Monday, 6 July 2009

The Kelmscott Chaucer

Those of us who turned up at the John Rylands Library in Manchester on Saturday 4th July for the talk by John Hodgson, Keeper of Manuscripts, on ‘”A Pocket Cathedral”: William Morris and the Kelmscott Chaucer’ were rewarded with an entertaining and learned discussion of the Kelmscott Press project in general as well as of its most single famous artefact. The John Rylands possesses a complete run of Kelmscott Press books, and John Hodgson was therefore able to illustrate his talk with copies of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, King Florus and the Fair Jehane, and two versions of the Kelmscott Chaucer itself laid out on a table before us and available for close personal inspection.

I was most struck by the vellum version of the Chaucer, which I hadn’t seen before – both the creamy richness of the pages and the gleaming blackness of the ink upon them (since ink is not actually absorbed by vellum but sits upon its surface). The visual magnificence of the volume and its sheer physical bulk (for one would have to be in serious weight-training indeed to haul this tome around one’s study) are extraordinary; and it is indeed more an aesthetic monument than any kind of practical book.

Morris scholars have written recently about the effects on readers and reading of only being able to access Kelmscott Press books in specialist libraries such as the John Rylands; but in fact the Kelmscott Chaucer has recently turned up most unexpectedly in popular culture too. At the very beginning of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel The Time Traveller’s Wife (2004), Clare Abshire, the ‘wife’ of the title, goes into the Special Collections room of Newberry Library: ‘I’m writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. I look up the book itself and fill out a call slip for it’.

Why should the Kelmscott Chaucer be the appropriate research topic for this Time Traveller’s wife? Perhaps, pedestrianly, because the novel’s author is Professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. Or perhaps, more speculatively, because the Kelmscott Chaucer is itself a time-travelling artefact. Reaching back to the Gothicism of the Middle Ages in its literary content and style of production, it also comes to us from some fabulously far distant socialist future (now, in our postmodern and post-marxist present, more distant than ever, of course) when such gorgeous artefacts will be the social norm, the ‘invisible colour of everyday life’, in an unhurried culture where the skill, time, materials and creativity to craft such works will be universal.

In the Kelmscott Chaucer, then, the deep past and the far future, a lost happy Hobbitland and a longed-for utopian future, come paradoxically together – which, I would suggest, makes this unique volume or literary time machine the very apt object of study for a Time Traveller’s Wife.


Elrond said...

Perhaps there are more affinities between Chaucer and science fiction than we think; for on the three-month journey to Mars in Arthur C. Clarke's 'Sands of Mars' (1951) Dr Angus Mackay, PhD (Astron), occupies his time on the spaceship Ares by 'sitting quietly in a corner reading a much annotated copy of the "Canterbury Tales" and taking an occasional squirt from a bulbful of milk' (ch.3).

Owlfarmer said...

I had the pleasure of seeing the Bridwell Library (Southern Methodist University) copies of the Chaucer a few years ago, when the Dallas Museum of Art was celebrating the acquisition of Burne-Jones's Pilgrim at the Gates of Idleness. One of the copies was in vellum, and it shone next to the two paper copies--no small feat, given the loveliness of those. Also displayed were bits of Morris & Co. paraphernalia, such as cartoons for stained glass windows and--best of all, to me--a laundry list in Morris's own hand.

Also, in respond to Elrond's comment, Dan Simmons's Hyperion is recognizable from page one as an SF version of the Canterbury Tales, pilgrims and all. Rather less elegant, but entertaining and amusing in its own way. Thanks, too, for the reminder about the Clarke book.