by Andrew Lang
The Countryman. “You know how much, for some time past, the editions of the Elzevirs have been in demand. The fancy for them has even penetrated into the country. I am acquainted with a man there who denies himself necessaries, for the sake of collecting into a library (where other books are scarce enough) as many little Elzevirs as he can lay his hands upon. He is dying of hunger, and his consolation is to be able to say, ‘I have all the poets whom the Elzevirs printed. I have ten examples of each of them, all with red letters, and all of the right date.’ This, no doubt, is a craze, for, good as the books are, if he kept them to read them, one example of each would be enough.”
The Parisian. “If he had wanted to read them, I would not have advised him to buy Elzevirs. The editions of minor authors which these booksellers published, even editions ‘of the right date,’ as you say, are not too correct. Nothing is good in the books but the type and the paper. Your friend would have done better to use the editions of Gryphius or Estienne.”
This fragment of a literary dialogue I translate from ‘Entretiens sur les Contes de Fees,’ a book which contains more of old talk about books and booksellers than about fairies and folk-lore. The ‘Entretiens’ were published in 1699, about sixteen years after the Elzevirs ceased to be publishers. The fragment is valuable: first, because it shows us how early the taste for collecting Elzevirs was fully developed, and, secondly, because it contains very sound criticism of the mania. Already, in the seventeenth century, lovers of the tiny Elzevirian books waxed pathetic over dates, already they knew that a ‘Caesar’ of 1635 was the right ‘Caesar,’ already they were fond of the red-lettered passages, as in the first edition of the ‘Virgil’ of 1636. As early as 1699, too, the Parisian critic knew that the editions were not very correct, and that the paper, type, ornaments, and FORMAT were their main attractions. To these we must now add the rarity of really good Elzevirs.
Though Elzevirs have been more fashionable than at present, they are still regarded by novelists as the great prize of the book collector. You read in novels about “priceless little Elzevirs,” about books “as rare as an old Elzevir.” I have met, in the works of a lady novelist (but not elsewhere), with an Elzevir ‘Theocritus.’ The late Mr. Hepworth Dixon introduced into one of his romances a romantic Elzevir Greek Testament, “worth its weight in gold.” Casual remarks of this kind encourage a popular delusion that all Elzevirs are pearls of considerable price. When a man is first smitten with the pleasant fever of book-collecting, it is for Elzevirs that he searches. At first he thinks himself in amazing luck. In Booksellers’ Row and in Castle Street he “picks up,” for a shilling or two, Elzevirs, real or supposed. To the beginner, any book with a sphere on the title-page is an Elzevir. For the beginner’s instruction, two copies of spheres are printed here. The second is a sphere, an ill-cut, ill-drawn sphere, which is not Elzevirian at all. The mark was used in the seventeenth century by many other booksellers and printers. The first, on the other hand, is a true Elzevirian sphere, from a play of Moliere’s, printed in 1675. Observe the comparatively neat drawing of the first sphere, and be not led away after spurious imitations.
Beware, too, of the vulgar error of fancying that little duodecimos with the mark of the fox and the bee’s nest, and the motto “Quaerendo,” come from the press of the Elzevirs. The mark is that of Abraham Wolfgang, which name is not a pseudonym for Elzevir. There are three sorts of Elzevir pseudonyms. First, they occasionally reprinted the full title-page, publisher’s name and all, of the book they pirated. Secondly, when they printed books of a “dangerous” sort, Jansenist pamphlets and so forth, they used pseudonyms like “Nic. Schouter,” on the ‘Lettres Provinciales’ of Pascal. Thirdly, there are real pseudonyms employed by the Elzevirs. John and Daniel, printing at Leyden (1652-1655), used the false name “Jean Sambix.” The Elzevirs of Amsterdam often placed the name “Jacques le Jeune” on their title-pages. The collector who remembers these things must also see that his purchases have the right ornaments at the heads of chapters, the right tail-pieces at the ends. Two of the most frequently recurring ornaments are the so-called “Tete de Buffle” and the “Sirene.” More or less clumsy copies of these and the other Elzevirian ornaments are common enough in books of the period, even among those printed out of the Low Countries; for example, in books published in Paris.
A brief sketch of the history of the Elzevirs may here be useful. The founder of the family, a Flemish bookbinder, Louis, left Louvain and settled in Leyden in 1580. He bought a house opposite the University, and opened a book-shop. Another shop, on college ground, was opened in 1587. Louis was a good bookseller, a very ordinary publisher. It was not till shortly before his death, in 1617, that his grandson Isaac bought a set of types and other material. Louis left six sons. Two of these, Matthew and Bonaventure, kept on the business, dating ex officina Elzeviriana. In 1625 Bonaventure and Abraham (son of Matthew) became partners. The “good dates” of Elzevirian books begin from 1626. The two Elzevirs chose excellent types, and after nine years’ endeavors turned out the beautiful ‘Caesar’ of 1635.
