Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Christmas Books: Suggested books about Christmas that are of interest to collectors.

Charles Dickens is often credited with the invention of  "The Traditional Christmas", but most who have looked at this issue would agree that Dickens is mainly responsible for the general popularity of the notion of the "Traditional English Christmas". The combination of the family-centered celebration of Christmas, together with fun, feasting, drinking and above all a sense of Goodwill Towards All Men has come to epitomise the Dickensian Christmas. But where did all this come from and how did Dickens know about it?

One interesting fact is that a book was published in London in 1836 called The Book of Christmas by Thomas K Hervey. The book, which was a collection of English Christmas customs, was illustrated by Robert Seymour. We know that Charles Dickens knew Robert Seymour, as in 1836, that same year, Dickens had been hired by the publishers Chapman and Hall to provide the text for a series of sporting illustrations to be drawn by Seymour. This project eventually became The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which propelled Dickens from obscurity to instant fame. Sadly, Seymour only provided the first few illustrations for the book, as he committed suicide soon after the start of Pickwick. Some, rather unkindly, have suggested that it might have been working with Dickens that drove him to his sad fate! 


A Christmas Carol 1843
Although there are two memorable Christmas "episodes" in Pickwick, the great Dickens Christmas book was certainly A Christmas Carol, published by Chapman and Hall in December 1843. The genesis of the book was the rather poor sales of the serial parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, in the middle of 1843, which was causing some distress to Dickens and his publisher. After threats to reduce Dickens' income in light of the poor sales, he was encouraged to produce a successful book for the Christmas market of 1843. After much walking and worrying, it was probably a visit in early October to Dickens' older sister Fanny in Manchester, where she lived in fairly straitened circumstances with her husband and crippled son Fred, that gave Dickens the inspiration for A Christmas Carol. He started writing the book in mid October and presented the finished manuscript to his publisher on December 2nd. The first edition of  6000 copies was published on 19th December and was sold out in four days at 5 shillings each. The manuscript of A Christmas Carol has survived and is in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York. The library published a fine facsimile of the manuscript in 1993, which allows you to read the text in Dickens' handwriting, with all of his erasures, amendments and edits, side by side with the printed text.


Facsimile of the first page of the manuscript of A Christmas Carol 1943


A first edition of A Christmas Carol costs $10,000 - $25,000 today. Ironically, Dickens was disappointed in the financial return that he got from A Christmas Carol . His publishers had forced him to take the financial risk with the publication, but because Dickens had insisted on high-quality end-papers, a high-quality binding, and above all, four hand coloured lithographs as illustrations, and a coloured title page, the production costs of the book consumed most of the earnings, so that Dickens only made a few hundred pounds from the project, rather than the thousands that he had expected. This was in spite of the fact that A Christmas Carol sold out twelve editions before Christmas 1844. Never again in his lifetime did Dickens publish a book which contained coloured illustrations. 

Fortunately for the book collector with a modest budget, a nice facsimile edition of the first edition of A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall in 1926. This can still be found for purchase for a reasonably low sum, often below $100.

Dickens published four more Christmas books, but none of them are thought to be comparable to A Christmas Carol in quality, and they certainly have not been as popular with the general reader. Here they are in the original bindings.


The Chimes 1844
The Cricket on the Hearth 1845
The Haunted Man 1848
The Battle of Life 1846

 Many other fine editions of A Christmas Carol have been published with new illustrations by many of the greatest book illustrators. Among my favourites are those illustrated by Arthur Rackham, arguably the doyen of English book illustrators; the edition illustrated by Harold Copping for the Religious Tract Society, the quirky edition illustrated by Ronald Searle in 1961 and the fine edition illustrated by Michael Forman for the Folio Society in 2003.

More recently, Cedric Dickens, Charles Dickens grandson, published Christmas with Dickens in 1993 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of A Christmas Carol. Cedric tells the reader exactly how to organise a Dickensian Christmas celebration. He tells the reader how to serve a traditional Christmas dinner, with traditional Christmas drinks, interspersed with five selected readings from A Christmas Carol. My copy formally belonged to the wife of an Australian High Commissioner to London, and is signed by Cedric who praises the successful Dickensian Christmas Dinner that she held, based on the book!

