Launch of Sydney Rare Book Week

This opinion piece is based on a recent talk, delivered by La Trobe University Adjunct Professor Stuart Kells, which launched Sydney Rare Book Week at the State Library of New South Wales.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this inaugural Sydney Rare Book Week. I begin by acknowledging that this great institution, the State Library of New South Wales, was built on the site of another great library, one that was richer and even more spectacular: the ancient oral library of the First Australians.

The most interesting and important research in history and bibliography today concerns the conservation and revival of that library, such as by documenting and celebrating Indigenous languages, voices and narratives. I commend the State Library’s staff and researchers for their work in that field.

For my talk today, I’d like to begin with someone rightly recognised as a modern founder of the State Library. Then I’ll follow some threads through history, bibliophilia, bibliomania and Shakespeare.

Looking back through history, some of the most celebrated libraries, such as those of George Spencer, Second Earl Spencer, and John Ker, First Earl of Roxburghe, were built around an interest in Shakespeare and his world. They were, at their core, Shakespeare libraries.

The collection of David Scott Mitchell is another example. Mitchell was born near here in 1836, in the officers’ quarters of the old Military Hospital in Macquarie Street. His father, James, was surgeon-in-charge. His mother, Augusta, was descended from Sir John Frederick, a seventeenth-century lord mayor of London.

James Mitchell had arrived in New South Wales in 1821, after serving in the Napoleonic Wars. In the Hunter Valley he acquired more than thirty thousand acres that proved to be rich coalfields. Mitchell senior was suddenly a very wealthy man.

When Augusta’s mother came to Sydney, she brought her personal library, and she continued to acquire books until her death in 1840. Many of her books later passed to her grandson. Apart from this inheritance, the strongest early influences on David Scott Mitchell’s book collecting were the Shakespeare biographer, Charles Knight, and the bibliophile, Thomas Frognall Dibdin.

Like Charles Darwin, the neurologist Dr Hughlings Jackson approached books in an utterly unsentimental way. For him, books were just blocks of ink and paper. Whenever he purchased a book at a bookstall, he would tear the cover off, rip the volume in two, and put each half into a pocket. When a young bookseller noticed in shock this performance, Jackson remarked: “You think I am mad, my boy, but it’s people who don’t do this who are really mad.”

Tom Dibdin, though, disagreed. In his writings and interests, he popularised a perspective that today’s booklovers take for granted. According to this perspective, first editions are best and rarity is a virtue. Vellum beats morocco, which in turn beats ordinary calf. Wide margins are to be preferred, as are fine and exotic papers.

David Mitchell owned the specific reference works that turned Dibdin into a proper bibliomaniac: William Beloe’s Anecdotes of Literature and Scarce Books, and Isaac Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature. Without these, Dibdin said, he could never have reached the exalted state of bibliomania. In that exalted state, his life revolved around accumulating books, and writing about their bindings, title pages, provenance and colophons.

Mitchell also owned Dibdin’s Bibliographical Decameron (1817) and a marked-up copy of Bibliomania (1811). Under these influences, Mitchell’s foremost passion was Elizabetheana. An early purchase was a Shakespeare Fourth Folio from 1685. At the same sale, Mitchell bought John Conolly’s A Study of Hamlet (1863), a presentation copy to Charles Dickens.

He also bought Australiana, at an astonishing rate. From around 1886, he attempted to gather a copy of every document that related in some way to Australia, the Pacific, the East Indies or Antarctica. This mission of completeness was an act of obsession with few equivalents in Australian book collecting, and indeed in Australian culture in general.

The fact that Mitchell collected Australiana alongside Shakespeare may seem odd and eclectic. But it’s not as strange as it sounds. The first European visitors and colonisers brought books with them, as sources of knowledge but also of comfort and reassurance, a way of bringing the old world into the new. Books of Shakespeare in particular were foundational in the modern history of Australia.

On Cook’s first voyage, the Endeavour carried Sydney Parkinson’s library, including a set of Shakespeare’s works. Almost a century later, the last convict ship brought to Western Australia a literate cargo of prisoners. Entertainments during the voyage included nightly theatricals and recitations from Shakespeare.

