Wednesday, May 4, 2022

561. A Puzzle Involving Wilde and Ricketts

Every week, in response to the blogs about Ricketts and Shannon, questions are fired at me. Sometimes they are simple requests, other times they are difficult questions and occasionally they are puzzling queries. I received an example of the latter category on 21 April when Avery Garnett wrote:

I hope this finds you well. I realise this email may either be a very strange request, or something you're tired of receiving enquiries about (sorry if that's the case!). When doing research, I found your articles about the work of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon:

I'm currently trying to identify a book that is 'blind-tooled on the green in a double circle was a single star above what was perhaps a sea' as well as 'It was the tenth edition, of 1917'. I found an ancient discussion on a web forum that seemed to lead nowhere, but with a post 3 years later saying "it was the importance of being earnest" with no further explanation. However, I cannot find any proof of a 1917 edition of that Wilde book, only one dated 1910 which seems to be part of the collected works.

These points led me to your blog and I am certain it is the mark I'm looking for - but you mention that the prints were used by Methuen for dozens of reprints.

So I was wondering: do you happen to know of a list of works that had this print? Or possibly if there indeed exists a 10th edition copy of ...Being Earnest with this publisher mark because many other people have stumbled across your posts and had the same idea as me? Thank you very kindly for your time!

The email refers to a blog about the vignette of a star above the sea designed by Ricketts and used by publisher Methuen for many years. The vignette (not a publisher's mark by the way) appeared edition after edition on the reprints of Oscar Wilde's works, including reprints of The Importance of Being Earnest

Charles Ricketts, design for Oscar Wilde,
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1909)

Indeed, I was puzzled, so I answered:

It is not so much a strange request as a rather vague one, as you do not describe the book to me or send me images, and how it comes that you need identification: is there no binding, title page, is it incomplete?

Not much to go on. Anyway, I deduct from the spare facts that you have a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and that it is not the first or second edition (1899 and 1908) but a later one.
After the 1908 collected edition, as you probably know, a second collected edition was issued in 1909, some new volumes added up to 1920 or so.
Initially these were issued in green cloth, gilt (1909) or green cloth, blind stamped, spine gilt, and even later (for example the 18th edition in 1924) in blue cloth, gilt, and still later in cheap green bindings. 

The IofBE was reprinted many times:
4th ed Feb 1910
5th ed Dec 1911
6th ed Nov 1912
7th, New cheap ed. (only spine in gold): Jan 1915
8th ed. July 1916
9th ed April 1917
10th ed Nov 1917
11th ed Dec 1917
12th ed July 1919
13th ed 1919
and so on. 

It suffices to buy one of those later editions to see how many reprints there were in between.

Some of those were advertised by Methuen in lists and newspapers. They were not collected by the main libraries and so no bibliographical record of them was kept. Up until 20 years ago they were easy to find in Great Britain, but they have become less easy to find due to the demise of small independent antiquarian book shops.

Did I answer your question?

Cover of Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
(Thirteenth Edition, 1919) with the vignette by
Charles Ricketts stamped in blind on the front cover

Shortly after I sent the reply, the response came:

Wow, thank you very much! I think that yes, it is indeed the IofBE; it ties up with what I was expecting and this cryptic, no source post on a mailing list from 15 years ago.

With regards to the vagueness, it's because I don't actually own a copy of the book. Rather, it's from a copy of Cain's Jawbone, which (if you've not heard of it) is a literary puzzle from the 1930s which is infamously difficult to solve and only 4 people have done so in the last 90 years:

It so happens that on one page, the narrator describes taking a green book from his pocket... but that's all; given the nature of the puzzle, every detail seems to be important and I've been scratching my head at finding out what it is. The puzzle probably would have been easier in some regard back in 1933, because knowing a book published in 1917 would've been more common knowledge back then, at least among the middle to upper classes. The author (and by extension, the narrator) really seem to enjoy using Wilde and especially IofBE quotes in the prose, so it's lovely to be able to tick that puzzle off the list!

Well, this answer surprised me. I had no idea that this blog would serve the community of puzzle lovers.