Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cleopatra as Bibliophile

 Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

                                                                                                                                                Ernest Rhys


Elizabeth Taylor’s death on March 23 occasioned an orgy of rehashed fan magazine gossip and a brief episode of Egyptomania in the form of the publication of a thousand stills from the film Cleopatra (1963).  A fleeting thought of a blog post entitled “Elizabeth Taylor and the Life of the Mind” flashed across my inner monitor; but it was overwhelmed by my distaste for Hollywood, vapid glitz, and highly publicized serial matrimony.  However, the next Sunday I walked into a church service where the visiting preacher turned out to be one of the directors of an outfit called GAIA (Global Aids Interfaith Alliance), which conducts an impressive AIDS ministry in Malawi.  He mentioned that one of their important projects was “funded by Elizabeth Taylor.”  It was pretty clear that between his unworldliness and the fog of international travel he was not yet aware of her death—just as between my prejudices and presuppositions I had been unaware of her impressive good deeds while living.

So it’s back to “Elizabeth Taylor and the Life of the Mind”, this time penitently.  To defang the topic of any suspicion of sarcasm requires a bibliographical digression.  Among my acquaintances is Mr. Terry Seymour of the Princeton Class of 1966, a man of parts whose career success in the financial industry has allowed him to build a remarkable private library that includes many rare and indeed unique items.  Among several erudite interests, British literature of the Eighteenth Century is conspicuous.  In one important field of literature Seymour is not merely the world’s greatest academic expert, but the world’s leading private collector as well.  That field is Everyman’s Library.

Philanthropy is of many kinds.  Among the very greatest intellectual philanthropists nourished by Britain, that great mother of intellectual philanthropists, was Ernest Percival Rhys (1859 –1946).  Rhys was a minor poet of the fin-de-siècle and a co-founder with Yeats of the Rhymers’ Club.  If that was all he ever did, he would still have an honored place in the small print of histories of Edwardian literature.  He did something greater, however, that effected what can only be called a literary revolution.  He convinced the London publisher, Dent, to launch one of the most audacious publishing ventures in history. 

Rhys proposed to publish, under his general editorial supervision, a popular library of 1000 of the world’s greatest books—mainly British and mainly “literary”--awesome in its ambition.  The books, to be issued ten at a time on a regular schedule, would be well made, chastely elegant, cloth covered, and very cheap.  Coal miners and milliners’ assistants could and did buy and read these books.  The “Everyman” of the title was not gender specific, but the universalizing humanity of the late medieval morality play Everyman.  Facing death and divine judgment Everyman is abandoned by all worldly comforters—material possessions, social honors, family station.  The personifications “Good Deeds” and Good Deeds’ sister “Knowledge” alone are steadfast.  Knowledge says to Everyman: “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy Guide/ In thy most need to go by thy side.”  This motto, with pre-Raphaelite image of Knowledge herself, adorned front and back endpapers of every volume.
Now…where was I?  O, yes.  Though the competition was fierce, most impartial observers would agree that Elizabeth Taylor’s Main Man was the Welsh actor Richard Burton (1925-1984).  As least he’s the only one she married twice.  Richard Burton’s formal education was truncated by life’s circumstances and his early and unrelenting pursuit of an acting career.  He was nonetheless a sharply intelligent and very well read autodidact, blessed with a retentive memory that, for example, gave him a command of Shakespeare that approached the encyclopedic.  He was of a “type” not uncommon among earlier generations of the European (and American) working classes, one well known to me from personal experience.  Much of his voracious early reading was done among assiduously acquired volumes of Everyman’s Library, several of which he claimed to have of necessity shoplifted--an anecdotal fact or factoid that found a prominent place in his rags-to-riches self-fashioning.