Charles Dickens was by no means the first author to look back nostalgically at the traditional English Christmas. The American author Washington Irving wrote several short pieces describing various scenes from Christmas in England. These were based on his personal experience of spending Christmas in a fine old country house close to Birmingham in Warwickshire. These writings first appeared in Washington Irving's The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which was first published in installments during 1819 and 1829. The most pleasing edition of these sketches about Christmas in England is Old Christmas, which was published by Macmillan in 1876, and is gloriously illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. This book was intended to be a Christmas present, and it still makes a fine seasonal gift.

Christmas is of course a major religious festival, and unsurprisingly, many books have appeared telling the story of the birth of Christ. My favourite of these is The Christmas Story, which was published by the BBC in 1968. The text of the book has been taken directly from the New Testament in a form simplified for children. However, the real appeal of the book is in the great illustrations by Charles Keeping. Keeping's illustrations were commissioned by the BBC to accompany the text for a filmed version of the book that was shown on the popular children's program Blue Peter.

For those of us who live in Australia, the greatest conundrum about Christmas is how to celebrate it in what is often the sweltering heat of the southern hemisphere summer. Not very much snow to be seen at all! The best book that I know which tackles this is Bush Christmas, a book that was published in 1983 to accompany the remaking of a film, Bush Christmas, that had first been released in 1947. The original film had starred the immortal Australian character actor Chips Rafferty, and concerned the theft of a champion horse from a family, and told how the horse was recovered and the thieves captured by the courage and ingenuity of a group of children. The 1983 remake tells the same story and features a child actor in her first film, the fourteen year old Nicole Kidman! 

The title of the film is drawn from the poem, A Bush Christmas, by C J Dennis, first published in the Melbourne Herald newspaper in December 1931. The book prints the text of Dennis' poem and also has collected together many early accounts of Christmas in the heat and hardship of 19th century Australia, as well as presenting bush ballads about Christmas, as sung by The Bushwackers, a popular band of the 1970s and 1980s in Australia.

Travel writing is often published in the form of a compendium of traveller's tales. My favourite Christmas version of this genre is A Traveller's Christmas, a fine collection of short pieces about Christmas and travel selected by Sue Bradbury and published in 2006 by The Folio Society in a typically high-quality production that features illustrations by Paul Slater. There are many examples from writers of many languages and different cultures, largely around the theme of Christmas spent far from home. My favourite accounts are those of Kipling in India and Robert Falcon Scott in Antarctica, along with accounts from mariners rounding Cape Horn and several from battlefields and war-ravaged lands. 

I though I would finish with two satires on Christmas. The first is Hogfather by the late and very lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. This is his 20th novel in the Discworld series, published in 1996, and tells a tale of the disappearance of The Hogfather (Father Christmas) at Hogswatch (Christmas), due to the plotting of an assassin, and how the Hogfather's duties are taken up by Death, before the situation is resolved by Death's granddaughter. I know that this is a great oversimplification of the plot... so go and read the book. If you prefer films, the BBC version of 2006 features the late Ian Richardson as the VOICE OF DEATH (Pratchett fans will understand the capitalisation.)

My final choice is a children's book, but is it? How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss, the pseudonym of Theodor Geisel, was published in New York by Random House in 1957 and like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, has never been out of print. The story is presented as a simple picture book, in which the tale is told of a bad character, the Grinch, who tries to stop Christmas by stealing things related to Christmas. On another level, the book is really Geisel's protest about the over-exploitation of Christmas by commercial interests. Geisel liked the Grinch so much that his car number plate was GRINCH.

Ironically, many people today will know the story due to the various commercial film, TV and recorded sound versions that have been made. A nice trivia question for you all could be "What do Boris Karloff, Jim Carrey, Zero Mostel, Walter Matthau and Benedict Cumberbatch have in common?" Answer... they have all performed the voice of the Grinch.

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Here is a list of the books mentioned in this Blog post.

