“Happy is the man who, in the hours of solitude and depression, can read a history of Birmingham.”
And happier is the man who can read a man writing about such a man. Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) was a Liberal Party politician, Chief Secretary for Ireland until the Easter Rising and, in his spare time, a man of letters. He published numerous literary essays and reviews, and biographies of Hazlitt and Marvell. Among his volumes is In the Name of the Bodleian, and Other Essays (1905), a bibliophile’s romp.
The sentence quoted above is from “Confirmed Readers,” in which Birrell quotes Boswell quoting Edmond Malone, who quotes Johnson. Malone found Johnson alone in his room roasting apples and reading a history of Birmingham. “This staggered even Malone,” writes Birrell, “who was himself a somewhat far-gone reader.” Malone asks if the book isn’t rather dull, and Johnson replies that, yes, it is dull but he lived in Birmingham in 1733 and was married in that city. Birrell comments: “This anecdote pleasingly illustrates the habits of the confirmed reader. Nor let the worlding sneer. Happy is the man who, in the hours of solitude and depression, can read a history of Birmingham.” Birrell goes on to sketch the bookish life of Malone, the Irish editor of Shakespeare, who, like Johnson and Birrell, seems to have found reliable solace with a book in his hand:
“If anyone is confined to his room, even as Johnson was when Malone found him roasting apples and reading a history of Birmingham, he cannot do better than surround himself with the publications of the Historical Manuscripts Commission; they will cost him next to nothing, tell him something new on every page, revive a host of old memories and scores of half-forgotten names, and perhaps tempt him to become a confirmed reader.”
All fine qualities, though I’m unlikely to renew my Birmingham studies. The theme expressed throughout Birrell’s essays is that books remain reliable palliative for life’s travails. This is from “Gossip in a Library”: “There are no habits of man more alien to the doctrine of the Communist than those of the collector, and there is no collector, not even that basest of them all, the Belial of his tribe, the man who collects money, whose love of private property is intenser, whose sense of the joys of ownership is keener than the book-collector’s.”
The copy of In the Name of the Bodleian I’ve been reading is a first edition borrowed from the Fondren Library. Published by Elliot Stock (“62, Paternoster Row, E.C.”), its boards are a mossy Irish green,with gilt titling on the spine. An ex libris book plate is on the front endpaper: “John E. Pritchard. Bristol.” Pritchard seems to have been active a century ago in England as an antiquarian and gentleman archeologist. I found numerous fleeting online references to him, including “On a Series of Skulls, Collected by John E. Pritchard, Esq., F.S.A.,from a Carmelite Burial-Ground in Bristol,” by John Beddoe, M.D., LL.D. [Doctor of Laws], F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society], published in the July-Dec. 1907 issue of The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
On the title page is printed an epigraph from Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) by Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), the Third Earl of Shaftesbury: “Peace be with the soul of that charitable and courteous author who for the common benefit of his fellow-authors introduced the ingenious way of miscellaneous writing.” That might serve nicely as a motto for an interesting blog.
Two pages before the title page, Pritchard or someone else has glued in a newspaper clipping dated “21.xi.33.” The clip reproduces a portrait of Birrell by the painter Reginald H. Campbell, and the caption says: “MR. AUGUSTINE BIRRELL, K.C. [King’s Counsel], politician and distinguished man of letters, whose death is announced.” Birrell died Nov. 20, 1933. In Campbell’s portrait, Birrell is shown reading a book.