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)