“As a child I lived in a home that was full of books … Rare works and first editions were kept under lock and key, and it took all my skill with a hairpin to gain entry to them.” Leon Gellert
As an enthusiastic collector of books by George Orwell (1903-50), the discovery that a signed first edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) was on the market piqued my interest. The astronomical prices Orwell’s inscribed books fetch nowadays has always prevented me owning such treasure, but it is fun to keep an eye on the excesses of the antiquarian book market.
Surprisingly, though out of my budget-range, the book was more affordable than anything signed I had spotted previously. The catalogue from the auction held in Melbourne, where the owner had successfully bid for the book some years ago, described “item 164” as a “first edition presentation copy signed by the author. Light green boards faded and soiled with minor spine damage. Fair condition.”
Jeanette Winterson says book collecting is “an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.” This is all undoubtedly true but, unfortunately, this collector does not possess a bank balance that could in any way be described as sound.
However, I made an offer for the novel, far below the asking price, under no illusion that the book would ever sit on my shelf. Surprisingly, unbelievably, my offer was accepted by the vendor who later said, “I needed the money” when I asked why she sold such a treasure.
Caveat emptor? No, it should be fine. The vendor’s explanation made complete sense. She was selling other items at reduced prices and had a good record. I should just enjoy having procured a signed presentation copy of George Orwell’s final, great novel at a bargain price. When it arrives in the mail, I can worry about it then.
Naturally enough, my first concern was the authenticity of the signature. Orwell rarely signed his books and when he did there was considerable variance in his handwriting, especially towards the end of his life when he was permanently confined to bed with pulmonary tuberculosis. Usually he signed as “Geo. Orwell” but also as “George Orwell” and occasionally as “Eric Blair”. There is only one known example of him signing both his pseudonym and birth name in the same book.
I contacted the auction house and they confirmed the previous sale and the authenticity of the item. They did not respond to a supplementary email asking how they had confirmed that authenticity. Fair enough, it was some time ago.
Who was Leon Gellert anyway and how had he managed to have his copy of the great novel signed? Orwell was in the hospital at University College London when the book was released. He loved his Biro pen which made it easier for him to write while horizontal in bed. There were 25 575 copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four printed in the UK during June 1949 and he did sign some at this time for hospital staff. One of these sold recently for more than US $26 500.
Researching Leon Gellert
While waiting for a carefully wrapped, tracked package to arrive in the mail, I started researching Leon Gellert (1892-1977). Gellert was an Australian poet, literary editor, columnist and survivor of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. How could I have never heard of him before? It all made sense though. Orwell would have related to this returned serviceman, poet and journalist.
Gavin Souter had authored a biography of Gellert in 1996 which only had 270 copies published but was now available to download. I started reading and stayed up late. A Torrent of Words was well-written and Gellert was proving an interesting subject in his own right. Souter, who worked contemporaneously at the media company Fairfax with his subject, described the middle-aged journalist as:
“Strongly built, with an urbane but occasionally testy demeanour, and incisive tone of voice, he usually wore a dark suit, a homburg and black-rimmed spectacles. To me he looked like a middle-aged company director who probably belonged to Tattersalls or the Imperial Services Club.”
The “curmudgeonly” Gellert had a surprisingly bohemian friendship with one of Australia’s most famous artists, Norman Lindsay. This commenced in 1917 when Lindsay had illustrated Gellert’s war poetry, ensuring strong sales. Souter tells the story of the first time the two met in person. Recognising Lindsay at a museum from photographs, Gellert introduced himself and “the slender artist seized the sturdier poet around his waist and the two of them danced between glass cases in a transport of joy”.
One assumes they had corresponded beforehand.
The pair patronised city haunts with bohemian friends during the 1920s; coffee at Mockbell’s, wine at Pelligrini’s. Lindsay’s home, in the Blue Mountains at Springwood, was a popular destination for these friends between the wars. There were a number of ghostly encounters at the property, along with other shenanigans. Souter explains that Lindsay, being “psychically hyperactive” was fond of the Ouija board and “communicated with his dead soldier brother” although his friend was sceptical. Gellert was reported to have had terrible nightmares while staying in the Lindsay household, which the artist assumed “were after-effects of having been shell-shocked” rather than participation in his séances.
Gellert, who was a schoolteacher, built a career editing journals such as Home and Art in Australia rather than writing verse. From 1947, freed from the demands of sub-editing, making up pages and dealing with contributors, Gellert began writing for Fairfax. Souter believed that Gellert’s public reputation was made by the poems written during the Great War but later in his life was “generally regarded as the Herald’s most graceful writer”. Mum (b.1939) told me she had to memorise Gellert’s poem, Anzac Cove, at school.
Souter titled his biography, A Torrent of Words, after the first instalment of Gellert’s long-lived weekly newspaper column, “Something Personal”. The piece discussed lexicographer Eric Partridge in “an elegant, ironic, sometimes arch and sometimes grumpy style that soon became a familiar part of Saturday’s Herald”. Later entitled “Speaking Personally”, these columns continued until retirement from Fairfax in 1961.