Burton          .          .          .           .                   .                .           .     Seymour

 As an item Taylor and Burton were notoriously on and off.   In one of the “on” periods, in a brilliantly original homage to her husband’s youthful erudition and the means of its acquisition, Elizabeth Taylor commissioned agents to seek out and purchase copies of every title in the Everyman’s books—a commission exhibiting great imagination on the part of Elizabeth Taylor and requiring no small expenditure of time and effort on that of her book agents.  She then had the whole lot rebound in bright full leather and presented the library to her inamorato.
Rebinding an Everyman’s title in full leather is perhaps just a little like serving a Big Mac on Spode porcelain.  It’s not exactly illegal, but the very idea is sufficiently preposterous to induce a thrill of transgression.  Ethically, perhaps, Ms. Taylor’s sumptuous gift cannot escape the opprobrium due most displays of conspicuous consumption.  But at the imaginative and artistic levels, it is much more like a Fabergé Easter egg for the czarina than the necklace for the tootsie in Pretty Woman. That is, there was more to it than just money.

After Burton’s death the library was auctioned, with the spoils shared by a number of dealers keen on “association copies.”  Individual volumes have now begun to recycle through the second-hand market.  Terry Seymour is in the lead here, as on all other aspects of Everyman collecting; but there is a brief window of opportunity for readers of "Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche".  There are a few items currently available on Abebooks.com.  You should not move, of course, without consulting Seymour’s definitive collectors’ guide and the account of the major library exhibition he mounted in Chapel Hill (http://www.lib.unc.edu/spotlight/2008/everymans.html) in 2008.

But a cat can look at a king, and I’ll make a recommendation on my own: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  Not merely is it at $250 significantly the cheapest of the items available; but you could then read the whole story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard from last week’s post for yourself.

Some "normal" vintage Everymans

 Terry Seymour's shelf of "Taylor-Burton" Everymans, with some associated items.  (Photo: Mr. Seymour)


  1. In looking at the binder of the "normal" vintage Everymans, it seems to me that I have a copy somewhere of "The Inferno" that looks very much like that, acquired at a church fair or something. I'll have to check it when I get home. However, though it's in good shape I doubt that it's worth $2.50, let alone $250! I think I paid 50 cents.

  2. Alas, Sparrow, they cost $250 (minimum) only when leatherized by Elizabeth Taylor. And note that I say "cost", not "are worth". As you know better than most, the text contained is priceless. I think I own the same book, though naturally I cannot find it now. Does it have a terrific introductory essay by James Gairdner?

  3. Professor Fleming,

    If you've paid for your NYT subscription, please search Dick Cavett's NYT blogs about Richard Burton, and link to the interviews Cavett conducted with Burton in the 1970s. Your heart will weep with joy and sadness for such wonderful television and engaging public figures. Two giants walking the earth.

    --Locker 1568

  4. Great expectations

    Life is full of surprises, particularly if you are a newly - wed . Expressjodi you a glimpse into the future and tells how to be prepared to face married life

    Love is all about romance whereas marriage is a lot about responsibility. When two different individuals from different backgrounds live together, differences of opinion on things like spending habits, career, having and raising a baby, sharing household responsibilities etc, are bound to crop up, the key is to broaden your outlook and accept all the changes that marriage brings, and to remember that marriage is a momentous change for you and your spouse. And, fear not, over a period of time, you will find a way to make it work.


    With marriage comes a whole lot of responsibility. "From the time you ger married, the decisions you make will not be yours alone, but your partner's as well. This is because your choices will impact both of you. But this doesn't mean that you're tied to a ball and chain. "It only means you have a companion with you for life. In fact, in your capacity as a spouse, you become your partner's caretaker, friend, confidante and even punching bag etc.


    Arguments over money are bound to happen, so be prepared for it. And unless you establish some ground rules for dealing with financial issues, you will continue to have these arguments. Bear in mind that you are now a part of a unit, and no longer flying solo.

    In - laws or outlaws?

    if you thought that marriage is all about sharing your life with your significant other, think again, and this time, factor in your in - laws into the equation. When you're used to a particular lifestyle, moving in with your in - laws can be a rude shock. You will be required to make changes in your daily routine. Like waking up a little earlier to help around the house or rescheduling your plans on weekends or even modifying some of your eating habits. these might seem like an additional burden, particularly if you are a working woman. Remember to keep an open mind when it comes to handling your in - laws. They may be rigid in their ways, but there is always a way to work out a compromise.

