A love of old books

Title page to Virgil's Works, 1696

Title page to Virgil’s Works, 1696

Whether for their content, or simply as beautifully crafted objects, “old books” are undoubtedly a pleasure. In my modest collection the oldest is a copy of the works of Virgil dating to 1696. As someone who can’t read Latin, it’s never likely to be well-thumbed, a fact which is fortunate as the front cover increasingly loses its grip on the spine. Nonetheless, looking through it has thrown up some fascinating annotations which seem worth sharing.

First, the title page: set in red and black, so far as I can make out (and begging your pardon for the Latin translation and interpretation!) it says,

Virgil’s Works. Interpretation and notes illustrative by Charles de la Rue, Society of Jesus [Jesuit], by the command of the most Christian King, as for the use of the most serene Dauphin according to the latest edition of Paris. London, printed by A Swalle & T Childe at the sign of a unicorn, at the cemetery/churchyard of St Paul’s.

The references to the Dauphin and to Paris are to a set of texts of classical origin (mostly) which were ‘cleaned up’ for education of the son of Louis XIV. In the case of Virgil, the edition with explanatory notes by Charles de la Rue (“Carolus Ruæus”) dates to around 1675, so the London printing is just 21 years later. The pages have a wonderful tactility about them, notwithstanding a care not to handle them too much. The impression of the metal type is evident, and the work involved in ‘setting up’ the pages of dense type must have been colossal: the notes that surround the main text can’t be much more than 4pt.

Virgil's Works 1696: inside pages

Virgil’s Works 1696: inside pages

Virgil Works 1696: inside front cover

Virgil Works 1696: inside front cover

You’ll note the top right corner, where there is scribbled a name, or possibly two names: “John Gregory” and “J G Mytton”. This latter name is scrawled in a number of places, possibly as assertion of ownership, or perhaps as though practising it or doodling it whilst pondering what it means. On the inside front cover, it is accompanied (in a more accomplished copperplate hand) by “Mytton Ludlow” and elsewhere “Ludlow, Shropshire” and a date, October 28th 1825. This raises a tantalising possibility about the past ownership of the book.

John Mytton was descendent of a wealthy family, with distinguished (depending on the side you take) Civil War connections: his ancestor, General Mytton, had fought for the Parliamentarian cause, even though other members of the family took different views. The John Mytton of 1825 was rather less distinguished, famous as a ‘rake’ of the Regency period, born in 1796 and dying in King’s Bench Prison in March 1834. His estates were sold to pay debts with the exception of those that were ‘entailed’ to his heirs, the principal estate being Halston Hall in Shropshire. It is suggested that he drank six bottles of port a day, and when encouraged to rein in his habits responded that he “would not give a damn to live on six thousand a year.” An account of his life, written for the Gentleman’s Magazine is available online.

Virgils Works 1696: writing in back pages

Virgils Works 1696: writing in back pages

The name is not in itself, of course, evidence that this volume was part of the library at Halston Hall. The date would be seven years after his first marriage, which resulted in a daughter, and there would be other local branches of the family. It is, however, a interesting morsel to play with.

At the back of the book is a page half torn which has the beginnings of someone’s writing about the Civil War: “It happened when King Charles was at Oxford in the time of the civil wars that…” One imagines someone ruminating on their family connection with the period. Who knows, it could have been General Mytton’s first start at an autobiography… but I shall stop speculating now!

Either way, as a work of art, both of the author(s) and of the printer and bookmaker, as well as being an object that has been handled and used – if only intermittently – for over 300 years, it is a wonderful item to contemplate.


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