I waited until my wife was looking the other way, nipped quickly in and bought it. Admittedly, it weighed six pounds, its heavy leather binding was rather battered and, as the label said, it ‘lacks part of brass lock’; but it was irresistible, even at £50 – once clearly irresistible, too, to His Majesty King Edward VII, a collection of dukes and duchesses, and ‘the whole of the leading members of the theatrical profession’, all of whom had been ‘pleased to subscribe, in advance of publication’.
The latter group provides the clue, of course. The Stage in the Year 1900 is ‘a de luxe souvenir, being a collection of photogravure plates portraying the leading players and playwrights of the day and a history of the stage during the Victorian era’. I’m perfectly aware that such a book is only likely to appeal to someone besotted with the theatre and the fusty glamour of stages on which the curtain has long since fallen for ever. It’s just that I simply can’t help being one of them.
I’m also aware that it’s one of those books which surely defines the word ‘obscure’. But what pleasure we can get from obscure books – in this case meeting from the thick matt pages the stern gazes of Sir Squire Bancroft and Mr Beerbohm Tree, the keen glance of the wonderfully handsome Lewis Waller and the mournful stare of the great comedian Charles Hawtrey. The ladies, too, send their greetings in stately, melting gazes‒‒ Miss Julia Neilson (‘a celebrated Princess Pannonia in The Princess and the Butterfly’), Miss Ellen Terry (‘her name is known wherever the English language is spoken’) and Mrs Langtry, in an alarming hat, ‘whose beauty and personal charm have fascinated playgoers both in England and America’. No prizes for guessing where King Edward left his bookmark.
The pleasure of obscure books lies partly in the belief that almost no one else possesses or wants to possess them – at least, that is how it seems; otherwise, surely, they would not have lurked so long in the murky corners of second-hand bookshops. It was, of all places, in a second-hand bookshop in Australia’s Blue Mountains that I picked up a book published in London in 1810: The Lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq., and the Countess of Strathmore by Jesse Foot, Esq., Surgeon. It was clearly worth a look, if only for the villainous frontispiece portrait of Bowes, and it turned out to
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