Fifty books from fifty years:
An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library, Rare Books Collection
When the 16th century Vietnamese military strategist and poet Phùng Khắc Khoan said “Let’s save old books and study them with care,”1 he could not for one minute have imagined the wealth of resources available to students and researchers through the Monash University Library’s Rare Books Collection, but he would no doubt be pleased that here is a library that takes seriously the importance of collecting, preserving and making available old books for the purpose of study. And I suspect that he would be amazed to learn that in its broader collection this library has a volume that includes translated versions of his poetry.
This exhibition has been created to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Act to establish Monash University. Fifty researchers have been called on to choose items from the Rare Books Collection and describe their significance; to explain, in other words, why the particular book they have chosen should be studied with care.
The Monash University Library Rare Books Collection is one of the most thriving and active in the country. It is well-thought of by Australian scholars and is becoming increasingly respected internationally. It currently comprises 135,000 items and is valued at over $28 million dollars, which provides one indication of the seriousness with which Monash University has approached its responsibility to create deep and broad research collections over the years since its inception.
Most areas of the collection will be highlighted in the exhibition. Among the early books are some seventeenth and eighteenth century material, including François Pierre de la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier François from 1699, part of the extensive holdings in this area. There are also examples of children’s books, the earliest account of the discovery of oxygen, an early medical manual run off on a spirit duplicator to help those isolated in the bush, science fiction magazines from the classic “pulp” period, an alchemical manuscript, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Gould’s Birds of Australia, and Madonna’s Sex Book.
Monash University is a relatively young institution. Although the Library has had a commitment to developing its Rare Books Collection from the beginning, it has not been possible to collect sensibly in such traditional areas as illuminated manuscripts and incunabula. Instead, the Library chose to develop its holdings in English and French seventeenth and eighteenth century books, using as a nucleus the collection purchased in 1961 from the Swift scholar, David Woolley.
This remained the central collecting focus until the mid-1990s. Monash University now has the best collection in Australia of English books and pamphlets from 1660 to 1750. It also has a small but significant collection of manuscript letters written by Swift and his circle. The Monash University English Department has long been known for its work in Restoration drama and poetry, and for research in early eighteenth literature. This collection has always been developed to support the scholarly community.
More recently, the collection has been developed in the direction of popular culture, in line with international trends in teaching and research. Monash University’s holdings of Australian pulp fiction, ‘zines, comics and ephemera are renowned and attract wide attention.
Monash University Library continues, however, to develop its core collections of books from the seventeenth century to the present. Overall, the Rare Books Collection is a significant asset for the University, both in financial terms but, more importantly in supporting teaching and research.
Throughout the academic year the section offers classes for staff and students in courses such as Women’s Studies and Aboriginal History. Rare Books are used by students from undergraduate level to post-doctoral, and of course by staff in their research for articles and books.
Rare books collection around the world have been shaped and enriched by the generosity and engagement of benefactors, and Monash University Library’s Rare Books Collection is no exception. For example, Lindsay Shaw donated the basis of the now well-established children’s collection; Sandy Michell donated material around which a significant cookery and home management collection has been built; and Dr. Richard Travers has donated his extensive collection of medical books. Dr Travers also arranged for the AMA’s rare books collection to come to Monash University, as well as the Goller AIDS collection from Fairfield Hospital.
In the digital age, books themselves are increasingly being seen as artefacts for research. Monash University Library has always maintained a strong collection in the history of the book, and the Monash University Centre for the Book uses the Rare Books Collection as a major research tool, as well as calling upon these resources for their popular Rare Books Summer Schools.
Highlights from the Library’s exhibitions have an enduring presence on the web site, accessible by following the link from the home page: www.lib.monash.edu.au, or go direct to www.lib.monash.edu.au/exhibitions/.
This exhibition showcases Monash University’s rare books, in the hope that more people will study them with care.
Cathrine Harboe-Ree University Librarian
Richard Overell Rare Books Librarian
1. Jonathan Swift
Vindication of the Protestant dissenters, from the aspersions cast upon them in a late pamphlet, intitled, The Presbyterians Plea of merit, in order to take off the test, impartially examined : to which are added, some remarks upon a paper, call'd, The Correspondent. (Dublin : Printed by S. Powell in Crane-Lane, 1733)
When I introduce my English Honours students to the work of Jonathan Swift, I like to show them some material evidence. Among the treasures of the Monash Swift Collection there is the first London edition of A Modest Proposal; a unique printed and manuscript version of Swift’s greatest poem, Verses of the Death of Dr Swift; first, second, third, fourth and fifth editions of A Tale of a Tub. Each brings us close to Swift and even closer to the world of print culture of the day: hand set in movable lead type, on hand-made paper, bound in calf or (‘Morocco’) goat leather, and hand-stitched—each one is a unique physical object.