    Sharing space

    Marriage involves sharing everything - whether it is sadness or glad tidings, chores or finance, which can be a difficult task. This is why marriage necessitates an equal contribution from both side. " Sharing is absolutely essential for a happy marriage,. Besides making it easier to run the show, it also brings you closer to your partner, and cement a bond in a way that only experience can.
    Differnces of opinion

    Shaadi brings two different individuals together, as well as two sets of arguments for everything. Remember that your husband is as new to the marriage and the relationship as you, and he is facing the same issue for the first time as well.Irrespective of the nature of the relationship, any two people are bound to have differences of opinion at some point of time, It is how you handle these differences that mtters. The best antidote for deviant interest lies in adapting to the situation. "Be carteful not to retaliate for the sake of it,"

    Planning for the future

    As a single independent working woman, you may be used to your lifestyle, going on holidays or splurging on the latest pair of Jimmy Choos. But married life is a journey and you need to plan carefully to get to your destination. "Planning is the key. Make sure you and your husband are on the same page as far as long - term goal are concerned," "Whether or not you plan to have a baby or deciding on investments for the future and are thing that you should discuss in advbance, if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises in you married life,"

  5. Brahmin Shaadi
    Historically, the Brahmins in india were divided into two major groups based on geographical origin of the people. The Brahmin groups that lived to the north of the vindhyas were referred to as Dravida Brahmins. Each group was further divided into five sections according to the regions of their settlement.

    The Sagaai or the engagement ceremony symbolises commitment However, the South Indian Brahmin do not lay stress on the presence of bride and the groom in their Sagaai, rather it focuses on commitment between the parents of the groom and the bride. 'Latto' i.e., 'engagement plate' Which consist of coconut, flowers, turmeric, betel leaves and betel nuts hold more importance, in their engagement ceremony. The Maithil Brahmin bride of bihar makes her wedding affair stand apart by receiving the blessing from the Dhobi's (washerman's) wife - a compulsory tradition in the Bihari Brahmin wedding.

    In Haldi ceremony turmeric powder is mixed with milk, almond oil and sandalwood and applied to the bride and the groom. In Kashmiri Pandit this ceremony has a twist becuase cold, white yoghurt is poured on the bride as an alternative to haldi. ritual is followed by a special custom called Shankha (shell) Paula (coral) in bengali Brahmins, where seven married women embellish the bride's hand with red and white bangles, the shell is supposed to calm the bride and the coral is believed to
    be beneficial for health. Mehndi is also applied on every bride's hands during the Mehndi ceremony. However, a Bengali Brahmin bride applies alta (red dye).

    After the ceremonious arrival of the groom, the garlands are exchanged between the groom and the bride, while the priests chant mantras. Jaimala is the symbol of unifying two souls into one. But in tamil nadu, "Oonjal", a unique jaimala ceremony is performed and could be best decribed as a tug of war. In this ceremony, the women sing songs to encourage the bride and groom to exchange the garlands while the uncles persuade the soon to be couple not to Exchange the garlands.Before the ceremony of jaimala, the bride makes a majestic entry in Bengali weddings.

    Mangal Phere
    Fire is considered the most pious element in the Brahmin weddings and seven circles around that fire holds the seven promises that the nuptial couple make to each other amidst the Vedic mantras. The Brahmin wedding is deemed incomplete without the seven rounds around the sacred fire. Unlike other Brahmin weddings, in Gujarati weddings only four pheras are taken which are called the mangalpheras where the pheras represent four basic human goals of Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Miksha (religious, moral, prosperity and salvation). Likewise in Malayalee Brahmin weddings, pheras are taken only thrice.

    Post wedding ceremony vidaai
    After pheras, the bride's family and friend bid her teary vidaai (farewell). The Kashmiri pundits make their vidaai even more special. their charming ritual, "roth khabar" is performed on a saturday or tuesday after the wedding. In Roth
    khabar, the bride's parents send a roth (bread decorated with nuts) to their son - in - law's family. But the bride accompanies She stay with her parents and returns only when someone from in laws comes to fetch her back.

    Griha pravesh
    The new bride is greeted by her mother - in - law with Arti and tilak. The bride, who is regarded as the Goddess laxmi, enters the groom's house after the groom's house after kicking rice - filled pot. In Kannada Brahmin marriages, the groom changes the name of his wife in the name change ceremony where he decides a name for his wife and inscribes it on a plate containing rice with a ring. In Bihar, a very strange ritual is performs at the groom's place.