An Ugly Red and Black Cover

Always a touch of adrenalin when you find a letter from the author tucked inside a book, even if it is all too often simply an acknowledgment, a reply to an invitation, or a brief salutation.  Now and again the letter might offer something more — a word or two about the book in hand, perhaps, or its publisher, or a window into an unexpected facet of the author’s life.

More rarely still — and we are possibly now talking about once in a lifetime — we come across an absolute bombshell.  The book is W. H. Hudson’s anonymously published A Crystal Age, put out by T. Fisher Unwin in 1887.  It has long been regarded as a landmark in utopian or perhaps dystopian fiction, with the narrator recovering from unconsciousness into a future William Morris arts-and-crafts ecological world without cities, money, or politics — pre-dating Morris’ own News from Nowhere (1890) by several years, and Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905) by even more.  The influence on Wells’ still later Men Like Gods (1923) is particularly noticeable.

It was Hudson’s second novel.  After the critical drubbing that his first (The Purple Land that England Lost) had received — “we have seldom been called upon to express an opinion on a more vulgar farrago of repulsive nonsense” (Saturday Review, 14th November 1885) — the anonymity is not surprising.  Nor is the change in publisher from Sampson Low to Unwin.  The book was rather better received by the critics — “clever” was the word most often used, with approval from the St. James’s Gazette (19th April 1887) for its “fine and delicate feeling for natural beauty”.  Even so, the number of slight variations recorded in the binding and endpapers suggest that Unwin was not selling many and cautiously only binding up small numbers of copies at a time.

The book has always been scarce and in pre-internet days the first edition almost impossible to find.  As it is — other than the copy in my hand — there appears to be only single slightly battered copy currently available anywhere in the world.  The one in my hand is not in all that much better shape, but inside it, complete with its original envelope, postmarked 1st January 1921, there is a letter from Hudson — but what a letter!

Dated the previous day — he had not changed his mind about sending it overnight — Hudson was replying to a letter from the American book-collector Paul Lemperly (1858-1939).  Lemperly had evidently written to Hudson asking about the uncommon difficulty he was having in finding a copy of the first edition.  Hudson’s reply on his 23 North Parade, Penzance, notepaper was blunt:

I am pleased to learn the first edition is scarce as I would be glad to have it out of existence.  The book is a poor thing but in the later editions one or two of the most glaring absurdities are eliminated.  The first edition had an ugly black and red cover.  I have succeeded in recovering a few copies for the pleasure of destroying them.

So now we know.  We have a somewhat unexpected additional reason for the book’s rarity.

Lemperly was a distinguished collector — the press-cutting from the San Antonio Express below gives the flavour of his library.  He gave a talk called Among My Books to the Rowfant Club of Cleveland on 14th January 1928, which was published by the Club in a limited edition the following year.  He had some interesting and prescient things to say about dust-jackets: “This decided preference for the original published state now extends to the publisher’s outer paper wrapper or dust-cover, without which the modern book is no longer considered quite complete … It is not impossible that, some day, these wrappers may be collected, and written about”. He also talked at some length about a book he did not have.  Producing Hudson’s letter and quoting from it, he said, “This autograph letter would very much add to the interest of a copy of the first edition of his Crystal Age, a book unfortunately still missing” — eight years on from receiving that astonishing reply from Hudson he had still not found a copy.  But his persistence eventually paid off.  He obviously managed to find one before his death, inserting his “Choose Well. Your Choice is Brief yet Endless” bookplate, and attaching envelope and letter to the front endpaper with a neatly matching hinge.  It will be one of the books on our summer catalogue, due out next week.

San Antonio Express, November 28th 1939.
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