Choosing one example from such richness would not necessarily result in the first state of the first edition of Swift’s masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, nor the Map of the World by the Dutch cartographer Herman Moll, from which the maps in Gulliver’s Travels were copied, nor even one of Swift’s autograph letters—the one carefully preserved by its recipient Miss Kelly and received as she was leaving Ireland for ever, or even the letter to Swift’s most trusted friend and intermediary with the London publishing world, Charles Ford, owned by Monash but missing from the standard edition of the letters.
Each of these, and there are many such, would undoubtedly dignify any Swift collection in the world. But the Monash Collection offers another possibility. It is an anonymous 48-page Dublin pamphlet rather unpromisingly entitled: A Vindication of the Protestant Dissenters, from the Aspersions cast upon them In a Late Pamphlet, intitled, The Presbyterians Plea of Merit, In order to take off the Test, Impartially Examined, To which are added, Some remarks Upon a Paper, call’d The Correspondent (1733). It is not by Swift, but a very sharp critique of Swift’s earlier pamphlet (i.e. The Presbyterian’s Plea of Merit), dealing with a political controversy of little general interest today.
What, then, is so special about this single pamphlet?
No manuscript survives of Swift’s greatest works, A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver’s Travels, The Drapier’s Letters, A Modest Proposal, Verses on the Death. The Vindication is, however, a surviving example of something just as interesting: Swift’s working papers. It carries a series of marginal marks, crosses, words, phrases, whole sentences, questions, expressions of personal affront and exclamations—all in his unmistakeable handwriting. We may see here how Swift actually read a (hostile) text, and we see before us how his marginal comments will form the centre of a new, and as yet unwritten text (the ironic Reasons for repealing the Sacramental Test, in favour of the Catholics). Swift’s annotations are in black ink, and when he came to answer the answerer, he adopted the latter’s arguments and phrases in order to compose more than a rebuttal. One word in particular is lifted from the anonymous text into the embryonic Swiftian text-in-the-making—an image of physical pain and torture (‘Brand’). The annotated Vindication, then, is even closer than a first draft to that moment of (angry) textual reaction which will eventually generate more (Swiftian) writing. It is both a source and a part of something yet to be born. It is an example of how Swift’s writing is in so many examples a reaction to something already written.
The fact that Swift’s own copy of the annotated Vindication survives, and is accessible to readers, also vindicates the idea of a Rare Books Collection. It is a particular and unrepeatable physical object. It exists uniquely in time and space. It preserves a moment of biographical significance in bibliographical form. It is a trace of that fierce political and writerly reaction from the most reactive writer in the whole of the eighteenth-century. Reading this text today enables us to experience at first hand that essential Swiftian rage, what he called on his own funerary inscription, a ‘savage indignation’, that fierce, driving energy that makes him still the greatest satirist in English. .’
Professor Clive Probyn,
School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Faculty of Arts
2. Lady Montagu
Montagu, Mary Wortley, Lady, 1689-1762.
Six town eclogues : with some other poems / by the Rt. Hon. L. M. W. M. (London : Printed for M. Cooper in Pater-noster-Row, 1747)
I came to Monash for the first time in 1993, not to study, or to teach, but to consult the 1747 copy of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ‘Court Poems’, which is held in the Swift Collection. As a direct result of that visit, I have been at Monash, as a student and a teacher, for the last fourteen years.
Montagu’s ‘Court Poems’ were written between mid-1715 and mid-1716. Like John Gay’s Shepherd’s Week (1714), these mock-pastoral satires made up a cycle of six poems, one for each day from Monday to Saturday. The poems circulated in manuscript for about three months before three of them were snapped up and published by Edmund Curll, with the eye-catching by-line ‘Published Faithfully As They Were Found, In A Pocket-Book … In Westminster Hall’. Curll attributed the poems to either ‘a Lady of Quality’ (i.e. Montagu), Alexander Pope or John Gay. Pope was unimpressed. He was a close friend of Gay and Montagu, neither of whom wanted the poems published.
In fact, Pope was so unimpressed with Curll that he decided to take revenge on him for this piracy. He arranged a meeting with him at a tavern, during which he slipped Curll an emetic. Curll went home to vomit, violently; and Pope went home to write A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Edmund Curll, Bookseller, one of his most amusing prose works. Curll’s response to his purging was to print forever afterwards Montagu’s ‘Court Poems’ as a part of the works of Pope, knowing that it would be a constant irritant to him. Pope died in 1744. Curll died in 1747; in the same year, Horace Walpole published the remaining three ‘Court Poems’, for the first time. Walpole had transcribed the poems from Montague’s own manuscript in October 1740, while he was on the Grand Tour. The edition that he published—and which Monash holds—is, then, both the first authoritative and the first complete edition of the poems.
Dr Patrick Spedding,
School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Faculty of Arts