Their classical series in petit format was opened with ‘Horace’ and ‘Ovid’ in 1629. In 1641 they began their elegant piracies of French plays and poetry with ‘Le Cid.’ It was worth while being pirated by the Elzevirs, who turned you out like a gentleman, with fleurons and red letters, and a pretty frontispiece. The modern pirate dresses you in rags, prints you murderously, and binds you, if he binds you at all, in some hideous example of “cloth extra,” all gilt, like archaic gingerbread. Bonaventure and Abraham both died in 1652. They did not depart before publishing (1628), in grand format, a desirable work on fencing, Thibault’s ‘Academie de l’Espee.’ This Tibbald also killed by the book. John and Daniel Elzevir came next.
They brought out the ‘Imitation’ (Thomae a Kempis canonici regularis ord. S. Augustini De Imitatione Christi, libri iv.); I wish by taking thought I could add eight millimeters to the stature of my copy. In 1655 Daniel joined a cousin, Louis, in Amsterdam, and John stayed in Leyden. John died in 1661; his widow struggled on, but her son Abraham (1681) let all fall into ruins. Abraham died 1712. The Elzevirs of Amsterdam lasted till 1680, when Daniel died, and the business was wound up. The type, by Christopher Van Dyck, was sold in 1681, by Daniel’s widow. Sic transit gloria.
After he has learned all these matters the amateur has still a great deal to acquire. He may now know a real Elzevir from a book which is not an Elzevir at all. But there are enormous differences of value, rarity, and excellence among the productions of the Elzevirian press. The bookstalls teem with small, “cropped,” dingy, dirty, battered Elzevirian editions of the classics, NOT “of the good date.” On these it is not worth while to expend a couple of shillings, especially as Elzevirian type is too small to be read with comfort by most modern eyes. No, let the collector save his money; avoid littering his shelves with what he will soon find to be rubbish, and let him wait the chance of acquiring a really beautiful and rare Elzevir.
Meantime, and before we come to describe Elzevirs of the first flight, let it be remembered that the “taller” the copy, the less harmed and nipped by the binder’s shears, the better. “Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is,” says Shelley; and we may say that most men hardly know how beautiful an Elzevir was in its uncut and original form. The Elzevirs we have may be “dear,” but they are certainly “dumpy twelves.” Their fair proportions have been docked by the binder. At the Beckford sale there was a pearl of a book, a ‘Marot;’ not an Elzevir, indeed, but a book published by Wetstein, a follower of the Elzevirs. This exquisite pair of volumes, bound in blue morocco, was absolutely unimpaired, and was a sight to bring happy tears into the eyes of the amateur of Elzevirs. There was a gracious svelte elegance about these tomes, an appealing and exquisite delicacy of proportion, that linger like sweet music in the memory. I have a copy of the Wetstein ‘Marot’ myself, not a bad copy, though murderously bound in that ecclesiastical sort of brown calf antique, which goes well with hymn books, and reminds one of cakes of chocolate. But my copy is only some 128 millimeters in height, whereas the uncut Beckford copy (it had belonged to the great Pixerecourt) was at least 130 millimeters high. Beside the uncut example mine looks like Cinderella’s plain sister beside the beauty of the family.
Now the moral is that only tall Elzevirs are beautiful, only tall Elzevirs preserve their ancient proportions, only tall Elzevirs are worth collecting. Dr. Lemuel Gulliver remarks that the King of Lilliput was taller than any of his court by almost the breadth of a nail, and that his altitude filled the minds of all with awe. Well, the Philistine may think a few millimeters, more or less, in the height of an Elzevir are of little importance. When he comes to sell, he will discover the difference. An uncut, or almost uncut, copy of a good Elzevir may be worth fifty or sixty pounds or more; an ordinary copy may bring fewer pence. The binders usually pare down the top and bottom more than the sides. I have a ‘Rabelais’ of the good date, with the red title (1663), and some of the pages have never been opened, at the sides. But the height is only some 122 millimeters, a mere dwarf. Anything over 130 millimeters is very rare. Therefore the collector of Elzevirs should have one of those useful ivory-handled knives on which the French measures are marked, and thus he will at once be able to satisfy himself as to the exact height of any example which he encounters.
