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Book Acquisition - January 2020

Sunday, January 26, 2020 - 11:21

One aspect of not having a regular reason to drop by downtown Berkeley, is that I’m less likely to just drop by Moe’s Books or any of the other bookstores and randomly browse for interesting deep-background research materials. But this past week I had to drop off some UCB library books after work, and then wanted to kill some time until the traffic died down, so I did a shelf-browse at Moe’s and picked us some fun stuff. (I am regularly grateful that I don’t have to treat my fiction as the sort of business where research purchases have to pay for themselves.)

Most immediately, I spotted Restoration London by Liza Picard (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). A steal at $6. While it isn’t a book necessarily intended for writers, it’s the sort of reference that has lots of mid-level details of everyday life for when you want a reality-check on the size of a middle class house and what the standard set of servants in it would be. That sort of thing. The author isn’t a historian, but sometimes that’s how you get the everyday details rather than a fixation on Great Men And Significant Events. Why did I buy it? Well if you’ve been following my tweets, I’ve been working on a Restoration era romantic adventure short story for a specific call for submissions. But that story is also tied (behind the scenes) to a historic romance series that I’ve been noodling at. (I’ve mentioned it several times in my author newsletter but don’t feel it’s ready to declare as an official project yet.)

I was hoping to find some art books that would give me general background on later 17th century English domestic interiors, but I don’t know the right artists or keywords to follow up on yet. I did, however, find a lovely book on the turn of the 18th/19th century: The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home 1750-1850 by Clive Wainwright (Yale University Press, 1989). It’s a lush (though mostly b&w) study of the upper-class British home decorating esthetic in an era that delighted in assembling museum-like collections to demonstrate the reach of British culture through time and space. Exactly the sort of thing I’d hoped to find for the later 17th century, but inspiring for my Alpennian books and potentially for future Regency settings.

Another book that caught my eye for Regency settings is Mrs Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823, an album of watercolors in a delightfully unstudied style whose topics are just what it says on the label. The artist, Diana Sperling, was born in 1791, a member of the rural gentry society that she depicts in this collection of 70 works. The paintings include brief captions describing the scenes and sometimes identifying the specific people depicted. This publication also includes brief contextual explanations by Gordon Mingay who has researched the Sperling family and their setting. This is neither a work of art criticism nor of historical research, but it provides a lot of visual inspiration for everyday life, manners, and concerns.

Sources of such information for everyday life, manners, and concerns are always harder to find than political histories. And they don’t always come in the form you might expect. Personal correspondence is a fabulous source, though it can be hard to find the balance between an edition that sorts through original material to find interesting tidbits, and an editor whose interests and concerns mean that they omit exactly the details you’re looking for. Letterwriting in Renaissance England is a companion publication to an exhibit by the Folger Shakespeare Library on surviving letters from 16-17th century England, but also on the material and social culture of letter writing. What did letters actually look like as physical objects? How were the different parts of the text arranged? How did people learn to write letters in different styles and genres? This book shows examples of letter-writing manuals intended for that purpose (though they are hardly the earliest examples). How might one write letters in code or using invisible ink? This exhibit catalog contains a wealth of inspirations for historic stories. You know that Restoration-era romance series I mentioned? The opening scene in the first novel involves a woman receiving and interacting with a letter from an old but estranged friend. A reference book like this will help me design what that letter will look like, how the salutation will open, what forms the content will take.

I mentioned the tendency of Romantic interior decorating to have a museum-like quality, but a more direct and fascinating precursor to the modern museum is the “cabinet of curiosities” that evolved around the 17th century--the era that, as the book’s jacket copy claims, was “the last period of history when man could aspire to know everything.” (Aspire, not succeed. And of course the “everything” they aspired to know left out vast swaths of the world.) Cabinets of Curiosities by Patrick Mauries (by that publisher of lovely picture-filled historic interest books, Thames & Hudson) takes us on a tour of this phenomenon, illustrated with artwork depicting such cabinets (because it wasn’t enough to have the collection, you want to demonstrate that you have it by memorializing it in art), as well as some surviving examples of the cabinets and the collections they held. The most grandiose examples held the collections of the rich and powerful, like Emperor Rudolf II, but anyone who has put together a collection of sea shells or rocks or interesting objects found in your backyard has participated in the curiosity cabinet tradition. When I was writing Mother of Souls I gave Margerit Sovitre a curiosity cabinet as part of the furnishings of the old mansion she bought to house her academy. It was largely plundered of its collection when it came to her, but on a whim she decided to re-purpose it to hold the physical paraphernalia of her mystery ceremonies--a more elaborate version of the “charm work” chest that Celeste Giraud uses to store her supplies in Floodtide.

I don’t think of myself as someone who is a memorably extreme buyer of research books, but either I’m wrong, or the proprietor of Hackenberg Booksellers is just that good. Actually, I know it’s the latter. Mr. Hackenberg really is just that good. You have to be to thrive as a seller of academic and antiquarian books in today’s market, and he has an index-card-memory of what all his customers’ specialties and interests are.

When I first got to know him, he was located in downtown Berkeley and I was in grad school. Back then, I specialized in texts on Celtic language and linguistics, with Welsh history on the side. He’s the one who stuck a copy of Seebohm’s The Tribal System in Ancient Wales in front of my face and then waited patiently for me to decide I really did want to spend $300 on it. That was in the dealer’s room at the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress, which is where I most often run into him these days. A somewhat odd thing, given that we’re both located in the Bay Area!

He’s been catching up with the fact that my academic interests shifted over to textile history, though not that I’ve moved on to other topics. But periodically I’ll get an email from him saying, “Hey I thought you might be interested in this.” My most common response is, “Have it already.” My second most common is, “Nah, not quite my thing.” But when he hits my sweet spot, my wallet comes out.

So this time, it was Margaret Spufford’s The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century. Perhaps of fairly marginal usefulness to my writing unless I decide to create a character specifically based on the subject, but it delves into the lives of ordinary people, which I’ve noted is a valuable resource. This is a more academic work than, for example, Restoration London, and includes a lot of details of economics: inventories, wills, etc.

There’s an additional bit of interest in the book because it came from the library of Professor Jan de Vries (not the Dutch linguist who died in 1964, but the American historian of economic history at UC Berkeley) and has an inscription from the author to him on the flyleaf. I don’t tend to make a fuss about inscriptions or signatures unless it’s an author I have a personal relationship with. But it’s still interesting to have that bit of direct connection in the book.

One of these days, I need to spend a day browsing through Hackenberg’s store because I always find things that I had no idea I wanted (or sometimes, no idea they existed) until I see them. But I was on my lunch hour from work this time, so the only other book I spotted and picked up was a hardbound copy of Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 which I count as one of a couple of foundational books in my journey through lesbian history. I already had a copy, of course--the paperback copy I picked up back in 1993 when it first came out! But paperback copies of books I use this often and this enthusiastically are often the worse for the wear, and like Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men (another of my foundational books), I thought it worth buying a second, more durable copy. This copy notes that it’s the first US edition, though that means very little in collectable terms since the first UK edition has precedence.

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