Review: Tolkien’s Gown and Other Great Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books.

Over 20 essays, Rick Gekoski provides potted histories and interesting anecdotes of the great authors and rare books he’s encountered during his time as a bookseller. The focus of this blog is on his acquisition of Sons and Lovers, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of his personal Lawrence collection.

‘Collectors are an odd lot, both obsessional and compulsive, secretive and relentless’ writes bookseller Rick Gekoski, but be wary of those who collect T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill as ‘their sense of self is fuelled by their association with a hero through whom they feel enlarged’. In Jungian terms this is known as ‘psychic inflation’.

So, what kind of person collects D.H. Lawrence? Well, I’ve certainly met one or two with a messiah complex during my time at the D.H. Lawrence Society and belligerence seems to be a recurring trait too. But these aren’t traits I’d associate with Rick Gekoski, author of Tolkien’s Gown.

The book opens with a scathing attack on Dennis Wheatley, ‘thriller writer, Satanist, erotomane, and bore’. But he also has a first edition of Sons and Lovers in a dust wrapper. ‘One of the striking oddities of the trade in modern books’ he explains is ‘that the dustwrapper of the book is worth ten times – sometimes much more – than the book itself. Books without their wrappers are regarded as incomplete, which seems a little silly, as if they were Chippendale chairs, without legs.’

Lawrence would certainly frown at the commodification of his work. In the essay ‘Pictures on the Wall’ he argues that having the same picture hung on the wall for years produces a ‘staleness in the home’ which ‘is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. As we change our taste in art changes. Just because something costs a lot of money doesn’t make it irreplaceable. Similar sentiments apply to books. In the 18th century books were expensive and became a form of property that overwhelmed ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was libraries that transformed our relationship with books as they ceased ‘to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.

Gekoski is clearly not in the trade just for ‘gross material property’, though money does help. Books are an integral part of his life, and like children who eventually leave home, he misses them when they move on. Therefore, he provides a sketch of each book he purchases, as well as providing context, analysis and nuggets of literary history. 

The dust wrapper on his newly acquired purchase includes a brief notice which is believed to be by Lawrence and states:

‘Mr. D.H. Lawrence’s new novel covers a wide field: life in a colliery, on a farm, in a manufacturing centre. It is concerned with the contrasted outlook of two generations. The title, Sons and Lovers, indicates the conflicting claims of a young man’s mother and sweetheart for predominance’

Gekoski explains that Sons and Lovers is one of the earliest to ‘use psychoanalysis as an organizing principle’ as well as one of the first working class novels written by someone from the inside. In it, Lawrence plays out his inner conflict of being torn between the ‘fierce ambition’ of his mother and his first love, Jessie Chambers – who had helped his revive some of the text. The mother’s perspective would win out, much to Jessie’s disappointment. The betrayal was too much, and their friendship soured. 

The unfinished novel accompanied Lawrence when he eloped with Frieda von Richthofen in 1912. He wrote to Edward Garnett with great enthusiasm, explaining that Paul Morel – it’s working title then – ‘has got form…It’s a great novel.’

Edward Garnett was also a novelist, but ‘a better editor than he was a writer’ and warned that Heinemann was nervous of publication as ‘the tyranny of libraries is such that a book far less outspoken would certainly be damned’. Lawrence’s responded with his infamous ‘Jelly-Boned Swines’ letter, of which an extract features in the video below. Lawrence’s rage, observes Gekoski, ‘makes Conrad’s Mr Kurtz seem a liberal spirit, doesn’t it?’

Frieda helped Lawrence rewrite some of the passages, something that has been raised more recently in Annabel Abbs’ Frieda and Frances Wilson’s experimental biography The Burning Man. This was an unwanted emotional burden for Frieda who complained, ‘I had to go deeply into the character of Miriam and all the others; and when he wrote his mother’s death he was ill with grief and his grief made me ill too’.

Garnet trimmed the novel down by around 10% and Lawrence complimented him on his pruning, writing, ‘I hope you’ll live a long time, and barber up my novels for me before they’re published.’

Gekoski observes that ‘the finished book is a mélange of the perfectly realized and the inappropriately generalized, like so much of Lawrence’s fiction. Lawrence is never better than when he has his eye firmly fixed on an object. But when he lifts his head to consider, and to generalize, the prose is unrelentingly dead, and false’.

Perhaps Lawrence could have done with 20% of pruning…

Another Lawrence who needed editing was T.E. Lawrence. Garnett offered to abridge his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a book of such verbosity that E.M. Forster politely concluded it ‘imparts not colour but gumminess’. Verbosity was also a deterrent to some publishers due to the time it would take a typesetter to lay out a book. Author Virginia Woolf, a semi-professional printer who ran the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard, would have rejected publishing Ulysses not because of the content of the final chapter, but because she ‘estimated that it would have taken a professional typesetter two years just to set it’.

Editing out ‘gumminess’ is a vital part of publishing and entails many unsung heroes who have helped books become masterpieces. ‘Would Lord of the Flies have been so successful’ argues Gekoski ‘if editor Charles Monteith had not cut the first 12 pages describing a nuclear war and insisted deposited the boys directly on the island or the story?’

Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 by Duckworth. For Lawrence, ‘a novel was done when it went to the publishers’. But it was Garnett who requested Lawrence design the dust wrapper. These utilitarian objects were usually disposed of by bookshops on purchase and why dust wrappers before 1919 are so rare. Gekoski explains that Lawrence refused on the ground that it was difficult to illustrate a coalmine when he was living on a lakeside in Italy ‘with no coal mines within miles and miles’. Hence the typographic wrapper with Lawrence’s blurb on the front cover.