The Book of Christmas by Thomas K Hervey, William Spooner, London, 1836

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
            First edition, Chapman and Hall 1843
            Facsimile edition, Chapman and Hall, 1926,
            Manuscript Facsimile, Pierpoint Morgan Library, 1993
            Editions of A Christmas Carol with illustrations by
Arthur Rackham, Heinemann, 1915,
Harold Copping, Religious Tract Society, 1920
Ronald Searle, Perpetua, 1961
Michael Forman, Folio Society, 2003

Christmas with Dickens by Cedric Dickens, The Belvedere Press, 1993
           
Old Christmas by Washington Irving, Macmillan 1876, illustrated by Randolph Caldecott
                       
The Christmas Story illustrated by Charles Keeping, BBC, 1968
                  
Bush Christmas edited by Dobe Newton, Tombola publishing, 1983
        
A Traveller’s Christmas, compiled by Sue Bradbury, Folio Society, 2006

Hogfather by (Sir) Terry Pratchett, Gollancz, 1996
            
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss (Theodor Geisel), Random House 1957
            
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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Vale Philip Kerr 1956 - 2018

Philip Kerr: Creator of Bernie Gunther


Very sad news this weekend, with the announcement of the death of Philip Kerr on Friday 23rd Mach 2018. Starting from a career in advertising, Philip Kerr will be long remembered for his wonderful series of books featuring Bernie Gunther, a hard-bitten, essentially moral, German policeman; Gunther is not without his own weaknesses and demons, but when faced with moral choices, always seems to make the right choice, all-be-it often with a very hard edge.

The twelve book series started in 1989 with "March Violets", which is written in a very punchy, hard-boiled style, owing much to Hammett and Chandler, but set in a Germany of 1936, where the Nazi regime is consolidating its power and preparing for war. Bernie investigates the murders of family members of a rich German mandarin of industry, and leads us through the dark and dangerous world of pre-war Berlin, ending up in the Dachau concentration camp.

The next two books, "The Pale Criminal", published in 1990, and "A German Requiem", 1991, continue in a similar vein and style, with stories set in Berlin in 1938 and Vienna in 1947 respectively. These first three novellas were re-published together by Penguin in 1993 under the title "Berlin Noir".

The fourth book in the series, "The One from the Other", did not appear until 2006. It is set in Munich in 1949, and is set in the world of post war former Nazis and all the recriminations found in a defeated nation. Gunther is now a private detective looking for a former Nazi war criminal on behalf of his wife. 15 years on, Kerr's style has become more mature and he has found his own authentic voice, not having to rely on the hard-boiled tricks of the first three stories.

The remaining eight books, which appeared between 2008 , "A Quiet Flame", and 2017 "Prussian Blue" explore Gunther's career between 1934 and 1956, with several involving a flash-back flash-forward structure, which is managed very smoothly, are all written in the mature late style and are an absolute joy to read.

I have read all of the Bernie Gunther books twice, both in the order in which they were published, and in the chronological order, which runs from book 6 "If the Dead Rise Not", set in 1934 to book 11, "The Other Side of Silence", which is set in 1956. My enjoyment was not dependent on the order of reading, but I do suggest that the first three early titles should perhaps be read first, as the stylistic change may jar somewhat.

The only bright news about Bernie Gunther is there is one final book, "Greeks Bearing Gifts" which is due out on April 3rd 2018. I have already ordered my copy and will read it with a mixture of pleasure and sadness.

Vale Philip Kerr. You will be sorely missed.

The Bernie Gunther Series

 1. March Violets 1989

 2. The Pale Criminal 1990

 3. A German Requiem 1991

 4. The One From the Other 2006

 5. A Quiet Flame 2008

 6. If the Dead Rise Not  2009

 7. Field Grey 2010

 8. Prague Fatal 2011

 9. A Man Without Breath 2013

10. The Lady From Zagreb 2015

11. The Other Side of Silence 2016

12. Prussian Blue 2017

13. Greeks Bearing Gifts 2018

Saturday, 24 February 2018


1959 Psycho: Robert Bloch


Psycho now tends to mean the famous film by Alfred Hitchcock made in 1960 with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. The famous “murder in the shower” scene with the electrifying music of Bernard Herrmann remains an iconic series of images in popular culture.

The film is based on the book Psycho by Robert Bloch (1917-1994), which was published in New York by Simon and Schuster in 1959 and in London by Robert Hale in 1960. Block had a long history of writing tales with supernatural content and was part of the circle of H.P. Lovecraft and a regular contributor to Weird Tales. He wrote hundreds of stories and more than 30 novels during a long career which started in 1935. Late in his life he wrote The Jekyll Legacy, a sequel to Stephenson’s famous novel.

