Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hakluyt and Woolf: a rare combination

I always get a kick out of the Bauman Rare Books ad on the back of the NYT book review, but this week it's more in the nature of the pleasure of finding a message hidden in plain sight; which I will share.

The featured book is a truly rare first edition of Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries (1599), offered for $60,000. Its publication is described as a crucial step toward the founding of the British Empire:

While serving in Paris as a member of Queen Elizabeth I's embassy to France, Richard Hakluyt repeatedly heard the English derided for their comparative lack of accomplishment on the sea compared to other nations. But Her Majesty's Sailing Ships had passed through the Strait of Magellan, traversed the Pacific, established trade with sultans and czars, and, most triumphantly, circumnavigated the globe under the bold and brazen leadership of Francis Drake. Determined that England be accorded her rightful place as first among sea-going nations, he undertook what no one had done before: to collect in one book and present to the world the most comprehensive collection of England's accomplishments of geographical exploration and discovery. Much was at stake, as the race to claim predominance in the New World was on, and Hakluyt, with his peers Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon, worked tirelessly to promote the cause. The inclusion by Hakluyt of hundreds of accounts of discovery by other nations spurred Elizabeth's ambitions and helped lay the foundations of empire.

On the same page, a first edition of A Room of One's Own (1929) is offered for $9,500, "signed by Woolf in purple ink."

It wasn't a first edition of Hakluyt that Virginia Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, brought home to her from the library; as she tells us, it was "those five cumbrous volumes in which the printers of 1811 had thought good to entomb" him. As she recalled in her diary in December 1929, her father "must have been 65; I 15 or 16, then; & why I don't know, but I became enraptured, though not exactly interested, but the sight of the large yellow page entranced me. I used to read it & dream of those obscure adventurers, & no doubt practised their style in my copy books." By the time she comes to write a review of a study of Hakluyt by the early 20th century scholar Walter Raleigh, she understands that the volume is "founded on hard truth, that the voyagers were substantial English seamen, and that the whole makes a consecutive chapter of English history"; yet still, what she finds most compelling is the poetry and imagery of discovery, as in this passage from (the original) Sir Walter Raleigh on reaching Guiana:

I never saw a more beautifull countrey, nor more lively prospects, hills so raised here and there over valleys, the river winding into divers branches, the plaines adjoyning without bush or stubble, all faire greene grasse, the ground of hard sand easie to march on, either for horse or foote, the deere crossing in every path, the birdes towards the evening singing on every tree with a thousand severall tunes, cranes and herons of white, crimson, and carnation pearching in the rivers side, the aire fresh with a gentle Easterly winde, and every stone that we stouped to take up, promised either golde or silver by his complexion.

As Alice Fox was the first to notice, the sense of imagination that Woolf gathered from Hakluyt's Voyages launched her upon a lifetime of reading and reinterpreting the Renaissance in inventive, productive, even progressive ways: not as the Renaissance of Burckhardt and Empire, but more as an imagined site for personal and, potentially, cultural reinvnention. In stark contrast to T.S. Eliot, who, reading and writing at the same time, drew from the Renaissance a notion of "order" from which the modern world was in the steady process of deteriorating, Woolf relished in the moment of discovery when nothing was fixed and all worlds could be new. No doubt mistakenly--but with a compelling optimism--she persisted in seeing the Renaissance as a time "far more elastic" than her own--even finding within it the roots of an unfulfilled promise of democratic equality.

Luckily for me, just as I was starting to write my dissertation on Woolf and the Renaissance, a microfilm copy of her voluminous papers held by the New York Public Library was issued. It wasn't hard to talk the UNC library into buying it, and it was great fun to be the first to use it. It saved me a trip or several to New York; but on the other hand, I still have never seen the originals, which are written in various colors of ink, including purple. A whole layer of interpreation flattened by the microfilm camera!

A copy of A Room of One's Own "signed by Woolf in purple ink" would be quite a thing to discover.

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