Probably the first ‘commercial’ Australian performance of Shakespeare took place just twelve years after the First Fleet. In April 1800, Henry IV Part I was performed at Robert Sidaway’s theatre. According to David Malouf, it was a proper theatre with a pit, a gallery and boxes. Patrons could pay in meat, flour or spirits. The authorities soon judged the theatre to be corrupting influence and closed it down.

But Shakespeare remained firmly in the Zeitgesit. Freemasons established Shakespeare Lodges. Galleries collected Elizabethan and Jacobean art. Entrepreneurs named pubs, theatres and racehorses after Shakespearean plays and characters. When politicians discussed possible names for Australia’s new national capital, King O’Malley pushed for it to be named ‘Shakespeare’, after ‘the greatest Englishman who ever lived’.

In 1883, the Birmingham industrialist Richard Tangye published his Reminiscences of Travel in Australia, America and Egypt. Amusements on his voyage also included theatrical performances, as well as quoits and sack races. When Tangye reached the township of Sydney, he was especially impressed by the Free Public Library, which had opened in 1869 with twenty thousand volumes.

The principal librarian greeted Tangye with ‘civility and helpfulness’. Tangye later responded with a spectacular gift: a Shakespeare First Folio. In excellent condition, it was delivered in a fine-looking box made from Warwickshire timber.

During David Scott Mitchell’s childhood, there was always a copy of Shakespeare’s works in the family home. David was taught to appreciate the Bard as an example of a self-made man, something that appealed as much to the Mitchells as it had to Tangye.

As the rate of Mitchell’s book-buying accelerated, his home began to bulge with books. After his death in 1907, his enormous collection passed by gift to the State Library. It would earn him a place as a foundational figure in modern Sydney, and modern Australia.

George Barrington is another foundational figure with strong connections to Shakespeare. For a period in the 1780s, he was a principal actor in a Glasgow theatre company. He played the male leads in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, until his fellow actors discovered he’d been stealing from their wardrobe.

Barrington skipped town with the young woman who’d been Juliet to his Romeo, and Polly to his Macheath. Returning to London, Barrington resumed his prior career of theatrical pickpocket.

In the preceding decades, the actor, theatre manager and producer David Garrick had revived London’s theatres and made them more respectable. In 1769, Garrick staged the pageant known as the ‘Shakespeare Jubilee’. Intended to celebrate the Bard’s achievements, it was the greatest literary publicity stunt of the eighteenth century, and possibly of all time.

In 1776, Garrick was still riding high from that event when he and his wife, Eva Marie, attended an event to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. Eva Marie wore artificial flowers and real diamonds. The Earl of Mexborough wore diamonds, too, until Barrington, disguised as a clergyman, stole them in Garrick’s presence.

Garrick jointly managed the Drury Lane theatre, a favoured Barrington haunt. In one incident, Barrington robbed an alderman there, during a performance of ‘The School for Scandal’.

Many times he was apprehended and hauled before the court, where he adopted the clothes and demeanour of a gentleman. His theatrical training served him well: he cried real tears and displayed all sorts of dramatic flourishes, conducting himself ‘with the greatest propriety’.

More than once, these performances yielded a lesser sentence. In 1790, however, his luck ran out and he was transported to Port Jackson. Just two years later, a fascinating snippet reached London: the pickpocket had turned policeman. And not just any policeman, but ‘head constable’ at Parramatta. The notorious Barrington was, it seemed, one step away from becoming the new colony’s chief of police.

This delectable news was the catalyst for a new career. Publisher H. D. Symonds issued a work by Barrington entitled A Voyage to New South Wales. The book was a success and further Barrington accounts followed.

According to his biographer, the convict ‘had some skill in observation of detail, and some power of describing particular episodes’. Barrington’s talents extended also to an ode, epigrams, and the verse prologue that contains the famous lines, ‘True patriots all—for be it understood, We left our Country for our Country’s good’.

Though uneven, Barrington’s writings are vivid and engaging. Moving deftly between different styles and genres, he produced works that appeared under such titles as The History of New South Wales, and The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of George Barrington, Now Transported to Botany Bay. Some were only pamphlets, others expensive octavo volumes with colour plates. They were the means by which many people received news of the infant settlement on the other side of the world.

