London, May 19: “Oh! It is only a novel,” wrote Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, satirising the snobbery of her society towards the fripperies of fiction and its creators.
Nearly 200 years later, a collection of some of the rarest pre-Victorian first editions, including five of the six Austen novels, is being put on the market for £800,000. The 80 titles, many still bound in the publisher’s original paper boards, were painstakingly collected by one Englishman over 35 years.
Wishing to remain anonymous, he is offering the catalogue for sale next month, but wants the books to remain as a collection. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726, is one of the rare gems for sale. Printed on large paper format — which publishers in the 18th century did for only a handful of exclusive book buyers — it is one of perhaps only 12 copies in the world.
Other highlights include Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, her first published book, within its original boards; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, printed in 1719; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written at Lake Geneva and published in 1818 in response to Lord Byron’s request for a “ghost story”.
The titles trace the novel from its beginnings in the 18th century to the 20th.
Ros Godlovitch, of Valentine Rare Books, who is putting the collection on the market for the owner, said the collection first began after T.S. Eliot signed a copy of one of his books of poetry.
“This collection is like a beautiful landscape — you see something in it which is amazing and then something else, but it is the whole picture which is the most incredible thing,” she said.
“He wants to offer it as a piece because of all the thought that has gone into collecting it. Some of these books are so fragile they cannot be touched. But he loves literature and has read the books and selling them is an extremely difficult personal decision for him.”
Adrian Harrington, a book dealer, said: “These books are so pivotal to the development of man’s thinking that if they went into a national collection, they would never come out again.”