The Little Red Book Revisited

I can hardly believe it, but tomorrow this blog will be five years old; my first ever post was on September 16th 2008. I’ve decided to use this occasion as an excuse to wallow in self-indulgence by reposting some vintage items, with appropriate updates. This one was originally posted on 27th September 2008, but I’ve updated it with a picture of the eponymous little red book and a scan from one of its pages.



It’s now late September and there’s no sign that the Indian summer we’ve been having is going to fade. Once again, I’m sitting outside in the sunshine while Columbo daydreams. In the newspapers there’s yet more panic about the global financial crisis and the US Government’s attempts to persuade Congress to bail out the profligate bankers. The Republicans don’t want to play along, apparently because they don’t like the idea of government getting involved in the markets. I’m opposed to it for the opposite reason, which is I think those who have caused the problem should be the ones that pay for it. If the UK government decides to bail out any banks, I hope it will be at the price of public representation on their boards or even nationalisation.

Not long ago there was talk about energy companies having a windfall tax levied upon them owing to the sudden leap in their profits arising from high oil and gas prices. This seemed like a good idea to me. A retrospective windfall tax on city bonuses to pay for any packages cobbled together to pay the financial sector’s debts appears at least as justifiable as that proposed for the energy sector.

It’s now about a year since my father died. He hadn’t left a will so I had to travel to Weymouth to tidy up his things and organise a funeral. I hadn’t seen him much in recent years and was never particularly close, since my parents split up when I was about 12 and I went to live with my mother when that happened.

My dad never really came to terms with life after the break up of the family. His business eventually went down the tubes and he left Newcastle to live in Weymouth near his sister, my Auntie Ann, who had lived there for quite a while. He had a history of heart problems so his death wasn’t really a shock, but it did bring feelings of guilt to me, for not having kept in touch very well, as well sudden and unpredictable pangs of nostalgia which I’m still a bit prone to.

Among the memories that popped uncontrollably into my mind last year was a visit we made as a family to the house of my late Auntie Vi, who I don’t think I ever met. I don’t remember when this was but it was just after she died, when I guess I was probably about seven or eight which would make it around 1970 or so. My dad was among those invited to the house to help clear it by taking away anything they wanted.

I don’t remember the house very well except that it was rather dark, decorated with Victorian designs, and cluttered with heavy old-fashioned furniture. I imagined Auntie Vi (or “Violetta”, which was her real name) to be quite scary, perhaps like a governess in some gothic novel. I don’t know much about her except that she wasn’t well liked by the rest of the family. There was talk of some scandal, but I never found out what it was. I was just intrigued how she got the name Violetta. Perhaps her parents liked opera.


The only relic from that visit that I still know about was a little red book that we took home with us. It was a book of Poems by Wordsworth which my mum kept when she split up with my dad and moved out. I asked her about it last year, after my dad’s funeral, and was quite surprised to find she still had it. She gave it to me to keep, and it is on the table beside me now as I write this.

Out of curiosity last year I looked for the date the little book was published, but couldn’t find one anywhere inside. I don’t know why, but the lack of that little bit of information bothered me. I looked on the web to see if there was information about this or similar books was to be found. No luck.

I turned instead to the task of finding out whatever I could about the publisher. The book is in a series called “Canterbury Poets” which was published by the Walter Scott Publishing company (London, New York and Felling). That made be laugh. As if anyone could ever have imagined Felling to be on a par with New York or London!

I had assumed that Sir Walter Scott was the famous novelist of Ivanhoe and the Waverley novels, but digging about a little I found out that it was named for someone else entirely. This particular Sir Walter Scott was born in 1826. He had very little formal education, but became a highly successful businessman. By the 1880s he owned a large network of business interests in the North East, primarily involving engineering and construction companies. In 1882 Scott expanded his empire by buying a publishing company “The Tyne Publishing Company”, which had just gone bust. Scott built a new factory (at Felling) and established a new office in London for his new publishing house, and the Walter Scott Publishing Company was born.