Let us now assume that the amateur quite understands what a proper Elzevir should be: tall, clean, well bound if possible, and of the good date. But we have still to learn what the good dates are, and this is matter for the study and practice of a well-spent life. We may gossip about a few of the more famous Elzevirs, those without which no collection is complete. Of all Elzevirs the most famous and the most expensive is an old cookery book, “’Le Pastissier Francois.’ Wherein is taught the way to make all sorts of pastry, useful to all sorts of persons. Also the manner of preparing all manner of eggs, for fast-days, and other days, in more than sixty fashions. Amsterdam, Louys, and Daniel Elsevier. 1665.” The mark is not the old “Sage,” but the “Minerva” with her owl. Now this book has no intrinsic value any more than a Tauchnitz reprint of any modern volume on cooking. The ‘Pastissier’ is cherished because it is so very rare. The tract passed into the hands of cooks, and the hands of cooks are detrimental to literature. Just as nursery books, fairy tales, and the like are destroyed from generation to generation, so it happens with books used in the kitchen. The ‘Pastissier,’ to be sure, has a good frontispiece, a scene in a Low Country kitchen, among the dead game and the dainties. The buxom cook is making a game pie; a pheasant pie, decorated with the bird’s head and tail-feathers, is already made.
Not for these charms, but for its rarity, is the ‘Pastissier’ coveted. In an early edition of the ‘Manuel’ (1821) Brunet says, with a feigned brutality (for he dearly loved an Elzevir), “Till now I have disdained to admit this book into my work, but I have yielded to the prayers of amateurs. Besides, how could I keep out a volume which was sold for one hundred and one francs in 1819?” One hundred and one francs! If I could only get a ‘Pastissier’ for one hundred and one francs! But our grandfathers lived in the Bookman’s Paradise. “Il n’est pas jusqu’aux Anglais,” adds Brunet—“the very English themselves—have a taste for the ‘Pastissier.’” The Duke of Marlborough’s copy was actually sold for 1 pound 4s. It would have been money in the ducal pockets of the house of Marlborough to have kept this volume till the general sale of all their portable property at which our generation is privileged to assist. No wonder the ‘Pastissier’ was thought rare. Berard only knew two copies. Pietiers, writing on the Elzevirs in 1843, could cite only five ‘Pastissiers,’ and in his ‘Annales’ he had found out but five more. Willems, on the other hand, enumerates some thirty, not including Motteley’s. Motteley was an uncultivated, untaught enthusiast. He knew no Latin, but he had a FLAIR for uncut Elzevirs. “Incomptis capillis,” he would cry (it was all his lore) as he gloated over his treasures. They were all burnt by the Commune in the Louvre Library.
A few examples may be given of the prices brought by ‘Le Pastissier’ in later days. Sensier’s copy was but 128 millimeters in height, and had the old ordinary vellum binding,--in fact, it closely resembled a copy which Messrs. Ellis and White had for sale in Bond Street in 1883. The English booksellers asked, I think, about 1,500 francs for their copy. Sensier’s was sold for 128 francs in April, 1828; for 201 francs in 1837. Then the book was gloriously bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet, and was sold with Potier’s books in 1870, when it fetched 2,910 francs. At the Benzon sale (1875) it fetched 3,255 francs, and, falling dreadfully in price, was sold again in 1877 for 2,200 francs. M. Dutuit, at Rouen, has a taller copy, bound by Bauzonnet. Last time it was sold (1851) it brought 251 francs. The Duc de Chartres has now the copy of Pieters, the historian of the Elzevirs, valued at 3,000 francs.
About thirty years ago no fewer than three copies were sold at Brighton, of all places. M. Quentin Bauchart had a copy only 127 millimeters in height, which he swapped to M. Paillet. M. Chartener, of Metz, had a copy now bound by Bauzonnet which was sold for four francs in 1780. We call this the age of cheap books, but before the Revolution books were cheaper. It is fair to say, however, that this example of the ‘Pastissier’ was then bound up with another book, Vlacq’s edition of ‘Le Cuisinier Francois,’ and so went cheaper than it would otherwise have done. M. de Fontaine de Resbecq declares that a friend of his bought six original pieces of Moliere’s bound up with an old French translation of Garth’s ‘Dispensary.’ The one faint hope left to the poor book collector is that he may find a valuable tract lurking in the leaves of some bound collection of trash. I have an original copy of Moliere’s ‘Les Fascheux’ bound up with a treatise on precious stones, but the bookseller from whom I bought it knew it was there! That made all the difference.
