1 February 2024 Susannah

What makes a book last?

What makes a book last?

It’s fun to ponder literary anniversaries. What books were published one hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, and which of them have you read, or heard of?

Here are some from 1924 – E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, Christie’s Poirot Investigates and The Man in the Brown Suit, and P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste are ones I’ve read, but I have never delved into Henry Howard Bashford’s wonderfully titled Augustus Carp, Esq., John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, H.G. Wells’ The Dream, The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby, or Satan’s Bushel by Garet Garrett. I know some of those authors, but I’d also never heard of some of them. It does make me feel rather sad. An author pours so much heart and soul into a book and is so thrilled to see it published, and then it is read by a few people and becomes only a name on a list of books published a long time ago.

If you look back to 1824, it’s all rather depressing. Lord Byron died that year, Charles Dickens entered the infamous blacking factory and his father went to prison, and of the books that Wikipedia lists as important publications of the year, I have only read one – Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village. Published that year were Scott’s Redgauntlet, Susan Ferrier’s The Inheritance, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot and Mary Charlton’s The Homicide. I must admit to being tempted to find a copy of an anonymous book called The Modern Rake, a book about a lusty footman that promises debauchery, feats of gallantry and luscious intrigues (no wonder the author chose to remain anonymous!). It had nine coloured illustrations and cost an exorbitant 3 guineas! A reviewer of the day remarked that the author displayed “no literary talent” at all, so perhaps it is a good thing the book is no longer in print, and yet it is surprisingly still listed as a publication of 1824 by Wikipedia. Intriguingly, a search for a picture of its cover only brought up lots of dull pictures of garden rakes of varying shapes and sizes.

Things are not much better when it comes to poetry. The prestigious Newdigate Prize was won that year by John Thomas Hope. Ever heard of him? I haven’t, so he was clearly one aspiring poet who lived up to his name rather badly.

I wonder what books will be listed in 2124? Which books published in this coming year will still be read and remembered in a century’s time? Will any of the ones I recommend in ‘Notes from a Book Addict’ still be considered classics or names that ring a bell with readers? What makes a book last, and who decided on which works of literature should be included in Wikipedia’s 1824 and 1924 lists? We won’t be around to find out, but these are interesting questions to ponder. Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Comment (1)

  1. Chris Browne

    Hi Susannah

    I have three copies of Our Village: the 1895 Macmillan edition illustrated by Hugh Thomson, the 1904 Dent edition illustrated by Charles Brock, but best of all the 1824 first edition of the first volume, with the bookplate of Dr. G Midford. In other words, Mrs Mitford’s father’s copy. Midford and Mitford were used interchangeably.

    Dr Midford was the reason that Mrs Mitford became an author, but not in any praiseworthy way. As a ten year old, in 1797, Mary Mitford won 20,000 pounds in a lottery, and her wretched father drank and gambled it all away by 1820. So Mary Mitford had to write in order to support her dissolute father.

    Our Village was published over ten years in 5 volumes over 8 years (1824-1832), although parts of volume 1 had been published serially in The Ladies Magazine in 1819.

    Our mutual interest in volume 1 should be it contains the first mention of Jane Austen as an author ever published. Mary Russell Mitford knew Jane Austen when both were young, although JA was 12 years older.

    “Nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Miss Austen’s delicious novels, quite sure before we leave it to become intimate with every spot and every person it contains…”
    Mary Russell Mitford, Our Village, Volume 1, page 3. 1824.

    Best wishes

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