By Michael W. Harris, published in Plumbago issue 5 (Jan. 2019)
I settle into my chair at the esteemed auction house of Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge to witness the selling off, piecemeal, of the careful and thoughtful accumulation of the better part of my life. No novice to London collecting circles, I had previously cultivated passions for both stamps and seashells. However, this collection was the pinnacle of my curatorial ambition, and while I understand and support the need to liquidate the result of years amassing a library of thousands of volumes by female authors—what Sotheby’s calls an “extraordinary library, unique of its kind”—I cannot help but feel pangs of guilt and regret.
“Is this seat taken, sir?” a dapper young man asks me, glancing towards my hat occupying the seat next to mine.
“No, not at all,” I reply as I snatch it up.
“Many thanks. I am Mr. Lacy,” he states. The young man turns to me excitedly, “I was not expecting an auction of books by lady authors to be so popular! I am glad I was able to find a seat.”
“Never underestimate the London appetite for novelty.”
“Indeed, sir. It is exciting.”
Exciting? Yes, but certainly not how I envisioned my collection being passed on. I had hoped it would be the legacy for my children and my children’s children. Instead, here it is being sold to the highest bidder in auction lots of one, two, three books, and even larger for some more common and unremarkable volumes. Even so, I had spent years carefully hunting down each and every volume, noting them in my catalog and placing them on my shelf in my library. I even devised my own system to quickly find them, jotting the code in the margin of my personal catalog. Those in my “Wants List” would be carefully crossed off once they’d found their way into my hands. Even those booksellers far afield from London knew of my collection and became my quiet scouts on the lookout for what came to be known as “Stainforth’s ladies.”
The auctioneer steps to the podium and the room suddenly grows quiet.
“Welcome to the first day of our auction of the Extraordinary Collection of the Reverend Francis John Stainforth, perpetual curate of All Hallows Staining church, on the first day of July, 1867.”
The resonant thud of his gavel kills the final vestiges of chatter and my prized collection begins its redistribution across London and, possibly, the greater Empire. Almost immediately the auction is dominated by a single organization represented by the Boone brothers: the British Museum. With their deep pockets and unquenchable thirst for history, they pounce upon almost every lot that crosses the block. Representatives of a beast that can never be sated, it’s no wonder they live under Her Majesty’s imperial light.
Hours pass and the lots sell until the auction reaches one of my most valued acquisitions, and the auctioneer is rapturous in his description of it.
“Next we have Thomas Bentley’s Monument of Matrones, lot number 282. Note in your catalog that this volume is not only excessively rare, but also contains prayers and meditations of many notable women from around its publication date in 1582. In all, a very important publication in the history of women’s writing. In many ways, it binds together the voices of women just as the Reverend Stainforth would do three centuries later.”
I bristle at the sound of my name alongside the names of those whose works I collected.
“You can also read in your catalog that this particular copy has travelled about since its publication, passing through many distinguished collector’s hands before coming to rest on the shelf of the parsonage house on Mark Lane. These include John Mapletoft, William Herbert, and Richard Herber. The Reverend Stainforth had to expend considerable persuasion and coin to pry it away from Dr. Bliss. Shall we start the bidding at a pound?”
A pound! Few lots ever sold for that much. Sotheby’s really must think they can drive the price high to begin the auction at such a large number. Without missing a beat, Mr. Boone jumps in to begin the bidding.
“The Museum is not going to let this one slip through its fingers,” Mr. Lacy whispers to me, careful not to raise his voice lest it be mistaken for a costly bid. “They have been trying to get one for their collection for quite some time.”
“Yes, so I have heard. Dr. Bliss almost sold this copy to them instead.”
“Really?” Lacy exclaims, looking me in eye. “I wonder what changed his mind?”
“Ten pounds,” Boone shouts.
“Twelve,” an unknown voice joins the fray, the crowd aghast as the price continues to climb.
“Fifteen,” Boone retorts, and the crowd erupts as the bidding escalates ever higher at a price completely out of character for most literary auctions.
“The price is really going up. Who would have thought?” Lacy says excitedly. “And for a three-hundred-year-old book by women.”
I turn and look him directly in the eye, like I would sometimes have to do with an ill-behaved child.
“Women authors and poets have a unique view on this world, one which we too often ignore unless they happen to be a monarch. And even then, unless their name is Elizabeth or Victoria, long may she reign, we find reasons to discount their views. But if we were to listen to them, their stories and insights into daily life, morality, God, family, even politics—something we would do well to pay attention to with the growing suffrage movement both here and in the United States after their so-called Civil War—we can enrich our lives and understanding.” I pause, my auction companion’s mouth agape, before finally adding, “There are turbulent times ahead, Mr. Lacy. Turbulent times indeed. Ones that women are uniquely suited to help us survive.”
Lacy finds his voice after a beat. “I do say, sir, you sound like one of those pro-suffrage preachers.”
“That is because I am, my dear boy. When you get to be my age, you learn a thing or two about the so-called fairer sex. Most notably that they are not so fair and weak, and by allowing them more self-determination and a voice in the body politic, things might change for the better. Just ask our beloved Queen about that one.”
“Sold to Mr. Boone of the British Museum for 63 pounds. A truly handsome sum for such a rare and unique volume.”
There are scattered gasps and applause as the audience is stunned by what has transpired. And with that, I get up to leave, but Mr. Lacy shoots me a quizzical look.
“Oh, I am not here to buy anything. Just observe. Wanted to make sure things got off to a good start. Ensure my family will be well taken care of. After all, that is why it is being sold.”
An even more befuddled expression crosses Lacy’s face.
“Sorry, I never introduced myself: Francis John Stainforth.”
* * * * *
“After that he simply put on his hat and left,” Lacy says to the auctioneer.
“You are sure he called himself Francis John Stainforth? Not Edward, or George?”
“And he was an elderly gentleman?”
“You understand why that is impossible, though, outside of a Dickens story? Francis John Stainforth died last year.”
“Yes.” Lacy pauses, considering his Ghost of Auctions Present. “However, he did give me a piece of advice before he left.”
“He said I should buy his catalog, Lot 3052, because within its pages I would find knowledge, wisdom, and enjoyment. He added that there are difficult and confusing times before us as we approach the twentieth century, and in his pastoral duties he had found women were some of his most faithful parishioners. People whose mission as mothers and advocates for their families was not unlike his own as curate. He then smirked and said that over the years he had collected items for varying reasons: ‘enjoyment, curiosity, and study,’ going so far as to slap me on the shoulder and declare, ‘It makes me wonder, dear boy, if I should have been a scientist or librarian instead of a pastor.’”
“And then he left?”
“By the time I ran after him, he had disappeared into the streets.” The words hung heavily in the atmosphere. “So, can I have the catalog now?”
“Of course, Mr. Lacy. Congratulations on winning the auction for Lot 3052, and good luck in finding what you seek.”
And with that, Mr. Lacy walked out the same door he had seen the Reverend Stainforth exit through days before. He merged into the crowded London streets, self-assured of the glorious future of the British Empire, but then his ears perked at the words of a suffragette evangelizing. Curious, he thought. With the words of Stainforth still in his mind, he heard her call with fresh ears and suddenly wondered at the dawning of a new world.
About the author
Michael W. Harris is a librarian, archivist, and musicologist who is an assistant professor, research and instruction services librarian at the University of Memphis. In what little free time he has, he enjoys watching sci-fi and reading Fantastic Four comics along with writing with fountain pens. He blogs at www.thetemptrack.com.
Editor’s note: Michael was a Stainforth project editor from 2013-2018. The project team misses him and his editorial powers!