade. Contemporary gossip believed him to have been a shy and retiring man who had turned to book collecting having been disappointed
Antiquarian book prices had climbed to unprecedented levels over the previous twenty years, but spectators nonetheless gaped as assorted aristocratic collectors and their
agents pushed the bidding ever higher, and Roxburghe’s books sold one after another for astonishing prices. The fifteen Caxtons attracted special attention, and were pursued with
particular determination by the 2nd Earl Spencer, well known as the greatest British book collector of the age. The climactic moment was reached with the sale of the so-called
Valdarfer Boccaccio, Roxburghe’s copy of the editio princeps of the Decameron printed in Venice by Christoph Valdarfer in 1471, a copy then believed to be unique. It was
routed by Spencer’s librarian the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin with slovenly (but characteristic) illogicality as “the very scarcest book that existed.” Those present were nor
disappointed by the spectacle which followed.
Blandford’s successful bid of £2,260 was by the standards of the day a gigantic sum of money. Three months after the Roxburghe sale, Jane Austen sold the copyright of
Pride and Prejudice for £110, and Mr. Darcy had an income of £10,000 a year. The morning after the sale, advertisements in the Times included one for a secondhand
pianoforte (24 guineas) and another for the lease on a twenty-bedroom coffeehouse in the City of London (annual rent: £1,900). But ironically Earl Spencer was to have the
last laugh. When the finances of the perennially extravagant Blandford collapsed in 1819, the earl was able to secure the Boccaccio for £918, less than half what Blandford had
paid for it in 1812. The bubble had burst.
To read the complete article, see:
The Book Disease (https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/book-disease)
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
THE GREAT BOOK SCARE (https://www.coinbooks.org/v22/esylum_v22n35a29.html)
Wayne Homren, Editor
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