First editions of Psycho are becoming increasingly hard to find. Collectors would be happy with either the American or English first edition. The New York edition in very good condition in dust wrapper will cost around $1000; the London edition about half that price. Both of these books are shown below.

An American first edition signed by Janet Leigh can be had for $5000.

        New York edition, 1959                                                            London edition, 1960





















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1938 Rebecca: Daphne du Maurier


Dame Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was a best-selling author of romantic and macabre stories, novels and plays. Many of her best works, particularly those with a Gothic inspiration, have been the subject of successful films, such as Jamaica Inn, The Birds, Don’t Look Now and most famously Rebecca.

Rebecca was du Maurier’s most successful book, being reprinted multiple times and selling 3 million copies by 1970. It starts with one of the most famous first lines in literature. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The line is spoken by the “second Mrs de Winter, the narrator of the story, whose given name is never revealed. The book contains the classic gothic character, Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper of Manderley, and has many close parallels to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The Alfred Hitchcock film version (1940) went a long way to establishing the enduring fame of Rebecca.

There are thousands of copies of the many impressions of the early English editions of Rebecca published by Gollancz in the standard house yellow dust wrapper. The true first impression of the first edition was 20,000 copies. It is shown below and is the one that collectors want.





Friday, 23 February 2018

1911 The Phantom of the Opera: Gaston Leroux


1911 The Phantom of the Opera: Gaston Leroux


The Phantom of the Opera was first published in French as Le Fantome de l’Opera as a serial in the magazine Le Gaulois from 1909 to 1910. It first appeared as a book in March 1910 under the same title, published in Paris by Pierre Lafitte. The story was based on some of the myths and stories associated with the Opera Garnier in Paris and a plot element from Carl Maria von Weber’s production in Paris of his best-known opera Die Freischutz.

Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) wrote more than sixty novels, but is now only remembered for the Phantom, largely because of the many stage and film versions that it has inspired, culminating in the now immortal musical version of Andre Lloyd Webber in 1986.

The first edition in English appeared in 1911, published in New York by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, with a coloured frontispiece and four double page folding coloured plates. This is the edition that most English-speaking collectors want to find. The dust wrapper is famously rare and most copies don’t have the dust wrapper present. 

Here it is the book and its wrapper.
















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1902 The Hound of the Baskervilles: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


1902 The Hound of the Baskervilles: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, mostly appeared as the hero of short stories that were first published in The Strand Magazine, before being published as collected stories by the magazine’s publisher George Newnes. All of these are highly collectible, but the real prize for the book collector are the first editions of the four Sherlock Holmes novels; A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915).

The Hound of the Baskervilles is clearly in the Gothic tradition, with the misty, boggy Dartmoor setting, the tales of a supernatural hound, a cursed family, a dreadful face hinting at a ghastly death, and the Gothic Baskerville Hall. Doyle himself described the story as a “Victorian Creeper”.

 The story first appeared in serialised form in 1901-1902 in The Strand Magazine, accompanied by the very apt illustrations by Sidney Paget. The first book form, published by Newnes in 1902 is the most elegantly bound of all four of the Holmes Novels and is highly desirable. The top board, designed by Alfred Garth Jones, is shown below.






1897 Dracula: Bram Stoker


1897 Dracula: Bram Stoker


Abraham “Bram” Stoker (1847-1912) was an Irish writer and theatrical manager, who spent most of his working life as the theatre manager and friend of the great actor Sir Henry Irving.
Stoker worked for about ten years to produce his most famous work, Dracula in 1897.

Part of the inspiration for Dracula came from a family holiday that Stoker spent at Whitby in Yorkshire in 1890, together with some childhood memories of seeing dessicated corpses in the crypt of a Dublin church. The result was Dracula, published by Constable in 1897 in a striking yellow cloth binding with blood red text. His publisher felt that the original text was a little too long and encouraged Stoker to edit his work to produce an abridged edition. This was published by Constable in 1901, in the most collectible dust wrapper of the 20th century.

The book has spawned more films and more imitators than any other book of the 19th or 20th centuries. Images from the 1922 silent film Nosferatu with Max Schreck as Count Orlok and the 1931 film of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi in the title role have become modern icons.

The 1897 first English edition cover from 1897 and the famous dust wrapper from the abridged version of 1901 are shown below. Both were published by Archibald Constable.