Keeping it real

Modern times are, for medievalists, difficult times. A few months ago, a book was published called The Bright Ages: A new history of medieval Europe. Its authors, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, set out their stall at once: “Our story is one that escapes the myth of the ‘Dark Ages’ … Shifting our perspective brings people, traditionally marginalized in other tellings, into focus”. You can see where this might be going, unlike those benighted tellers of other tales.

The Guardian was suitably impressed, but pointed out that Gabriele and Perry’s new history of medieval Europe failed to cover “half of the continent’s histories, peoples and cultures”. The American Conservative got the memo – that this was a book intended to break the supposedly vital link between medievalism and the “ultraconservative politics” of white supremacism – but wasn’t impressed at all. “To cure these fifteen or twenty teenage boys” – a grotesque underestimate of the racist contingent – ​​“of their delusion is to declare an all-out war on history … Over and over, this obsession with ‘debunking white nationalist myths’ leads [Gabriele and Perry] to ridiculous, ahistorical conclusions.”

The question on your mind now, of course, is the obvious one: what did the Los Angeles Review of Books make of The Bright Ages?

As it happens, the LARB, a website that also publishes quarterly in print, ran a review, by Eleanor Janega, that calls the book “necessary” – worthy to become a “standard work for popular audiences”, in fact. Such stuff will not have surprised those readers who had already read Dr Janega’s review of The Bright Ages (a book destined to “become a standard text for general audiences for years to come”), published by another website, Slatea few months earlier.

The opposite opinion had been expressed by Mary Rambaran-Olm – the reviewer who had originally taken on The Bright Ages for the LARB. In her view, the book has some good points; but ultimately what these self-declared enemies of white supremacism have produced is merely a work of “repackaged ‘whiteness’”. They ignore various recent works of scholarship (including some by “scholars of colour”). There is something suspect about the lack of endnotes or footnotes, not to mention the authors’ use of the phrase “our story” – “who is included among ‘us’”? (We take the general point, but, in the context of the book’s introductory pages, it doesn’t seem too improbable to speculate that Gabriele and Perry are simply referring to … themselves.)

In the too-much-time-honoured fashion, after having her bracingly critical review of The Bright Ages “torpedoed” by the LARB, Dr Rambaran-Olm took to Twitter to complain (the modern alternative to nailing your theses on the church door) and published the piece itself on Medium. Responses have ranged from total agreement to moral outrage; some people have even been driven to (gasp) delete their Twitter accounts. Without pretending to grasp the wrongs and wrongs of the case, we find ourselves wondering if this is just how medieval scholarship works now. It’s setting a splendid example for the kids.

How do toys become “Real”? Any child who has read The Velveteen Rabbit knows the answer. Margery Williams’s celebrated tale, now a century old, concerns a Christmas present for a boy: a soft rabbit, “really splendid” at first, “fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be”, but humbly made out of velveteen – for which reason “some of the expensive toys” in the boy’s ample nursery “quite snubbed him”. As Williams’s subtitle promises, the book explains how such a rabbit, despite the unkind passage of the years and an embarrassing insufficiency of hind legs, might transcend his seemingly limited prospects and become “Real”.

The TLS‘s anonymous reviewer of 1922 (Hester Janet Colles) thought this a “charming, simple story”; when it was reissued in 1970, another, equally anonymous reviewer (Ann Deutsch) judged it to be possibly “too sentimental for modern adult taste” – but very good for the five- or six-year-old who could be “deeply moved” and also “greatly intrigued by the book’s invitation to examine different definitions of reality.”

The bibliographical reality, meanwhile, is that copies of the original Velveteen Rabbit are hard to come by. Jonkers Rare Books – who are offering the “near fine” copy pictured above for £22,500 – describe such originals as “very elusive”. Let us know if you have seen one out in the wild. In later editions, we note that a very minor typo appears, on page 28, where a “then” should be a “them”. Perhaps it has survived for a century without correction.

The latest Jonkers catalog of Fine Books and Manuscriptsby the by, is worth seeking out, if only for the sake of marvelling at the other rarities it contains: an “unmutilated” copy of Shelley’s Queen Mab (£60,000); an “exceptionally emotionally charged” letter from Sylvia Plath to Ted Hughes (October 21, 1956), for the same asking price; and, for more than the two put together, that copy of Casino Royale, inscribed by Ian Fleming for Paul Gallico, which you failed to buy at auction earlier this year (see NB, February 4). There is always something to be learned from such catalogs. Christina’s Fairy Book (1906; £9,500), we now know, may be regarded as Ford Madox auction Ford’s rarest book: “No copies have been recorded at and we are aware of only one other copy being offered for sale in living memory”. Ford wrote it for his first child. File next to his other contributions to the genre: the author of The Good Soldier was also the author of The Brown Owl, The Feather and The Queen Who Flew.

Amid the ongoing correspondence in these pages about academic publishers and the pricing of their products, Marsha Keith Schuchard spotted our reference to the London Book Fair and the “proud proprietor of a self-publishing service [who] cocked a snook at his more piratical rivals” (April 15). She has twice published books with a prestigious European academic press – “two lengthy historical works (over 700 pages)” – each of which she was shocked to see marketed at $300 per volume. She went on to publish a book, also over 700 pages, via Amazon CreateSpace (a self-publishing service that merged, in 2018, with Kindle Direct Publishing); the cost to the reader was only $30. “Despite the limitations of self-published marketing,” Dr Schuchard tells us, “the latter book has sold widely to a large international readership.” If Amazon is really eating everything, as is often said, perhaps one day it will swallow the academic publishing business whole.

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