Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Time to Buy a Book is When You See It...

The famous bibliophile Thomas J. Wise was a friend and bibliographer of the poet Robert Browning, "a young worshipper at the great man's shrine ..a member of the Browning Society (who) often called on Sunday afternoons..." (Hood, "Letters of Robert Browning, Collected by Thomas J. Wise", 1933). Browning would also give young Wise an unforgettable lesson that the time to buy a book is when you see it...

Augustus Muir, in his article in 'Strand Magazine' in September, 1929, recounts the story of Browning, Browning's very rare first book, 'Pauline' and Thomas J. Wise-

"In the year 1884 Mr. Wise first met Robert Browning; and one of his visits to the poet was an exciting one. Dr. Furnivall, a friend of both, went along with him to 19, Warwick Crescent. Browning was in a front room on the ground floor destroying letters and papers. He had dragged from the top of the house an old leather trunk that had once belonged to his father, and was dipping into it. Mr. Wise, to his horror, saw letters of Carlyle go into the fire and a lot of Browning's own early verses... Out from the old trunk came two precious copies of the original edition of 'Pauline'.

'If I had asked Browning for one of them I am convinced he would have given it to me,' Mr. Wise has declared. 'But I let the chance go'.

"On leaving the Browning house, he told Dr. Furnivall how keen he was to get the book. The good Furnivall was amused at the thrill his friend had got at a glimpse of such a prize in duplicate. 'Write to Browning,' he said, 'and ask him for one of the copies. Offer in return to give to a charity any sum he thinks just'.

"Delicacy held back Thomas J. Wise, but the story does not end here. A few days later, James Dykes Campbell invited him to dine at his flat in Albert Hall Mansions. Browning was the only other guest. After dinner Mr. Wise and his host sat and smoked, while Browning, who did not smoke, was making a leisurely tour of the bookshelves of the room. 'I see you have everything here of mine,' he said to Campbell. 'No,' replied Campbell, 'I still lack "Pauline".' 'Oh, that gap can soon be filled!' exclaimed Browning. 'The other morning I came across two copies of it. One of them will be sent to you tomorrow'. Here again was a god-sent chance for Mr. Wise to ask for the other. But again he let it slip.

"Next day, after much wrestling of spirit, he took Dr. Furnivall's advice and wrote to Robert Browning. But he was too late. Browning had already decided to give the other copy to his son."

Thomas J. Wise did eventually get his copy of 'Pauline' after a long hunt, and for a considerable price. Browning inscribed it for him- "I see with much interest this little book, the original publication of which can hardly have cost more than has been expended on a single copy by its munificent Proprietor and my friend -Mr. Wise."

Wise eventually reprinted the book himself in a limited editon, and years later he would become a forger of Browning's works, forever staining his own bibliophilic reputation and bringing about one of the most famous literary frauds of the 20th century. But that is a story for another day...

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