I was hoping these pieces would remind me of George Orwell’s, “As I Please” column published in the left-wing newspaper, Tribune, between 1943-47. Gellert had been popular enough to warrant the publication of two book-length collections of his columns, Week After Week (1953) and Year After Year (1956). There had been tragedy at the height of Gellert’s success when his only daughter died losing her baby during childbirth in 1954.
I wondered if Souter was still alive. He would be quite elderly. Online he was listed as the patron of the Mosman Historical Society and contact was soon made. We chatted on the phone. Souter, now aged 90, lives in Mosman, the suburb which Gellert resided. Gavin kindly invited me to his place for further discussions about Orwell and how the inscribed book had come into Gellert’s possession. He was intrigued too.
More research needed
Did Gellert travel to England between June and December 1949? There was no hint of this in Souter’s book nor could I find any passenger records online. The sources Souter listed were almost all held at the State Library of NSW, including a will. Perhaps I could find some indication that Gellert had made the journey to London? Maybe he visited Orwell in the hospital at University College London? I phoned the Mitchell Reading Room and reserved his papers to read on the weekend.
When the book arrived, it was in better than fair condition with the usual leaning spine, so commonly found with Orwell’s books printed during the 1930s and 40s. It was undoubtedly a UK first edition, published by Secker & Warburg in June 1949 and the inscription was convincing, although Orwell’s signature, written in black Biro, was subtly different from others I have seen. He was near death. It did cross my mind that Orwell’s much-loved Biro was blue, so I checked Peter Davison’s magisterial twenty-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, and the only mention was of a “blue-black” or “blue” Biro. I made a mental note that the Oxford English Dictionary records Orwell’s letter of 2 January 1948 as the first recorded use of “Biro” in print.
Saturday dawned and I caught the train to Sydney to research and meet Souter. Spring sun beamed into the Mitchell Library Reading Room via the stained-glass windows as a satisfyingly full trolley of Gellert’s papers awaited my perusal. Photographs, clippings, letters, his will and a trove of goodness knows what awaited on microfilm.
I opened the first folder. Gellert’s columns for Fairfax were carefully preserved and annotated with the date and publication. My excitement grew as I flicked through his journalism dating back almost 70 years ago. I quickly had a Eureka moment which fuelled my growing anticipation.
In his “Something Personal” column for 27 March 1954 was a piece entitled, “Nationalism According to Orwell”. It was a review of Orwell’s posthumous collection of essays, England my England. I loved how Gellert describes Orwell as “a natural mutineer”. Gellert’s attitude to Orwell was a little ambivalent and he posits that “none of us will come to any harm reading his ruthless ‘Notes on Nationalism’”. It is an intelligent and perceptive review which concludes asking the questions: “Are YOU a nationalist? And for that matter, am I? And what of George Orwell himself?”
“Lend a book, lose a friend”
After almost an hour of reading, a column in The Sun-Herald for 3 April 1960 made me start. “Lend a book, lose a friend” confirmed that both Gellert and his father were passionate, ‘inveterate bibliophile’. It is best to let Gellert take up the story:
“As a child I lived in a home that was full of books… Rare works and first editions were kept under lock and key, and it took all my skill with a hairpin to gain entry to them.
My father was an inveterate bibliophile…after the day’s work, he was combing the bookshops for treasure. At least once a week he would come home laden with booty and, avoiding my mother’s disapproving eye, stow it away in his study until such a time as he might examine it at leisure.
And in all that vast collection there was not a dog-eared page or a grimy finger mark. At the end of his days, every book in his library looked as though it had just come from the publishers.”
I felt a strong kinship with the bibliomania of the Gellerts and was pleased to have commenced trawling through his papers with this thick folder of newspaper clippings. I read on:
“Although he was generous to a fault in other respects, he never lent his books. To protect himself against the wiles of the borrower, he employed some rather cunning ruses.
When visitors expressed a wish to borrow a work which had taken their fancy, he would quote the whole of Polonius’ advice to Laertes, laying special emphasis on the line which deals with the loss of friendship following a loan. This was known as the ‘Shakespearean manoeuvre’.
If they survived the recital and still persisted in their request, he resorted to what we termed the ‘Philanthropic formula’. With the beaming smile of one who would sacrifice his last drop of blood to save the life of a fellow mortal he would say:
‘I’ll make you a present of it. Maybe in the course of time and by exhaustive searching, I shall be lucky enough to find another copy to replace it.’”
I chortled; what an amusing and delightful anecdote about his father’s eccentricities. Gellert goes on to say that these ploys never worked for him as he usually misquotes Shakespeare terribly and due “to the low state that common courtesy had fallen” since his father’s days friends jump at the chance to score a new book for free forcing him to develop a new “dodge which (will) enable me to retain the more contemporary works in my library”.
