It is a commonplace of detection that the best place to hide something is in plain view. When it comes to books, this means reading the parts we normally skip. In my 1794 edition of Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla there is a list, as was the custom at the time, of those who subscribed to the cost of the initial printing. Among all the now forgotten His and Her Graces, the Gentlemen and Ladies, are listed Warren Hastings, the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (‘5 copies’), and one J. Austen, Steventon. You have only to pause for a moment over those names and you have opened the door to an adventure in detection.
Detection also involves imagination. I remember coming across a paperback poetry collection in an Oxfam shop which was inscribed with undying love for the recipient on her birthday. Yet there it was, only two or three years later, banished to a charity-shop shelf. What went wrong? Was it a comedy or a tragedy?
My most spine-tingling find, however, was a copy of Sir John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It was published in 1591 and reprinted in 1607. The story goes that, as well as inventing the water closet, Sir John translated the raciest section of the epic poem to titillate the ladies at Court. On discovering this, Elizabeth I commanded him as punishment to translate all 46 cantos. The title page of my copy is missing and the corners of some other pages have been rubbed away by earlier hands, but inscribed inside the cover are the words: ‘This book was bought at the sale of the effects of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby at Plasanwyd [sic] Llangollen and valued as the second edition by the Ladies (July 1832).’
Lady Eleanor was the lifelong companion of Sarah Ponsonby, and their elopement and subsequent lives are described in Elizabeth Mavor’s bestselling The Ladies of Llangollen (1971) where I also found their portraits. That in itself is fascinating enough, but, when I pick it up, my imagination
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in