But, to return to our ‘Pastissier,’ here is M. de Fontaine de Resbecq’s account of how he wooed and won his own copy of this illustrious Elzevir. “I began my walk to-day,” says this haunter of ancient stalls, “by the Pont Marie and the Quai de la Greve, the pillars of Hercules of the book-hunting world. After having viewed and reviewed these remote books, I was going away, when my attention was caught by a small naked volume, without a stitch of binding. I seized it, and what was my delight when I recognized one of the rarest of that famed Elzevir collection whose height is measured as minutely as the carats of the diamond. There was no indication of price on the box where this jewel was lying; the book, though unbound, was perfectly clean within. ‘How much?’ said I to the bookseller. ‘You can have it for six sous,’ he answered; ‘is it too much?’ ‘No,’ said I, and, trembling a little, I handed him the thirty centimes he asked for the ‘Pastissier Francois.’ You may believe, my friend, that after such a piece of luck at the start, one goes home fondly embracing the beloved object of one’s search. That is exactly what I did.”
Can this tale be true? Is such luck given by the jealous fates mortalibus aegris? M. de Resbecq’s find was made apparently in 1856, when trout were plenty in the streams, and rare books not so very rare. To my own knowledge an English collector has bought an original play of Moliere’s, in the original vellum, for eighteen pence. But no one has such luck any longer. Not, at least, in London. A more expensive ‘Pastissier’ than that which brought six sous was priced in Bachelin-Deflorenne’s catalogue at 240 pounds. A curious thing occurred when two uncut ‘Pastissiers’ turned up simultaneously in Paris. One of them Morgand and Fatout sold for 400 pounds. Clever people argued that one of the twin uncut ‘Pastissiers’ must be an imitation, a facsimile by means of photogravure, or some other process. But it was triumphantly established that both were genuine; they had minute points of difference in the ornaments.
M. Willems, the learned historian of the Elzevirs, is indignant at the successes of a book which, as Brunet declares, is badly printed. There must be at least forty known ‘Pastissiers’ in the world. Yes; but there are at least 4,000 people who would greatly rejoice to possess a ‘Pastissier,’ and some of these desirous ones are very wealthy. While this state of the market endures, the ‘Pastissier’ will fetch higher prices than the other varieties. Another extremely rare Elzevir is ‘L’Illustre Theatre de Mons. Corneille’ (Leyden, 1644). This contains ‘Le Cid,’ ‘Les Horaces,’ ‘Le Cinna,’ ‘La Mort de Pompee,’ ‘Le Polyeucte.’ The name, ‘L’Illustre Theatre,’ appearing at that date has an interest of its own. In 1643-44, Moliere and Madeleine Bejart had just started the company which they called ‘L’Illustre Theatre.’ Only six or seven copies of the book are actually known, though three or four are believed to exist in England, probably all covered with dust in the library of some lord. “He has a very good library,” I once heard some one say to a noble earl, whose own library was famous. “And what can a fellow do with a very good library?” answered the descendant of the Crusaders, who probably (being a youth light-hearted and content) was ignorant of his own great possessions. An expensive copy of ‘L’Illustre Theatre,’ bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet, was sold for 300 pounds.
Among Elzevirs desirable, yet not hopelessly rare, is the ‘Virgil’ of 1636. Heinsius was the editor of this beautiful volume, prettily printed, but incorrect. Probably it is hard to correct with absolute accuracy works in the clear but minute type which the Elzevirs affected. They have won fame by the elegance of their books, but their intention was to sell good books cheap, like Michel Levy. The small type was required to get plenty of “copy” into little bulk. Nicholas Heinsius, the son of the editor of the ‘Virgil,’ when he came to correct his father’s edition, found that it contained so many coquilles, or misprints, as to be nearly the most incorrect copy in the world. Heyne says, “Let the ‘Virgil’ be one of the rare Elzevirs, if you please, but within it has scarcely a trace of any good quality.” Yet the first edition of this beautiful little book, with its two passages of red letters, is so desirable that, till he could possess it, Charles Nodier would not profane his shelves by any ‘Virgil’ at all.
Equally fine is the ‘Caesar’ of 1635, which, with the ‘Virgil’ of 1636 and the ‘Imitation’ without date, M. Willems thinks the most successful works of the Elzevirs, “one of the most enviable jewels in the casket of the bibliophile.” It may be recognized by the page 238, which is erroneously printed 248. A good average height is from 125 to 128 millimeters. The highest known is 130 millimeters. This book, like the ‘Imitation,’ has one of the pretty and ingenious frontispieces which the Elzevirs prefixed to their books. So farewell, and good speed in your sport, ye hunters of Elzevirs, and may you find perhaps the rarest Elzevir of all, ‘L’Aimable Mere de Jesus.’
Of interest . . .