Friday, 30 May 2008

Virago and Perspehone

Yesterday I spent a happy afternoon listening to Rumpole of the Bailey on Radio 4 and copying out Betjeman's In a Bath Teashop in calligraphy. It's a short poem, and I did a planned (this time) illumination of the borders. But it was plain stuff, in a plain hand. I made three mistakes but I left them in text simply because it took me two hours to finish the piece. When medieval scribes made mistakes they too left them in the text. Making a joke of their error; drawing a little cartoon crane to lift out the extra consonant, a little cartoon monk on a ladder adding a missing vowel. Velum and ink were expensive commodities, but the time it must have taken those men to prepare their page for the written word must have been more precious, the time it took to write in such a small, perfect script perhaps doubly precious as scribes trained from near childhood. The books, in the early medieval period, were meant for fine monasteries and cathedrals, however later on in the period commercial scribes appeared, making beautifully illuminated and decorated Books of Hours and Bibles for the very rich. Books of Hours were prayer books for women and were often the most precious object a woman could have in her possession: precious materially, spiritually and artistically. In a world where even the rich and literate had only limited access to both art and the written word it is not difficult to understand how remarkable a book could be, no wonder they paid the equivalent of the cost of an Italian sports car for them, rich men gave them to their new brides and medieval ladies spent "hours" with Books of Hours, perhaps both for pleasure and piety.

I love beautiful books. Many books I buy from second hand book shops I have bought simply because they are beautifully bound and illustrated. Blackies, under the design direction of Talwin Morris produced some wonderfully decorated books for the mass market, but made to be both charming and entertaining. However, there are many other Edwardian and Victorian presses which bound their books cheaply but attractively and I have lovely books of poetry and even recipe books which look grand on my shelves. Like the medieval scribe, the William Morris inspired designers new that books needed to be both "useful and beautiful".

Despite some great paperback designs (I'm thinking of Penguin during the 1940s and 1950s) I have not really noticed real beauty in modern, mass produced books until I came across Persephone Books. They seemed to realise that readers, perhaps more importantly women readers, appreciated an holistic notion of beauty...beautiful words wrapped up in beautiful packaging. Books are precious objects to many people, by making the outside cover and the end papers equally wonderful they acknowledge the emotion behind book buying, book possession. Essentially, their publishing remit is similar to that of Virago. Virago were publishing texts from long forgotten women writers decades before Persephone came across Dorothy Whipple. However, Virago had little notion of beauty. Their severe green spines lined up on a bookshelf, although instantly recognisable and deeply iconic, were more a statement of political belief than artistic preference. Feminist literature, rather than women's books...and unlike Persephone they were unwilling to make the two twains meet. That is, not until recently. To celebrate thirty years of Virago Books they have published some of their most popular titles (Excellent Women, Frost in May and so on) in beautiful hard back covers. Indeed, the covers are based twentieth century textile designs and are rather reminiscent of Persephone's end papers and bookmarks. The novels, like the ones published by Persephone books, cost ten pounds...expensive for a paperback, cheap for a hardback and quite frankly are just as lovely. When I saw Diary of a Provincial Lady, in Waterstones the other day, with its Cath Kidston cover, I felt a sharp thrill (a rare shiver of consumerist desire). You see, I rather like to judge books by their covers, owning a beautiful copy of a popular novel, feels special and personal. The whole incident makes me smile...Virago acknowledging that intelligent readers like pretty too...anti-consumerist me feeling that desire to buy (yes, owning that book WILL define me!lol!)...the evident competition between the two presses, both of them vying for the housekeeping money of suburban book lovers...and importantly the link between myself and the medieval woman treasuring her book. Beauty and the written word inspiring us all.


Marie N. said...

I've had only brief experience with a Persephone book, and it was very beautiful.

I remember my grandmother's book shelf and its rows of books covered with home made covers of shelf paper and identified with plastic labels from a label maker. They looked like a collection of Christmas presents on the shelves.

But those paper covers were protecting something of value and beauty. My grandparents appreciated that about the books.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful books are important, very important how they are packaged. Victorian books that I have perused in our local Antique book shop were generally beautifully presented.

And I just love those old Medieval illuminated books...well the few I've seen. My Mum has a copy of one, it's gorgeous.

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Dulce Domum said...

That was a really nice insight to how an older generation valued books.

Yes, I love books inspired by the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movement. Always beautiful.