Hands across time – Adventures with an old leather book and a glue pot, Part 2

Posted 3/6/20

by Hugh Gilmore In Part One I started a Time Journey with a broken old book and a glue pot. I run a business buying and selling old and rare books. Many have leather covers that still shine as …

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Hands across time – Adventures with an old leather book and a glue pot, Part 2

Posted

by Hugh Gilmore

In Part One I started a Time Journey with a broken old book and a glue pot. I run a business buying and selling old and rare books. Many have leather covers that still shine as though time had never touched them. However, it was no such book I had beside me that day.

 This one’s leather had dried since its publication in 1752. That’s not very old for a French book from the golden age of French binding. Usually, if cared for, they remain quite supple. But this one had been sunned or left near a fireplace or radiator. It was dry. and not worth worth fixing.

But it had lain in my to-do box for so long I felt sorry for it. The ugly “bookling.” I decided to give it a “makeover.” Not everything worth saving must be beautiful...or expensive.

I squeezed a large blob of flexible library adhesive into a clear plastic bowl, picked out a stiff artist’s brush, and got ready to work. 

While I waited for the glue to thicken a little, I looked inside the book. “Lettres de MADAME de MAINTENON. TOME II.” Printed in Nancy by Chez Deilleau, imprimeur du roi. M. DCC. LII. I did not know who Madame de Maintenon was, but assumed she was an aristocrat. No other social class would have had letters published back then. 

Who was this she? And why were her letters worth preserving? 

I put my glue brush back down and looked her up. She was born in 1635 and died in 1719, 33 years before this edition of her letters was published. That’s equivalent to today’s relationship to 1987. A generation’s worth of fashion, style, and technology had passed since then. One thing had not changed, however: France still had a king, royal court, and aristocracy. And Madame de Maintenon had been King Louis XIV’s second wife, his “open secret” wife. 

The glue had started to thicken.  I re-examined the book. The leather of the front cover had split from the spine and lifted up, forming a half-inch separation, as though the veneer of a table’s edge had warped and lifted. I wedged the flap open and began working the glue as far under as I could, gluing both the board and the underside of the leather. 

I began wondering about the man who’d originally covered this book’s casing with leather 268 years ago. That was in the city of Nancy, in the extreme northeast of France. Most publishers then simply printed and pressed a bunch of pages together before casing them with thick cardboard “boards,” covered with paper. The buyer would take the book elsewhere to have a leather cover made. Some publishers, however, had printers, binders and cover makers in the same shop. 

As I glued, I pictured the leather maker as a young man of about 28, perhaps named Michel, who’d been told to cover this book. Most book binderies in the mid-18th century were, contrary to what you might expect, very noisy, tawdry, and rowdy. On a visit to one in London, Ben Franklin complained that they stunk of beer day and night. The workers were notoriously unreliable. Amidst the tumult and beer swilling, I supposed young Michel at Chez Deilleau did the tedious, smelly job as best he could. After the final gilt decorations were set, the book would go to its purchaser.

I wondered what he thought of the subject of this book, Madame de Maintenon. Could he read? If not, surely he had heard of her, the famous “left hand” wife of the Sun King who ruled during the days of Michel’s father and grandfather. What might they have told him about her?

It was time to see if I could press the leather the board. I gently pushed and squeezed, from the center toward the edge, holding a wet cloth to absorb the excess glue that wept at the edges. 

I thought about Madame de Mainetenon as I held the cover down. She lived from 1635 to 1719. Her father was imprisoned as an activist Huguenot who conspired against Cardinal Richlieu. Her early years were lived in semi-poverty. Many people attested to her goodness, however. At 17 she accepted the proposal of a man 25 years her senior. When he died she inherited his estate, which allowed her to move into higher society for a while, but Louis XIV cut off her pension and reduced her once again to being poor. She took positions as Lady-in-waiting to various aristocrats and even became a Governess, caring for children of the King. Eventually King Louis noticed her hard work and her pleasant nature. When the King’s wife, Marie Therese died, he married Madame de Maintenon in a private ceremony in 1683. Because of their disparate social status, the marriage was morganatic, meaning that Madame de Maintenon was not openly acknowledged as the King's wife and did not become queen. 

I gently removed my hand from the book’s cover. The leather stayed down. I set it aside and put a wooden block on the cover to let it set for a while. I wondered how many books my fictional friend Michel had covered the day he did these two volumes of the Madam’s lettres.  

Much of what the workers in the book publishing trade thought has been lost to time. But one thing the archives evidence is that these lower classes of workers hated the bourgeois and the aristocracy. And not just because of differences in wealth; their incompatible sensitivities were very much a subject of the rowdy, noisy culture of the book-making trade.

If Michel was 28 when Madame de Maintenon’s personal and pensive letters were published, he very well may have been still alive thirty-seven years later to witness how the savagery of the 1789 French Revolution expressed the hatred between the social classes. 

Ironically, before Madame de Maintenon died in 1719, she founded a school in Saint-Cyr for poor children of nobility. The lessons taught there and their underlying philosophy are widely credited with influencing the later Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, the first women’s political interest group, in 1793. One of their principal later interests was to promote the educational interests of poor children, especially girls, to free them from poverty and prostitution.

The little brown book now sits on my desk in decent condition for a formerly battered 282-year-old book. It has hardly any commercial value, but I’ve grown attached to it. I’ll take care of it as long as I can, in appreciation of all I learned by opening it up to see what it had to teach me.

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