A Literary Spat

3D front cover of Roxburghe Revels, and Other Relative Papers by James MaidmentDon’t we all love them? Professor X’s wide-ranging yet in-depth study of the survival of Inca mythical tropes in modern Peruvian knitting patterns, the results of a lifetime’s study which included learning to herd and shear llamas, spin and dye the wool, and knit it into hats and ponchos, is reviewed by Dr Y, a disciple of the Free Knitting school (no patterns allowed), in terms which cast doubt on the professor’s theoretical and practical knowledge, and on his personal integrity – plagiarism and exploitation of the indigenous knitters are hinted at.

In the next issue of the journal, Professor X exercises his right of reply in equally offensive terms, while on the sidelines post-graduate researcher Z modestly proffers evidence he has discovered from a previously unknown sixteenth-century Jesuit chronicle of knitting, which Dr Y then claims to be a well-known nineteenth-century forgery; the chair of the Peruvian Knitters’ Collective piles in with accusations of IP theft; and so on until the editorial hammer eventually falls and the correspondence is closed.

This is of course nothing new: think of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bacon–Shakespeare controversies, or the raging feud between the Classical Journal and the Museum Criticum. A remarkable example is to be found in the ‘Roxburghe Revels’ row of 1834–7. We came across this scholarly snarl-fest in the context of the annotated catalogues, which we will be reissuing shortly, of some of the great bibliographic sales of the early nineteenth century.

The sale of the duke of Roxburghe’s library after his death was an important event in the history of British bibliographical studies, during which one book, the Valdarfer Boccaccio, the only surviving copy (as far as is known – check your attic now!) of the first printed edition of the Decameron, sold for the unimaginably high price of £2,260. The price was inflated by the rivalry of cousins and bibliomanes George Spencer (later the fifth duke of Marlborough) and George Spencer (second Earl Spencer): when Marlborough was forced to sell his collection seven years later, Earl Spencer got the prize for only £918. (It is now owned by the John Rylands Library in Manchester.)

On 16 June 1812, the evening before the sale, a group of less well-heeled bibliophiles – among them Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Earl Spencer’s librarian – got together for dinner to mark the eagerly anticipated event, and had so much fun that they decided to make a regular fixture of it: thus the Roxburghe Club was born. One of the founder members was Joseph Haslewood (1769–1833), a London solicitor of relatively moderate means who was a keen book collector and editor of early texts – one of which was Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, published two years before the edition by William Mavor which we have just reissued.

Haslewood seems to have been a genial sort, whose main vice was an addiction to alliteration’s artful aid – witness his 1809 Green-Room Gossip, or, Gravity Gallinipt. A Gallifaufry Got Up to Guile Gymnastical and Gynecocratic Governments. Gathered and Garnished by Gridiron Gabble, Gent., Godson to Mother Goose – and was clearly the life and soul of the club, writing a mock-heroic account of its activities, the ‘Roxburghe Revels’ as well as taking part in the editing and publication of early English texts which were its increasingly important raison d’être.

All very jolly and English-eccentric: the trouble started when after Haslewood’s death in 1833, his book collection was sold. Through accident or ignorance, his executors included the manuscript ‘Roxburghe Revels’ (never intended for wide dissemination), in the sale, and it was passed to the editor of The Athenaeum. Soon after, a violent attack on both Haslewood and the club appeared in that journal: the anonymous and vituperative author is believed to have been James Silk Buckingham, sailor, traveller, author and politician, many of whose works we have reissued.

The author’s motive is unfathomable, but his spite is evident, as is a great deal of snobbery. Poor Haslewood’s sense of humour, and his occasionally shaky grammar, are ridiculed mercilessly, and the club’s spending on food and drink at its convivial meetings is puritanically reviewed. The piece ends: ‘We have now finished the “Roxburghe Revels”, and finished the Roxburghe Club: Mr Haslewood has finished himself.’

Indignation at this assault on a harmless (and dead) individual was widespread, and in 1837 a counter-attack was launched by Scots advocate James Maidment (1793–1879), himself an editor of early Scottish texts and a friend of Haslewood. He re-published the original squib, with some ‘prefatory remarks’ condemning the mean-spiritedness of the author:

‘The extracts given were accompanied by observations, many of which had better been spared, as they indicate by no means an amiable spirit on the part of the commentator. Haslewood’s birth, for instance, is made in a matter of reproach, – his personal deformity a subject of lampoon, – his harmless pursuits are ridiculed, – and he is throughout sneered at for his desire to move in good society.’

(Haslewood was allegedly ‘sprung from the very humblest class’ and born in ‘Brownlow Street Lying-In Hospital’. This was the first London maternity hospital, founded in 1749. It was emphatically for married women only: as well as a recommendation from a patron, proof of the existence of a husband also had to be provided. I wonder whether the surname of John Brownlow, foundling and tireless worker for the Foundling Hospital, is in any way connected?)

The Athenaeum piece then went on to attack the club, though as Maidment says: ‘In the outset, we may remark, that we are really unable to see what right any one has to find fault with a set of persons associating together for the sake of reprinting old books.’ His further defence, in an ‘appendix’, includes a ‘biographical sketch’ of Haslewood, taken from the Gentleman’s Magazine, containing a list of the thirty-odd works (including Jack Jugler) which, as ‘a laborious and faithful editor’, he had enabled to be published, and ‘which might otherwise have perished’. An account, also from the Gentleman’s Magazine, of the sale of Haslewood’s library, is prefaced by a note of the controversy, in which ‘his memory has been assailed by a series of the bitterest and most cruel attacks that ever have been directed against a harmless individual just sunk into his grave’.

The third item in the appendix is a short but vigorous refutation by Dibdin of the Athenaeum writer’s characterisation of Haslewood and of the club, pointing out the evident malice displayed: ‘He seems to have rushed forward as a vulture upon his prey. The dead body of poor Haslewood is mangled with his talons – and yet all this is undertaken … “without giving offence to anyone”’. Next, a piece by Haslewood (again from the Gentleman’s Magazine: one assumes that it and the Athenaeum did not enjoy a relationship of mutual harmony and respect) about ‘old London theatres’ is given, to afford readers the chance to judge for themselves the quality of his scholarship and writing. Finally, eight ‘Notices relative to the Roxburghe Club’ are reprinted. They seem to offer a light-hearted spoof of the ‘correspondences’ of more serious (though no less learned) societies: one piece is signed ‘A Book-Worm, British Museum, Attic Story’; another is by ‘Valdarfer Jun.’.

And of course the Roxburghe Club had the last laugh: reports  in 1834 of its demise were greatly exaggerated, and – now the most famous bibliographic society in the world – it celebrated its bicentenary in 2012. One hopes that the traditional ten toasts given in the account of the 1813 first anniversary are still solemnly proposed.


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4 Responses to A Literary Spat

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