Wednesday, July 6, 2016

258. Dust-Jackets on Ricketts's books (1): The Picture of Dorian Gray

Recently, the Private Libraries Association and Oak Knoll Press published Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets by Mark R. Godburn, an American bookseller and collector. The book traces the use of dust-jackets in Great Britain and America. From his research it becomes quite clear that the use of dust-jackets started in Germany in the early 1820s, then spread to England during the early 1830s, and by the time that Charles Ricketts's design for Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was reproduced on the dust-jacket (1891), these jackets were quite common, although only a fraction of them have survived.

They were not seen as part of the book, but as a much-needed protection until the moment of sale, and it is only around the time of the First World War that collectors, and later bibliographers, came to see them as part of the published book.

Dust-jacket for the ordinary edition of Oscar Wilde's
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
Interpretations of the importance and meaning of the dust-jacket for Oscar Wilde's novel have focussed on Wilde's own vision of the book. Nicholas Frankel, for example, has asked: 'What does the book's cover say about how we might read Wilde's novel itself?'. Wilde wrote about book ornamentation and bookbindings in this novel, and according to Frankel, 'it is the details of the book in question [Gautier's Émaux et Camées] that connote the meanings Wilde wants to suggest (rarity, luxury, self-conscious artfulness and so forth).' 

About the dust-jacket for Wilde's own novel Frankel wrote:

As a book, the novel was originally issued in buff-colored outer wrappers, which we would now term a dust-jacket, with the designs and lettering printed in brown. G. Thomas Tanselle records just thirty-two instances of such wrappers in England prior to 1890, from which we infer that the book jacket wrapping of the 1891 edition of Wilde's novel must have represented a dramatic departure from normal publishing practice. More than anything else in the edition's design, it calls our attention to, as much as it protects, the book as a significant entity in its own right.


Whether Wilde intended his binding to "reflect" those changes or not, his book's binding is composite with them by virtue of the fact that no text can wholly escape the actual mode of its existence.

Now that we know that dust-jackets were far more common than previously surmised on the basis of the small number of surviving jackets, we should reconsider the meaning of the dust-jacket, the involvement of Wilde in its appearance and in its existence in the first place. Most jackets were simply used for protection, and for that they didn't need to have text or images on them. Most jackets were plain (blank, unprinted) paper folders. Some had attractive borders, and coloured paper or ink were used for others.

By the 1860s dust-jackets had become quite common and their use had changed. Publishers had begun to see their promotional value, and started to print advertisements on them, or reproductions of the title-pages, and many large publishing houses were doing this: Blackie & Son, Chapman & Hall, George Bell & Sons, Macmillan & Co, George Routledge, and many others. The jacket had become a marketing tool as early as the 1860s.

The binders delivered the books in a jacket, and the publishers decided what was to be printed on them. The reproduction of the binding's design by Ricketts on the dust-jacket of his novel was probably the result of a normal procedure at the publishers. There is no reason to assume that Wilde was the instigator of the dust-jacket. Even Ricketts - who liked to interfere - may not have been aware that a dust-jacket echoing his design would be printed. 

And Wilde will have disposed of the dust-jacket almost immediately, as did most readers, and as did Ricketts himself, in all probability.

The large-paper edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray - different format, more elaborate design - was also issued in a dust-jacket. 

We shouldn't read too much into it.