John Ferguson’s monumental Bibliography of Australia informs us that great libraries acquired Barrington’s books. The Bodleian, for example, has a copy of his 1802 History of New South Wales. The Mitchell Library, too, includes many examples.

Despite these holdings, though, Ferguson had his doubts. His Bibliography labelled nine Barrington titles ‘pseud.’, indicating he thought the author’s name was most likely pseudonymous. There is little doubt, Ferguson said in a summary of his findings, ‘that Barrington had no connexion whatsoever with the many publications listed, except, possibly, to a slight extent, with A Voyage to New South Wales, published in London in 1795’.

Bookseller Jonathan Wantrup cast an even more sceptical eye, and reached an even stronger conclusion. ‘There is no question,’ he wrote, ‘that all the books ascribed to Barrington are completely fraudulent and that he had no share in them.’

Thanks to the work of Ferguson, Wantrup and Nathan Garvey, we now know what was going on with the Barrington books. Close analysis shows the books stole flagrantly from the foundation volumes of modern Australia, such as David Collins’ An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, and John Hunter’s An Historical Journal of the Transactions of Port Jackson and Norfolk Island.

Slabs of text lifted from these sources were knitted together with fanciful episodes, such as a boy lost in the bush, a man sleeping on an ant-hill, and Barrington’s romance with the Eora woman Yeariana.

Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone decried this mode of making books, in which earlier sources were ‘properly sliced and hashed and stewed’, before being served up, without acknowledgment of where the ‘literary mess’ had come from. Thus assembled, the Barrington texts were issued with bogus imprints and other misleading appendages.

In 2019, we’ve reached a point of utter certainty that Barrington was never an author, never a poet. Barrington the genteel pickpocket was a product of David Garrick’s genteel theatre world. And Barrington the author was a phantom constructed by the literary culture of the day.

Apart from its Barringtons, the State Library now has four Shakespeare Folios in its collection. If Garrick made Barrington, he also made the modern Shakespeare.

During his London years, William Shakespeare lived on the fringes of respectability. Theatre people in general were seen as disreputable; and Shakespeare in particular had friends with one foot in the theatre world and one in the underworld.

More than any other event, the Shakespeare Jubilee is responsible for the modern image of Shakespeare as a respectable, literary man, Britain’s ‘national poet’. But that image has long been a matter of doubt, especially in Australia, which is a hotbed of Shakespeare heretics: people who believe William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon didn’t write the plays and poems that were published under his name.

An 1877 pamphlet proposed Sir Walter Raleigh as the true author. Around the same time, Dr William Thomson produced a series of books that gave the plays to Sir Francis Bacon. Other books and pamphlets were also produced, arguing for and against Shakespearean authorship.

The debate continued into the twentieth century. In Shakespearean Afterglow (1942), Christina Montgomery argued Shakespeare was a talented Latin scholar. Others took up her thesis to help prove the ‘true author’ must have had more than just a provincial grammar-school education. The poet Archibald Strong wrote of how Shakespeare took most of his plots and characters second-hand. And at the most recent turn of the millennium, Australia hosted the world’s richest concentration of Nevillians: those who believe Sir Henry Neville was the secret author.

That belief, and the Shakespeare Authorship controversy in general, pivots on the extent to which ‘the Barrington problem’ applies to Shakespeare. The question – of whether Shakespeare just was another Barrington, a brand behind which unscrupulous publishers hid – is far from fanciful.

Several books that appeared under Shakespeare’s name are universally regarded as ‘allonymous’: he certainly did not write them, and publishers are accused of exploiting his name. That name signified several things. Certainly a dexterity with words, and smart engagement with contemporary life and politics. But also a trademark raciness and bawdiness, and perhaps a willingness to recast the writings of others.

