Friday, December 23, 2011

The Crown Jewel of Tarquin Tar's Bookcase

To celebrate the holiday season, this week’s featured book is no less than the crown jewel in my collection: a first edition of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Comedies and Tragedies, published in London by Humphrey Robinson and Humphrey Moseley in 1647. So much has been written about this book that I won’t go into too much detail.

The Beaumont and Fletcher folio, as it is known, is the third of the three great, transformative folio collections of early modern dramatists (after Jonson’s of 1616 and Shakespeare’s of 1623) that marked the transition of plays from the status of ephemera to the status of literature and the transition of dramatists from mere entertainers to recognized “authors”. Beaumont and Fletcher’s posthumous collection was assembled by actors in the King’s Men, who had originally performed the plays (Fletcher, who had trained as a playwright by collaborating with Shakespeare as the bard prepared to retire, eventually took over as the principal playwright for the leading English theater troupe). 

The book appeared in 1647 – five years after the English Civil War resulted in the closing of all the playhouses – and so its publication is generally thought to be as much about the actors trying to make some quick cash as about celebrating the literary reputation of the late dramatists (Fletcher had died in 1625; Beaumont in 1616). Several other plays by Fletcher – widely viewed as one of the pioneers of English tragicomic drama – had appeared in print previously, to great success, and so the publishers of the 1647 made it a selling point on their title-page to emphasize that these works were “Never printed before” and were now “published by the authors’ original copies” (a claim that scholars now view as not entirely true).

Like most large publications from the period, the Beaumont and Fletcher folio enjoys a richly complex printing history. It is estimated that eight or more different printing shops (and so at least as many different compositors) contributed to the printing of the lengthy preliminaries, with each shop employing slightly different practices in terms of setting type, casting off copy, ordering work, and so forth, as well as different sets of type, printer’s devices, and ornamentation (which appears often throughout the book). The result is that none of the surviving Beaumont and Fletcher folios (several hundred out of the original 2,500 copy print-run) precisely resembles any other. A single style of type was used for all the plays, but these too were likely divided up between printing houses in order to increase the speed of production and so the paper stock changes slightly at places in the volume. Another result of this division of labor is that the signatures on the gatherings – to say nothing of the pagination numbers – are hopelessly mixed up. I will spare you the collational formula, suffice it to say the book comprises 223 gatherings. It’s worth noting here that one of the printers involved with the Beaumont and Fletcher folio was a woman, Susan Islip; the book trade was one of the few industries in the period in which a widow could inherit and keep the business after her husband’s death.

The 35 plays and 1 masque that are included are mostly by Fletcher (though it’s missing at least 20, and includes at least 2 that belong to other dramatists), along with a number that were collaboratively written by Fletcher and Philip Massinger (ironically, despite the title, only 2 are Beaumont-Fletcher collaborations; none are by Beaumont alone). In addition to these, the folio includes a lengthy set of preliminaries that includes two prefaces to the reader (one by playwright James Shirley and one by Moseley, dated February 14, 164[7]), the actors’ dedication to Philip, Earl of Pembroke, and 37 commendatory verses and memorial verses on Fletcher and Beaumont from gentlemen, poets, and other writers, such as professional dramatists Ben Jonson and Richard Brome and amateur dramatists Sir Aston Cockayne and Jasper Mayne. Even the stationer, Moseley, contributed a verse. 

The plays themselves are set in double columns with ample marginal spaces and straight rules dividing the columns and used to separate headers for act and scene breaks. Elaborate ornamentation decorates the start of each play above the title (it seems that almost every ornamentation is different, but I couldn’t say for certain). The type is generally roman for speeches and italic for speech prefixes and stage directions, though in some cases the stage directions are also in roman.

My copy is complete, except for the final work – The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn – and the frontispiece portrait of Fletcher; because this highly coveted engraving by W. Marshall is missing, the actual market value of my copy – despite the fact that it contains all the plays and is in excellent condition otherwise – is markedly low (which is also how, of course, I came to be able to afford it). Some pages have been repaired by a professional conservationist and only a few (mainly in the preliminaries) have lost substantial amounts of text because of this damage. One of these, unfortunately, is the peculiar “Postscript” at the end of the commendatory verses in which Moseley mentions a few things he forgot to write into his preface (that the work of printing the verses was divided among several printers, that Beaumont and Fletcher rarely wrote the prologues and epilogues to their own plays, and similar bibliographic details). The verso of the damaged page is the “Catalogue”, or table of contents, and so that too is missing a large portion of text.

The binding is exquisite late eighteenth century gilded green leather that is still, but for a few chips and bumps and some pulling at the top of the spine, in good condition. The page edges have been gilded all around and the book overall measures a substantial 22cm wide x 32cm tall x 6.5cm deep. While there is no substantive marginalia, my copy has clearly seen use by several readers, as evidenced by slight markings throughout (pencil lines and crosses in the margin and underlining, some faint inked crosses in the margins, and so forth). Inside the front cover is the bookplate of Fairfax of Cameron, a Scottish peerage since 1627; the Fairfax family owned property in Virginia and Maryland into the twentieth century, so perhaps that is how this particular copy of this beautiful, historically important, literary treasure came to be in the New World and, ultimately, in Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase.

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