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Say it with books
Alice Tranah, Bookseller at the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, blogs on the best gifts for the book lover in your life.
This Valentine’s Day I invite you to discover some of our books that might tickle your fancy; something a bit different to make a refreshing change from the usual flowers and chocolates as a gift for your loved ones.
I’m not ashamed to profess my personal love for the Cambridge Library Collection; a series of books of historical value, reissued in paperback to delight and inform the modern reader.
In this series are some cracking titles that show us passions of days gone by.
This is a thrilling series of letters between the Arctic explorer, Elisha Kane (1820–57) and his lover Margaret Fox (1833–93), a well-known spiritualist and, later, self-confessed fraud. Kane’s family objected strongly to Fox and their secret engagement, refused to believe they had married, and attempted to prevent her from publishing this correspondence after Kane’s death. She finally did so in 1866, and their letters reveal a tumultuous five-year relationship from 1852 to his death. They are an intimate account, revealing fiery nineteenth-century romance in all its glory!
"Oh, how I love you since our
ride! You know me just as I am:
my good and my bad—for
from you I have no
concealments. And I know you
even to your secret faults, and
knowing you, love you. What
more can you desire?"
Another compelling book in the collection is Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women, and Lovers, by Edith Jemima Simcox (1844–1901), a prominent British feminist, social critic and prolific writer. Simcox, a passionate admirer, friend, and unrequited lover of George Eliot, explores melancholy, love, loss and longing through vignettes narrated by a series of different voices, both male and female. The tales comprise a thinly-disguised autobiography and demonstrate her identification with both male and female connotations.
"The perfect love gives everything and receives everything, without thought or effort, almost without consciousness of desire. But how are the affections of the heart to remain ever tender and responsive, so strong and ready as to give their own tone and colour to the whole of life, if the self-abandonment of answered love is made impossible for ever, if at every turn the feeling must be checked that grows unchecked into an exacting clamour, a cry after the answer that does not come?"
If it’s the power of romantic language that you’re after, you will find inspiration in The Sweet Silvery Sayings of Shakespeare on the Softer Sex (1877). Compiled by an anonymous ‘Old Soldier,’ the book collects extracts from thirty-three of Shakespeare’s plays, giving us an insight into the mid-Victorian romantic imagination.
The soldier was inspired by an idea expressed by the essayist James Hain Friswell in his The Gentle Life: Essays in Aid of the Formation of Character:
"If a man wanted to make a little sugar-sweet book, which
young men in love, and young maidens who are
enamoured of their own sex would buy, let him go through
the plays of great national Poet, and make and extract of
those passages wherein he has exalted woman."
If you answer to either of those character descriptions (or just fancy seeing if Shakespeare can burst your liver) then this may well be the book for you!
"[I] translated [Othello] viva voce to a few unlettered Maharatta chiefs on one of the hill forts of the Western Ghats of India. They all went to their homes more or less affected: the next day, in the hyperbolical language of the East, they told [me] that their livers had burst with anguish at the story."
Alternatively, your tastes may be more classical, in which case may I recommend Some Greek Poems of Love and Beauty (1937) and its accompanying work Some Greek Poems of Love and Wine (1939), by J.M.Edmonds? Not strictly part of the Library Collection, but not far off, these books contain myriad poems by a broad range of authors, translated and introduced by Edmonds. How about the charms of Strato?
"Try as I will to pass,
A pretty lass,
Before I'm gone a yard
I'm staring hard"
Finally, and somewhat from left-field, I present my final recommendation, Philobiblon: A Treatise on the Love of Books, by Richard de Bury (1287–1345), in which the influential bishop’s frank views about scholarship are expressed:
"Whosoever [...] acknowledges himself to be a zealous
follower of truth, of happiness, of wisdom, of science, or
even of the faith, must of necessity make himself a lover of
So to conclude and (sort of) tongue-in-cheek, I encourage you to embrace Bury's exhortation that "no expense ought to prevent men from buying books when what is demanded for them is at their command [...] the ignorant may consider how greatly the wise undervalue money in comparison with books".
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