Reading Poems by Christina Rossetti last night, I wondered how the book had found its way to me for I knew I hadn’t bought it in any bookshop. It was first printed in January, 1906 and has ‘9’ written in pencil on the front end page and stamped in red is the inscription: ‘Red Letter Library.’
A previous owner copied a poem by Christina Rossetti on each of the end pages and marked with a little cross six favourite poems. I assume they were favourite ones and not ones to be avoided for ‘Goblin Market’ is amongst them.
No doubt I found the book in some obscure place: an opportunity shop or a second hand bookshop, perhaps in England but most likely in Sydney, Australia when I frequented such places and found many a literary treasure.
I Googled ‘Red Letter Library’ and discovered the graphic artist Talwin Morris (1865-1911) who was a member of the circle of artists surrounding the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow. Through his book designs, one of which is my Rossetti, Morris was able to introduce a wide audience to what was known as the ‘Glasgow Style’ that flourished at the end of the nineteenth century.
Morris produced designs for page layout, endpapers and title-pages as well, and his design work also extended to other branches of the decorative arts, including textiles, interior design, furniture and metalwork.
But I clearly remember where I found an ancient copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam illustrated by Alice Ross. I once lived on a farm north of Perth, Western Australia and this little gem, long forgotten, was in a box containing far more mundane things like old farm accounts. I don’t know who once owned it but surely it must have been a romantic.
I have a little book called The Roadmender by one Michael Fairless who turned out to be Margaret Fairless Barber, born in May, 1869 at Castle Hill, Rastrick, Yorkshire. The Roadmender came with a yellowed clipping from a newspaper, a biography of Margaret, that a previous owner of the book had slipped carefully between its pages.
On the front end page is an inscription: Dear Mrs Derhaven With the love of her old friend JHS, 1906, with half the page inscribed with lines from the book. Mrs D was the original owner for it is a 1905 edition.
The name of a later owner is also inscribed, Helen B 27.9.55 and another name is circled in pencil, Julie K.
The Roadmender has certainly passed through second hand bookshops for a price of one shilling is scrawled on the title page in dark blue ink.
Tomorrow I will sit out in the sun and write my own name in these books.
The journey of any book can tell its own story if you take the time to look for it!