The Lives of Books

Rose Macaulay's 1923 novel "Told by an idiot"

Certain objects come into our possession by gift or inheritance. Some come to us as chance or fortune puts them in our way. Still others we search out on our own, with more or less determination, more or less patience, and more or less success. Among those objects I’m always looking for are Rose Macaulay novels. The only one in print in the United States, I think, is The Towers of Trebizond. Beyond that, you’ll have to snoop at length through used bookshops – unless, that is, you want to cheat and place an order online, which is something like driving out to the woods with a hunting rifle but stopping instead at the local grocery store for venison steaks.

In addition to The Towers of Trebizond, which was my introduction to Macaulay, I’ve managed over the years to bag copies of Crewe Train (a personal favorite), The World My Wilderness (not a personal favorite) and They Were Defeated, plus a few of her non-fiction titles. Not long ago, however, one of my fellow Rose Macaulay enthusiasts in Northern California must have died (there can’t be many of us left), because a used bookshop I frequent suddenly had maybe a dozen dusty hardbound titles in the stacks.

Imagine my astonishment, my bewildered joy. Among the non-fiction was a pristine copy of Pleasure of Ruins, as well as her travel books The Fabled Shore and They Went to Portugal. Among the novels there was Potterism – in bad decay – and Told by an Idiot, and I Would Be Private. These last two I brought home with me, though I’m sorry to say that the bookseller knew what he had on the shelf (he was also trying to sell them online) and didn’t part with them cheaply.

I read Told by an Idiot a week or two ago. It was great fun, from Macaulay’s strong, comic period of the 1920s. What I want to comment on, however, is not the story but an ex libris mark I discovered on the first page of the book. In fading ink and a nice, calligraphic hand, it reads: “Alec Waugh, Edrington, Berks.”

Inscription: Alec Waugh - Edrington - Berks

Waugh is not a common name. Did Evelyn Waugh have a brother Alec? A few minutes of research confirmed it. Alec Waugh was also a novelist, though not as successful as his younger brother. Alexander Waugh (Evelyn’s grandson) chronicles several generations of Waugh family gossip in Fathers and Sons and reports that Alec’s wife Joan inherited a great deal of money when her father died in the early 1930s. With it she bought an old house near Silchester in Berkshire, which she named Edrington. Alec and Joan had a troubled marriage but he used Edrington as a sort of home base for several years. He liked to keep a strict dividing line between his possessions and her possessions, his money and her money. He insisted on paying a monthly fee for drinking her wine.

The book appears to have belonged to him, but I still have questions. It’s a first edition (W. Collins Sons, London, 1923), with “Review Copy” stamped on the title page. Was Alec Waugh the first owner of the book? Did he write a review of it? Did he own it for some years but only write his name in it when moving to Edrington (ten years after the date of publication), so as to keep his books separate from those of his wife? And how did the book come to the United States? How did the book’s owner prior to myself get hold of it? None of the other Macaulay titles from the bookshop were inscribed by Waugh.

Books, considered as objects, may be as inscrutable as people. The lives of books may be as various and particular as the lives of people. As artifacts of human culture, over time they become strangely humanlike. Their biographies are perhaps hinted at by outward signs, but these never tell more than a fraction of their story, and the tale of their outward lives may have no bearing at all to the plot and the characters they contain. It’s getting to be an old game, playing the Luddite and bemoaning the rise of electronic books. But this is where they fail. In order to be a human object, a book must first of all be an object.

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