The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) is an example of a work that suffers from ‘the Barrington Problem’. In that year, the printer-publisher William Jaggard wanted to release a volume of saucy verse. He gave the volume a saucy title, and gathered twenty poems from various authors. Of the twenty, Shakespeare wrote around five. But in a striking piece of marketing, Jaggard put Shakespeare’s name on the volume’s title page as the sole author, to exploit Shakespeare’s reputation as an erotic poet.

Other publishers, too, would attempt to profit from Shakespeare’s brand. In 1605, for example, Nathaniel Butter published The London Prodigal. Attributed to Shakespeare on the title page, the play is most likely by Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, George Wilkins or Thomas Middleton.

In 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death, William Jaggard printed a collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Only ten plays were included. (Two of the ten were combined into one.) Not all the plays are strictly Shakespearean. ‘Sir John Oldcastle’ is one work in the volume that is thought to be a collaboration, executed by several authors, none of whom was Shakespeare. ‘A Yorkshire Tragedy’, also in the volume, is thought to have been written by Thomas Middleton. ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’, is regarded as at least partly Shakespearean; George Wilkins was probably the plays principal co-author.

Though Jaggard published the volume, four of the plays were falsely attributed to other publishers. Six of the ten plays were printed with false title-page dates. For these reasons, the volume is known as the ‘False Folio’ (it is actually a large quarto).

Despite its murkiness, the False Folio is one of the most intriguing and desirable books that ever existed. Henry Clay Folger was famous for vacuuming up Shakespeare First Folios, but the False Folio was his greatest prize. When Folger sat for a painted portrait that would hang in his library, he wanted to be pictured with a book. He rode the New York subway to the artist’s studio, carrying the chosen volume wrapped in newspaper. The volume was his copy of the False Folio, a hundred times rarer than the First Folio. In 1919, Henry had paid $100,000 for it, making it the most expensive book in the world.

Four years after the False Folio appeared, Jaggard published the First Folio. This famous volume is consciously misleading about Shakespearean authorship. Recent Oxford editions of Shakespeare’s plays acknowledge Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the first, second and third parts of Henry VI. Some scholars have gone further, defining a ‘Shakespeare–Marlowe continuum’, along which numerous Shakespeare and Marlowe plays sit. The names of other Shakespeare collaborators and co-authors have also been put forward. But none of these are acknowledged in the First Folio, which assigns sole authorship of the thirty-six plays to Shakespeare.

Jaggard’s shady career ended in a small tragedy. Just before the First Folio was finished, he died.

The points I’ve shared today, about the First Folio, the False Folio and collaboration, are facts. Beyond these, most of what is said about Shakespearean Authorship is inference and speculation.

In more than one way, the Australian story and Shakespeare’s story are intertwined. Like modern Australia, modern Shakespeare is a product of the eighteenth century. And for very different reasons, both histories are hotly contested.

‘Shakespeare’ is less a person than a gaggle of phenomena, a corpus of myth, a chest of clues, a field of battle. Not very long ago, Shakespeare studies had a bleak future. Few of the best thinkers were interested in the Bard. Heads of department discouraged postgraduate students from pursuing Shakespeare, except perhaps as a focus of radical re-readings. The field of ‘traditional’ Shakespearean scholarship was left wide open for cranks, bullies and blowhards. Once inside, they set about reinforcing the perimeter and constructing houses of cards.

Now, though, we live in a golden era of Shakespeare scholarship. Using tools from outside the traditional boundaries of Shakespeare studies, scholars have made great progress in understanding the nature and scale of Shakespeare’s authorial achievement.

The field of Shakespearean bibliography says much about the pleasures of collecting and curation. Those pleasures are about human stories, chance discoveries and strange parallels, such as those that link a sixteenth century playwright to an eighteenth century pickpocket, a nineteenth century bibliophile and a twenty-first-century library.

Uncovering textual sources, tracing chains of provenance and finding overlooked treasures: these aspects of collecting and bibliography offer genuine delight, and they are more viable today because of our digital tools and clearer eyes.

With Shakespeare as with Barrington, contested authorship and controversial publication doesn’t stop the books from being valuable and collectable. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. Shakespearean bibliography has it all. Love, obsession, theft, sex. The different editions of his books say important things about culture, history, ethics and truth.

That’s a lot to get from blocks of ink and paper.