I think Scott must have been a very shrewd entrepreneur because the printing business grew rapidly, primarily through its list of editions of classic works of literature that were out of copyright. The Canterbury Poets series was first published in 1884, which is also the date of their first edition of the Wordsworth. These books were extremely well made, with hard covers, fine quality paper and good stitching . They sold for a shilling, which is an astonishingly low price for books of this quality. I can’t be sure, but have a feeling that a lot of them were given as “rewards” , for good behaviour at sunday schools and the like. That market accounted for a lot of the book trade in those days.Sir Walter Scott died in 1910 and the company ceased trading in 1931. At its peak it did indeed have offices in New York, and also sold large quantities of books in Australia.

I found this all out quite easily, because the Walter Scott Company turned out to be quite famous for the role it played in the story of working class literacy, but it didn’t tell me about the specific edition I had. However, I did discover that a scholarly work had been published in 1997 that contained a complete biliography of all the works it published until the company finally went down the tubes. Quite apart from the connection with my peculiar Aunt, I found the whole story quite fascinating. I sent off for the bibliography, which is basically a kind of catalogue that painstakingly records the size, typeface, cover design, and printers colophons for all known editions. (It’s quite boring to read, as you can imagine). I searched through it to find references to William Wordsworth. Number 99c is the entry for the “Poems” of William Wordsworth.

With a bit of work I established that the specific edition I have was first published in 1892 but reprinted many times after that. Details of the book, however, indicate that my version was actually printed in 1902. Among the clues is the fact that the colophon states “The Walter Scott Publishing Co, Ltd.” and it didn’t become a limited company until 1902. The company also moved its London and New York offices a couple of times which helps pin down the date, as these changes are noted on the imprint.

So there you have it. The little red book was printed in Felling in 1902, which happens to be the same year that my little house in Pontcanna was built, just after the death of Queen Victoria. I don’t know how old Auntie Vi was when she died, but she must have been a young girl when she got it and had obviously kept it all the rest of her life. That fits with the way her name is written in pencil, in what looks like a child’s hand, inside the front cover.

The book isn’t particularly valuable. A lot were printed and it’s not particularly rare. I’m not sure Wordsworth is very collectible nowadays either. I am still amazed, though, how well it had withstood the passage of time. Today’s books are cheaply bound and printed on chatty paper. Most modern paperbacks are in bad condition only a few years after you buy them. They made things to last in those days.

It seems appropriate to end with one of Wordsworth’s poems, of which (I forgot to mention) I’m very fond indeed. I’ve picked the start of the Ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, partly because there’s a wonderful setting of this work to music by Gerald Finzi which was performed at this years Proms.

I think it’s apt enough. Here is the first verse as it appears in the Little Red Book:



2 Responses to “The Little Red Book Revisited”

  1. My father used to recite this verse to us when we were children and we would all groan, because it seemed so incredibly long and boring. So long that I always thought he was reciting the whole poem, but I found out recently it was just this verse! I rediscovered the poem at the age of forty something, and it all suddenly made huge amounts of sense.

    I also have an old copy of Wordsworth, an Oxford edition of the complete poetical works from 1906. It was awarded to a friend of my grandmother’s at Melmerley Girls’ school in Parnell, Auckland, NZ, for crayon drawing, of all things – there is an award certificate glued in the front. She must have been quite young then too. This friend later became a physiotherapist, and helped my grandmother raise my mother and her brothers and sisters during the second world war when my grandfather was in Europe. She was killed in a car accident in the 1950s and then when my grandmother died the book was passed on to my mother. When I was a child the dog chewed the cover of it, but it has now been beautifully rebound, and I hope it will survive at least another hundred years.

  2. I am so glad I found this blog. There is humour, beautiful words, music, collaboration of comrades, interesting conversations, honesty and always something to learn. Such an honour. Congratulations on 5 years today! 🙂

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