Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Letter to Santa: Second Post

Dear Mr. Claus,

I don't want to seem petulant this close to Christmas, but I thought I'd better bring something to your attention before the day, as it were, since you would seem to be my only hope now of addressing this problem. I know you must be otherwise much occupied, but I can't really think of what else to do, so if you could spare the time to look into this for me, I would willingly vacate my other wishes and leave you to address just this one for me, if you can.

Some months ago, I was promised that by October at the latest, well before Christmas at any rate, I would see The Nonesuch Dickens 3-Volume Set: The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Our Mutual Friend. It never came. What's worse, upon making enquiries through our trade-buyer and the publisher, etc., I am now informed that this latest addition to the complete reprinting of the Nonesuch Dickens will not be available until "late next Fall." This is unacceptable.

The history of this edition gets a little complicated, so please, bear with me. Alice Meynell, you'll remember, Santa, was a minor Victorian poet, as well as an influential editor and journalist. With her husband, Wilfred, she did much for a number of worthy causes, including editing major literary magazines of the day, campaigning for women's suffrage, and against British imperialism, as well as working for various Catholic charities. She also, in her way, saw to the care and feeding of any number of even more minor Victorian and Edwardian poets and writers. Mrs. Meynell's father, Thomas James Thompson, was a friend of no less a person than Charles Dickens, by the way, and the poet Coventry Patmore was in love with Alice. Fascinating woman. Anyway, the worthy Alice and Arthur had a worthy son, Francis, who, in addition to being a minor poet in his own right, was also a founder, in 1922, of the Nonesuch Press. With business partner David Garnett, himself the son of a redoubtable mother, the translator, Constance Garnett, Francis Meynell made the small Nonesuch Press into a watchword for quality in British publishing. Like his parents, Francis was a devoted enthusiast of what was best in English literature, and starting in 1923 with an edition of John Donne's Love Poems, he and his little Press did much to bring about a minor revolution; showing the industry that there was a considerable market for beautifully designed, and affordable editions of the English classics. David Garnett was a novelist, author of the wonderfully weird little classic, Lady Into Fox, among other things, and part of what is now known as Bloomsbury. Among his lovers was Duncan Grant, and David eventually married Duncan's daughter by Vanessa Bell, Angelica! I mention all this lineage and personal history because I find this surprisingly small world fascinating. Also, to illustrate how a tangle of literary families, friends and lovers managed to produce, in addition to much good, and some important work, and among other wonders, both the Hogarth Press and Nonesuch.

The guiding principles of the Nonesuch Press were quality, craftsmanship and lasting value. I don't know that anyone made much money from the enterprise, at least in its earliest incarnations. It produced a total of 140 titles, all designed on a small hand-press, though these designs were eventually reproduced commercially using the services of more modern printers. Among the glories of Nonesuch, are editions of English classics by poets and essayists as diverse as Donne and William Hazlitt. I own a few of these, including both just mentioned, and they rank among my favorite books. They are handsome, fat little books; attractively bound and printed, beautifully edited, and now, at least in their original editions, highly collectible. (Mine are mostly later printings, but no less attractive for that.) When I compare, for instance, my Nonesuch Hazlitt: Collected Essays to any of the other editions I own, it is worth noting that while at least one the older collections is more comprehensive, it is hideously printed, in minute, wandering type that tends to drift from page to page; first angling up to the left, and then a page later, down to the right. As to later collections, including the only available paperback edition now in print, from Oxford University Press, and the two weighty volumes I acquired just this year of Hazlitt's uncollected work, edited by Duncan Wu, these tend to be so crowded with notes and academic trappings as to be impractical for the common reader, either because of the weight of the books, and the length of the annotations, in the case of Professor Wu, or the tragic abridgements and emendations in the Oxford paperback. My Nonesuch, on the other hand are entirely portable and practical copies, as well as tough old darlings. My Hazlitt was printed in 1930, and with the exception of a few chips to the dustjacket, is as sturdy and attractive today as it was eighty years ago!

All of which, Santa, finally brings me back to the Nonesuch Dickens, and my deep disappointment upon learning that the promised three volume set will not be coming this Christmas. I've been buying these books as they've come out, and the prospect of these three was particularly welcome. I like reading in The Pickwick Papers this time of year, and spending an evening or two, at the Holidays, at Dingley Dell. The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend would be no less welcome. It's true that I already own other editions of all these, but the Nonesuch Dickens, even in these most recent reprints, are far and away the most beautiful and well made of all the Dickens books I own. Arthur Waugh, father of Evelyn, -- there's that business of English family ties coming back again! -- was himself an influential critic who wrote a famous essay on Dickens and his illustrators for the Nonesuch Dickens Retrospectus And Prospectus, said there was no better edition of Dickens. Waugh was right. It is widely held that the original edition was the crowning achievement of the Nonesuch Press. A complete set of that original edition goes for more money nowadays than I will ever be able to afford. Imagine then, my excitement in seeing these books so handsomely reprinted! Only in the Nonesuch are all the original illustrations both in the right places and perfectly reproduced. None of my other Dickens is so handsome or easy to read. (True, these novels might be better to handle if each was made, as they original seem to have been printed, in multiple volumes when necessary, as the Nonesuch can be a bit unwieldy, but that is a minor point when reading at home.) And now, I'm not to have these latest volumes for another year?!

I do realize how childish this must sound to a saint, and how selfish, but I am genuinely disappointed almost more than I can say by this development. Anything you can do to encourage the responsible parties at Overlook Press to reconsider this decision would be very much appreciated. Failing that, Santa, would you please see that whoever it was who cocked this up gets nothing but coal this Christmas?

For the time being then, I remain

Yours faithfully,


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