Today I saw a book which is haunting and perplexing me. An older lady, a longtime collector, brought in an 1850 edition of Jane Eyre. Its original brown cloth embossed covers were faded, worn, and detached, held on by transparent tape; the spine was illegible; the endpapers, a cheap, waxy yellow paper, were blackened; the pages were foxed and wavy; the text block was warped; a 1928 owner inscription in India ink (“this book belonged to my aunt and I inherited it”) had bled through to the subsequent page. The title page read: Jane Eyre/ an autobiography/ edited by/ Currer Bell.
Of all these particulars, the most wonderful is that title page– there is Charlotte Bronte before we knew her name, in the wake of the first and greatest Bronte novel’s sensational popularity after its 1847 British publication and 1848 American first edition. The poor condition of the copy I saw was because it was a hasty, cheap trade publication (or pirate) with inferior paper and barely adequate cloth; and it was probably read many times. This could be rebound, but having that done properly would be fabulously expensive, and would entail painstaking disassembly and reassembly that the mediocre paper would not withstand without, at best, becoming harder to open and difficult to read, while losing the authenticity of its original covers. So would that be a further insult, or a necesssay evil? The book is at risk of being thrown away because at a glance it looks like junk. These very early editions are so uncommon because most of them did get used up and thrown away.
The owner’s speculation about its dollar value and mine varied so greatly that I didn’t make an offer for it, and advised her to keep it. It’s the worst part of my job, those mercurial dollar values. That title page– bliss. How much that’s worth and how much it costs, I don’t even enjoy putting in the same sentence.