In ‘The Bad Side of Books’ Lawrence writes, ‘Books to me are incorporate things, voices in the air…What do I care for first or last editions? I have never reread one of my own published works. To me, no book has a date, no work has a binding’. In a later introduction to a bibliography of his work he wrote ‘A book that is a book flowers once, and seeds, and is gone. First editions or forty-first are only the husks of it.’

Gesoki confesses he is a man who loves the husks and laments selling his copy of Sons and Lovers in his first catalogue in 1982 for £1,850.

Rick Gekoski. 2004. Tolkien’s Gown and Other Great Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books. Constable. Hachette

Related Reading  

Rick Gekoski, the pickle eating baby, and D.H. Lawrence

Rick Gekoski’s Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People is an illuminating insight into his fifty years of experience buying and selling rare books. The opening chapter reveals how D.H. Lawrence kickstarted his habit…

Rick Gekoski published his first novel, Darke, at the age of 72. But he is perhaps best known for his half a century selling rare books. As the title of his memoir suggests, the treasure he seeks is scarce, carefully buried, and ferociously guarded. But is he himself a dragon, guarding rare books he’s accumulated, or a heroic slayer? It would seem the latter, because once you’ve got the treasure, you want to trade it in for more. His is a life very much focused on the journey rather than the destination.  

A rare book dealer requires two basic skills: to know when a book is buyable and when to sell it for a higher price. The best way to accumulate this knowledge is to serve an apprenticeship in a bookshop. He didn’t. He entered the rare book world as an academic and a collector. Thus, he becomes frustrated at conferences when young collectors demand he pass down trade secrets. But there is no elixir. Knowledge can’t be passed down. All you can do is go slay your own dragons and see what happens.

This ethos of experience shapes his memoir. Over thirteen chapters we see him play ping pong with Salmon Rushdie, upset a Poet Laureate, and get dragged through the law courts on more than one occasion. But our interest at The Digital Pilgrimage is the opening chapter ‘On Sabbatical with D.H. Lawrence’.

It’s late 1974 and the Gekoski’s and their newborn baby are on a first-class plane to New York to see his ferocious mother who is dying of cancer. He’s taken a much-needed sabbatical and ‘wangled’ a contract with Methuen for a critical book on Lawrence. The problem is, he doesn’t have the energy for sustained academic research. What he enjoys more is collecting the first editions he’s been accumulating for the research he has no intention of finishing. It’s all very Dyeresque – something he alludes to.

Research, however, provides him with the excuse to leave his pickle-eating baby with his wife while he visits a secondhand bookseller called William Hauser. ‘Bill’ is nearing retirement and flogging off his books at bargain prices. He visits him five times and the books get cheaper on each visit. We learn that price is not just determined by the value of the object, there are other variables at play. He pays £41 for 12 books and sells most of them, over the coming years, for £333. This would make him a dealer. But as he invests this in more acquisitions, he is also a collector. The fact that he has the books shipped over to Blighty – so that his wife doesn’t find out what he’s been up to – suggests he is either a shrewd businessman or a bit deceitful.   

In 1975 books were cheap but hard to find. For example, unable to procure his own copy of Warren Roberts’ Bibliography of D.H. Lawrence, he photocopies it from his university library and then annotates it with his acquisitions – who he bought from, who he sold on to. He explains that ‘unlike work on the putative critical book, which was glacially slow and unenthusiastic over these years, my collecting was focused, passionate and highly organized.’

He becomes obsessed with Lawrence, detailing all his books sold at auction. Later, he convinces his bank manager to allow his to go further into the red so that he can acquire a collection of Lawrence books from an antiques dealer in Wales that include some rarities, such as signed first editions of Lady Chatterley. The dealer insists on being paid in cash.

Allow me a quick digression. During lockdown, I went a year and a half without drawing out cash. Everything went on my card. Then I went to Yorkshire to visit some relatives. First a pizza take-away in Pateley Bridge refused to accept card and pointed to ‘machine across the road, mate’. Then the following evening, a Thai takeaway would only deliver if we had £42.32 in cash. As a sweetener, they threw in two free bottles of Singha beer and would deliver in 25 minutes.

Back to the dodgy dealer.    

The dealer gives firm instructions to meet him at a train station at 12. He hangs up before checking if this is convenient. ‘He knew I was keen’ explains Gekoski ‘and may well have known that university lecturers have a lot of free time’. Of course, he can’t resist. But takes a friend along with him just in case. The meeting is fraught with danger, but it’s worth it as the dealer’s collection includes some proper treasure, such as Bay – A Book of Poems, published by The Beaumont Press in 1921 and sold in three issues: 500 copies, 50 signed copies, 25 signed copies bound in vellum.

It’s at this point, after he’s been bundled into the back of a car, that he confesses that writers, collectors, raconteurs make ‘our stories smoother, funnier, more revealing’ because it makes for a better story. He is guilty of ‘unconsciously constructing a faux narrative in which I braved dragons, confronted a dragon, returned safely from the hunt with my treasure: a hero, of a modest sort’.

Gekoski may be an unreliable narrator but he’s certainly a compelling one. I only intended to read the opening chapter to get my Lawrence fix but ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting. In doing this I’ve gone on to discover that John Fowles was anti-Semitic and that John Updike had to explain what a blowjob was to Victor Gollancz. All of which, to use an Alan Sillitoe quote, is ‘cheap gossip for retail later’. Wonderful stuff.

This book was kindly leant to me by David Belbin, Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. David is also a writer and a collector of first edition books.

Guarded by Dragons is available in HB for £18.99 from Constable at hachette.co.uk

Further Reading