Gellert explained his ingenious response to friends who wished to borrow a book from his library:
“‘Well, old man, I’d rather you didn’t,’ I would reply. ‘It’s a presentation copy from the author, as you can see, and I just don’t like letting it out of my hands, even for a moment. Sorry, old man.’ It was a treat to watch his face as he read the inscription on the flyleaf…”
Every book in my possession that had been written since I came of age bore its personal message from the author, and furnished me with an excuse for not lending it.”
My good humour and lightness of heart, sitting in that heritage-listed sandstone reading room where Gellert undoubtedly spent many quality hours, soured. Several silent expletives followed as I sat and digested that Gellert was admitting to faking signatures, especially with his contemporary first editions. That must include Nineteen Eighty-Four. He didn’t know Orwell personally. He wasn’t in London in 1949.
I read on:
“Some of the descriptions were long and effusive but most were brief and to the point: ‘To L.G., the old blighter – with all my affection, Bertrand Russell’; ‘To L.G., with abiding homage, W. Somerset Maugham’; To L.G. In appreciation. What about popping over here and getting stinko together, F. Scott Fitzgerald,’ etc. etc.”
You really had to laugh. This was a great anecdote and even though I was disappointed at the reality, that my expensive purchase was not what it purported, it was a wonderful story. Gellert was often very creative inscribing admiring messages to himself from the good and the great including, the poet John Masefield, H.G. Wells and Evelyn Waugh. Masefield acknowledges his verse “is not up to your standard” and that, “I just live for your cheery notes” and Wells congratulates Gellert “on that thing of yours in the Manchester Guardian! The best of its kind I’ve read for many a day.”
Gellert really hams it up describing how vastly amused he is by friends and colleagues who visibly “tremble with veneration” on seeing how well-acquainted he was with the literary giants of his generation which he shrugs off by explaining, “in my game, one just meets them and that’s that”.
Walking out the Mitchell Reading Room feeling more than a little melancholy, my phone pinged, it was an email from the auction house. They must have added my name to their distribution list. I clicked on the phone number and spoke with an employee, who listened to my tale. I asked her what their policy was for situations like this where they had sold an item that was not authentic. The Boss, she said, will call me back next week.
It turned out that the Auction House did not really do any checking of the authenticity of this item as they were selling a comprehensive collection of signed letters and books amassed by Austrian-born Fred Goldschlager, who was a well-known Australian collector of autographs. He died in 2013 and his family were auctioning his estate. I do wonder how he came to possess Gellert’s copy on Nineteen Eighty-Four? I also wonder what other books from Gellert’s library are in the marketplace as “signed, presentation copies”?
Mercifully, it was some time after all this that I realised Gellert had published, “Mankind Is Doomed”, a glowing review of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 23, 1949. It would have certainly convinced me it was a signed copy and made the realisation that Orwell had not inscribed the book even more disappointing. Gellert could not have been more fulsome in his praise of the novel in his review, saying:
“I have just finished reading what must surely be a masterpiece of modern fiction…ring up your bookseller and order a copy.”
I had elatedly bought the book on a Saturday. One week later, I knew it was not signed by Orwell. However, I do feel richer for the experience of learning about Leon Gellert and meeting Gavin Souter. In the back of my mind I wondered if having the story published would increase the price of the book, inscribed by that wit Leon Gellert, especially if I had it printed in his old newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald?
Perhaps, Dear Reader, you would like to pick-up a first edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in fair condition, with a fascinating local association? Although, I am not at all certain I wish to sell.
Abebooks.com (2019) ‘The Most Expensive Signed Books Ever Sold on AbeBooks’. [online] Available at: https://www.abebooks.com/books/rarebooks/10-signed-books.shtml [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
Gellert, Leon (1949) Something Personal: Mankind Is Doomed, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July. Available online at https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18123221, accessed on 1 October 2019
Gellert, Leon (1954) Something Personal: Nationalism according to Orwell, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March. Available online at https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18416882, accessed on 1 October 2019
Gellert, Leon (1960) Lend a book lose a friend, Sun-Herald, 3 April. Available online at http://smharchives.smedia.com.au/Olive/APA/freesearch/get/image.ashx?kind=preview&href=SMH%2F1960%2F04%2F03&page=108&ext=png, accessed on 1 October 2019
Leski Auctions Catalogue (2013) Sporting & Historical Memorabilia, Melbourne – 14th & 15th August 2013, Mossgreen Pty. Ltd.
Orwell, George (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd.
Orwell, George (1998) Two Wasted Years (1943), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 15, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg
Souter, Gavin (1996) A Torrent of Words, Canberra: Brindabella Press
Souter, Gavin (2012) A Torrent of Words, Brio Books: Kindle Edition
Winterson, Jeanette (2013) Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
FEATURED IMAGE: By “May Moore” (Annie May and Mina Moore) – http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an11253492, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16073344
Darcy Moore is currently writing his first book, Orwell in Paris. You can follow him on Twitter @Darcy1968 and check out his Orwell Collection online.