Paul Johnson

Every Man’s Library

IF THERE IS one matter on which men and women dffer profoundly it is books. I don’t mean the reading or writing of them. There ;he sexes are equal; not dissimilar anyway. No: I mean the buying, keeping, displaying and hoarding of them. With few exceptions, book misers or accumulators, formers of libraries, are men. Why is this?

I was struck by a passage in A L Rowse’s recently published diaries. He pays a &it to old Isaac Foot, patriarch of the distinguished Cornish tribe and father of Michael, Sir Dingle, Lord Foot and many other famous feet. He hds him in a mansion, which, though large, is crowded by the colossal number of books it contains – over 80,000. They not only fill every room but line the passages so that you have to squeeze past. Foot’s elderly wife – they are both in their eighties – is in despair and starts complaining to Rowse. While she is going on, two delivery men arrive bearing a vast new bookcase old Isaac has ordered, harbinger of hrther volumes. Mrs Foot explodes, rages, weeps. Isaac is adamant: the shelves are needed. She calms down, apologises. The bookcase is put in the dning room, though there is no space for it there. The account closes with the cleaning woman saying to Rowse: ‘Poor Mrs Foot! With my old man it was only the drink.’

A man’s attitude to books is emotional, sentimental, possessive, romantic. Anthony Powell called one of his episodes Books Do Furnish a Room. He believed it, to judge by a visit to the Chantrey, where he lived: indeed, he seemed to think books furnished every room. This was a view not wholly shared by his wife, Lady Violet, though she came of a bookish family herself. She believed books should hrnish a book-room or library, like the splendid one at Pakenharn Hall, where she was brought up. But outside the library they were on sufferance, visitors, to be tided awav in due course. To the male.bibliophile, however, bboks are invaders, settlers, colonisers, who establish a bridgehead in a room and then build up a permanent occupation. They don’t need shelves: the floor is good enough. Shelves are better, however: they legitimise a new colony. Every male book collector is an imperialist.

A woman’s attitude to books is practical. Books are there for use. If not used, they are merely dust-collectors. I have noticed that women prefer bookcases with glass fronts, whch have the effect of protecting the volumes &m dust and limiting their numbers: genuine book-accumulators abominate them, as wasters of space, and use them, if at all. to accommodate valuable first editions and the like. It is a characteristic of passionate, inveterate and incorrigible book misers that they are jealous of shelf-space and expect each foot to hold the maximum number ofbooks possible. This is a science in itself. Gladstone was a master of it. For him, ‘reading was like breathing’; over 20,000 books are mentioned in his diaries. In order not to torment his wife unduly, he learned to calculate withexactskillhowmanv books a room could be mad; to contain. He might enter a room in the house of an acquaintance and observe, at a glance: ‘Ah, you could fit 2,320 books in here, possibly a few more.’ It is highly appropriate, therefore, that his house on the Welsh borders near Chester should have become a residential library, where authors can go to study and create yet more books.

Queen Victoria often complained about Prince Albert’s attachment to books and his tendency to acquire them in untidy quantities. Gladstone’s habit of having a book with him at all times, even on royal occasions, was distasteful to her. She preferred the attitude of his arch-rival Lord Melbourne, who said he always rejoiced when a famous author died: ‘For then I know I have the whole of him on my shelf.’ Melbourne, being the owner of a grand country house, felt his library there should be as choice as any other wealthy gentleman’s, but he was a discriminating accumulator of books rather than a bibliophile. Victoria, too, was an accumulator, though certainly not a discriminating one. Guests at Balmoral grumbled about the selection, for in the Highlands, when the weather is bad, there is nothing to do but read or flirt, and flirting was forbidden there. When these complaints were investigated, the library was found to contain twenty-six identical guide books, thirty-two copies of The Lady of the Lake and a dozen Rob Roys. The librarian at Windsor was ordered to send up ‘some new books’ (unspecified).

I would like to read a study of the private bookcollections of famous authors. Such a work would, I’m sure, support my genuine point about the different attitudes of the sexes to books. In May 1844. when Dickens let his home at 1 Devonshire Terrace a Mrs Sopha Onslow, the contents were exhaustively inventoried, and very interesting they are. The inventory is reproduced as Appendx C in the new Oxford edtion of Dickens’s letters, Volume IV, and it shows that he owned well over 2,000 volumes at the age of thirty-two, not counting the large number of books he took with him to Italy. I can’t think of any well-known woman novelist of the nineteenth century who had a large library, with the possible exception of George Eliot. Does a list of her books exist? I suspect that her lover, G H Lewes, owned more. The polymath Harriet Martineau owned many books, but not comtlared to her Lake District neizhbour Robert ‘2 Southey, whose immense, cosmopolitan library was his world. Who owned more books – Lytton Strachey or Virginia Woolf? H G Wells or Rebecca West? Evelyn Waugh or Nancy Mitford? Kingsley Arnis or Elizabeth Jane Howard? The answers would be instructive.


Follow Literary Review on Twitter