It’s many months since I last wrote a book review, but my interest was revived recently when I visited an exhibition of illuminated and miniature manuscripts and books.
I inherited my father’s 40-volume miniature collection of Shakespeare’s plays, plus the sonnets, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The set, with the remains of its bookcase, was stored in a shirt box for years. A year or more ago, I repaired the tiny 3-shelf bookcase. The eighty-year-old glue had crystallised and crumbled. I stuck it back together with modern glue.
Each page of each book is 50 mm by 35 mm in size, the thickness of each volume varying, but averaging 15 mm including end boards. The plays are printed on very thin paper. Sixteen sheets – i.e. 32 double-sided pages – are just a millimetre in thickness. So although the printing is perfectly readable without a magnifying glass, the whole of Macbeth, at 314 pages, is just a centimetre thick, plus end boards.
The bindings on many of the books are in a poor state. The collection accompanied my father from Scotland to Spain to Italy to India to Malaya to Brunei and back to Scotland over a forty year period. It is hard to say whether travel, tropical conditions, or the icy draughts of Edinburgh wreaked the greatest harm. It was probably a combination.
The text, however, seems physically intact. I cannot detect any missing pages, though a few are loose.
You might think that the set had been made in, say, the 19th century or earlier – the heyday of miniatures. However, they were actually mass-produced in 1932 by Allied Newspapers of Gray’s Inn Road, London. Nevertheless, there must have been considerable hand work in the bindings, and I hate to think how much it would cost to repair the bindings today. Sets and individual volumes appear from time to time in auction rooms and eBay, though most do not appear to be in their original bindings. Certainly, my set is the only complete set I’ve seen which is bound in the original red, lettered in gold.
Is my set complete? Yes. It is the complete set as published. Is it a complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays? Yes, indeed, it is. All thirty-seven plays, plus the Sonnets, plus Venus and Adonis with The Rape of Lucrece in a single volume. The fortieth volume is a biography and glossary.
As to the works themselves, they were edited by J Talfourd Blair, a reputable Victorian editor, responsible for many popular editions of Shakespeare around the turn of the nineteenth century. I think the little library has achieved its objective just by being published. Actually reading them is certainly possible, as the print is not excessively small. The small size of the little books is the chief obstacle to the reader. I attempted The Scottish Play today, and it was a severe challenge to one’s dexterity in page turning.