'WHEN I HAVE A HOUSE OF MY OWN, I SHALL BE MISERABLE IF I HAVE NOT AN EXCELLENT LIBRARY' - JANE AUSTEN.
I have loved, and been obsessed with, Jane Austen since I was thirteen years old and it is all Thomas Hardy’s fault. I attended a school in Dorset and thus Hardy was required reading. In quick succession we had read The Trumpet Major and Jude the Obscure, the latter being really quite unsuitable for twelve year olds. The death and depression of the book was horrifying to me and I did not enjoy it one bit. However, the next reader on the list was Pride and Prejudice.
I remembered watching some of the 1967 version on the BBC and really enjoyed that, so this was the perfect storm that laid the foundations of future obsession. After Jude the Obscure, it was inevitable that I was going to fall for the sparkling wit of Jane Austen, not to mention Mr Darcy! I remember endlessly rereading the line, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you”, but not going on to the rest of the dreadful proposal!
I soon went on to read the other Austen novels and a set of Penguins followed me to college for good company as I studied to become a science teacher. I loved all of the books but it was Pride and Prejudice that held a special place in my heart and I reread it at least once a year - always the same (now quite dog-eared) Penguin edition.
Then I met my husband! Did finding my own Mr Darcy make me stop rereading my favourite novel? Of course it did not! I continued to read my very battered Penguin until one day in 1982 my husband bought me a gift. It was a beautiful, new, illustrated edition by Purnell. It seemed so lovely to me that I did not want to spoil it by reading it. About the same time I found and bought an old biography of Jane Austen by Goldwyn Smith printed in 1892. The die was cast and the beginning of a collection was born!
To begin with, I only collected biographies of Jane Austen and hard backed copies of Pride and Prejudice, of which there were many. However my purse did not stretch often to specialist antiquarian book shops so my searches were normally confined to general bookshops and charity shops. Luckily Cambridge has quite a number of charity shops. It soon became apparent that limiting me to the two types of book I was collecting was not very satisfying; book finding trips would often be unsuccessful and eBay did not exist. So I decided to include all of the novels and juvenilia, as well as paperbacks and any history books that mentioned Jane Austen. My book collection gradually grew over the next fifteen years with the addition of posters and programmes from play adaptations. Book cases began springing up all over the house. My greatest acquisition during this time was my “Peacock Edition”. The staff at David’s Bookshop in Cambridge knew me well. I bought books that I could afford and the staff indulged me by unlocking cabinets for me to caress books that were way out of my price range. Then one day, there it was, the green leather cover and gilt Peacock shouting, “Buy me!”. It was £35 but the assistant said I could have it for £20 as I was such a regular customer. You could have knocked me down with a feather (of the peacock variety of course!) He then went on to tell me the history of selling these books when David’s was just a stall in Cambridge Market. The Hugh Thomson illustrated Peacock used to be sold for one shilling (5p) but books illustrated by the Brock brothers were two shillings because they were Cambridge artists!
Another excellent find in a second hand bookshop was an 1808 copy of Lovers’ Vows, the play that appears in Mansfield Park. As a collector, it is always best to find things where the owner has no idea that there is a connection to Jane Austen. This brings me to my watershed moment. I call the time before this moment “Pre Colin Firth wet shirt” and the time after, “Post Colin Firth wet shirt”! The 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and the following furore had an incredible effect upon the price of second-hand and antiquarian books by Austen. It became much more difficult to find affordable volumes. 1995 is also the year that Amazon.com and eBay appeared and more people were “surfing the Internet”. In the early days of the Internet I would print out and put into a folder any articles I could find about Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice. Could you imagine trying to do that now!
My collection continued to grow “post shirt” as did the number of bookcases. In 2011, we retired and moved to Chatteris where my books and now burgeoning collection of fanfiction were displayed in new bookcases. I had no more room for new books but more time to search! My sets of Dickens, Agatha Christie, Gerald Durrell, Walter Scott etc. were consigned to the loft. But then in 2016 we made the decision to move to Denmark. I wanted to go but I also wanted somewhere with enough rooms for me to have my own library! I was indulged yet again. I am happy to announce that my library is complete! It is in its own room with a desk and an armchair just for me! My collection has deserved this and I am so happy - I now have well over two thousand items in my library (and on the walls of other rooms!). There are 72 books published in the 18th and 19th centuries with the earliest Austen being an 1833 Bentley edition of Emma. I can now choose to read Pride and Prejudice from one of the 223 individual and different copies and even delve into the same story in one of the 38 collected works.
I also have 48 DVDs, 27 VHS tapes (with nothing on which to play them!) and 60 talking books or radio plays on cassette (for which I do have a player!) My collection also includes around 55 pictures and prints of which at least 22 are original prints from around the time Jane Austen was alive. Post Office First day covers also make an appearance with my favourite being sent to Edward Knight Esq. of Chawton House in 1967!
I will leave you with a small selection of my favourites:
- The limited, twelve volume Hampshire Edition, illustrated by Brock and bought for me at Chawton Cottage as a gift from my husband and two sons.
- The 1767 two volume Fordyce’s Sermons owned by Mary Shelley’s stepmother.
- A 1966 copy of Mansfield Park with a fore edge painting of Godmersham Park.
- Miss Elizabeth Bennet, a play by A A Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh) published in 1936.
- A full vellum edition of Mansfield Park published in 1908, a gift from my son.
- A 1774 copy of the Book of Common Prayer rescued from a bonfire at a National Trust property!
- Two original prints of Georgian actresses; Mrs Mardyn and Mrs St Ledger. The former played Amelia in Lovers’ Vows in Drury Lane in 1815 (could Jane have seen her?) and was erroneously accused of an affair with Lord Byron! They were a Mother’s Day gift.
I could go on and on!
© Hazel Mills - Founding member of the Jane Austen Cambridge Group and speaker for the UK Jane Austen Society
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Image credits: Hazel Mills