Special Collection: The Faerie Queene

Part 1

For my special collections assignment I chose The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. The edition I analyzed was published in 1897. My first impression of the book was amazement at the amount of detail on each page. The cover was a shiny gold material with what appeared to be a Celtic cross. I hypothesized that this may have been to appeal to readers and make them think of England, the first half of this hypothesis was corroborated by Dr. Flinchum (that the cross design was meant to resemble a Celtic cross), but I found out the edition had been published in the UK. This made me conclude that the Celtic cross symbol may be to make the reader think of Irish folktales because fairy’s feature heavily in these. The book was medium size, although fairly heavy, the paper was browned and chipped because it contained acid which browns and weakens the paper over time. Many pages were torn and some even loose within the book. Although the cover was ornate it had been rebound, I noticed that fabric from the original book’s cover had been saved and pasted over the new binding. Within the cover I found a library slip with dates from the 1970s, I asked the librarian about this and she confirmed that at one time students were allowed to take this book home with them! I found all of this very interesting because it felt like I was learning a history separate from the history of the book’s origins, but of this particular book itself. In reviewing the books design I noticed many illustrations, which at first I thought were woodcuts, but later told were metal cuts. The multiple illustrations made me think this edition would have been expensive at the time it was published and for higher class families; however, Dr. Flinchum pointed out, that because metal cuts were used parts of pictures (such as boarders) could be re-used. As such, this edition would have been less expensive, and likely for middle class families. Dr. Flinchum put it like this, “This book was for middle class families trying to look upper class!” Despite this I noticed that almost every page had some sort of small illustration or decoration, meaning that enough time was put into this book to separate it from cheaper options. The typography was interesting, different typeface was used for numbers and letters, and a special design surrounded the first letter of each chapter. One particular design of a first letter intrigued me and I asked Dr. Flinchum if it was a metal cut, he said it may actually have been an illustration designed to look like a metal cut because of the space of the words.

Part 2

Although this book was by not in the best condition nor originally intended for upper class families, there are multiple reasons it is important enough to collect in my opinion. For one it has it’s own unique history, which can be uncovered through careful evaluation of it’s appearance. It was rebound and was considered worthy of rebinding at the time, even though it must have been falling apart. It was once taken home by students and stamped dates from the 1970s can been seen within it’s cover. Although typeface and metal cuts were used throughout the book in place of time intensive illustrations, the cover is a work of art. According to the librarian present at the time, the cover is a tapestry woven specifically for this book, likely by hand. The amount of detailing in the cover is amazing by today’s standards if indeed handwoven. Style wise one can learn a lot about what the designers of the book were trying to convey. The large amount of black ink used in the metal cuts and thick, inky lettering was rare for the time period in which it was published, even controversial. It is likely designers were trying to imitate German Black Letter, an earlier and more “medieval” seeming style to create a medieval or mysterious reading experience. Within the first few pages is a large metal cut introducing the publisher and giving credit to John W Harlesmacamb, “professor of English Literative at King’s collage London”, who wrote the introduction. All in all I think this book has a unique history of it’s own leading to a higher value to be associated with it, for different reasons than the usual collectable book. Beisdes this there are multiple clues throughout the book as to the kind of feel the designer were going for and even what typography types were in style/considered controversial at the time. The rebinding of the book and chipping and browning of it’s pages may detract from overall value, but I think they offer valuable lessons on the treatment of antique books, as does the library stamping within the cover. All of these variables also add to the book’s unique history.