Exploring the book collection

Our library recording project - in partnership with with The Arts Society East Surrey, and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund - is to record, clean and begin to repair our huge book collection.

The first find

Hilary Ely, lead volunteer, updates us on an early discovery.

When the project started at the end of June 2021 it was during the Opera season, so the Library was set aside for dining.  We started work in the Mulberry Bedroom expecting to move into the Library after a couple of weeks. There is one bookcase in the room, filled with the sort of books you might expect to find when out of the public eye – bedtime reading and private pleasures.  We thought we could spend a couple of weeks on these books practising the skills from our training, before moving on to the real work.  We soon found that these books too are special and tell stories about their owners.  Before we had spent an hour in there made our first find – I will come back to this. And we began to get a sense of the sort of books the family enjoyed when they were being themselves, that friends and family gave each other.  We were enjoying ourselves so much that we stayed to finish the room. 

Five masked women at a table: one displaying a book

We find Lord Crewe’s bookplate in many of the books, noting the upgrade in the heraldry from Earl of Crewe to Marquess, gaining an Order of the Garter on the way.  We discovered an unexpected taste for popular fiction and his active encouragement of its authors, particularly a generation of women writers before the First World War mostly forgotten now – ladies who wrote from behind the protection of their married name, or a male pen-name, or a set of initials. This is a tale for the future from the library, and our records will help it to be told.


Tales from the library: Lord Crewe 

letter in book

I mentioned that before we took our first ever coffee break we had made our first find.  It was in a novel written by Mrs W. K. Clifford, A Wild Proxy (1893), a letter from the author, Lucy Clifford, to Lord Crewe.  They had recently met and must have had a conversation about her work that led to a promise by her to send him one of her novels, Mrs Keith’s Crime. We later discovered this novel in the Mulberry Room too. With this letter she sent him the second novel which is a lot more fun, with a plot involving a wicked Best Man stealing his friend’s bride from the church door and leading a merry dance across Europe. For the 1890s it is a very modern novel, with the plot turning on telegrams and train timetables. The first thing to say about the letter is how terrible the handwriting is – we spend quite a lot of time staring at spidery handwriting, hoping for words to emerge from the chaos.  This letter is full of self-deprecation, denying any merit in the two novels, and a certain amount of genteel fan-girling that such a distinguished man of letters is interested in her writing.  But he certainly was. 


Lucy Clifford is almost completely unread now, although one of her supernatural stories inspired Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel Coraline.  She married William Kingdon Clifford, a brilliant young mathematician and philosopher, inventor of Clifford Algebra, a mathematical method still studied today, and a Professor at University College London before he was 30. He died at 33 years old of TB in 1879, leaving Lucy a widow with two very young daughters and only a tiny pension from The Royal Society.  As well as promoting her late husband’s published work, she wrote her way out of penury through fiction and journalism (all very ‘Buns for Tea’, if you know your Railway Children).  She thrived as author of sensational novels (Mrs Keith’s Crime, the novel she told Lord Crewe was so deplorable, was on the topic of Euthanasia).  She published all her work as Mrs W K Clifford, never remarried, died in 1929 and was buried with her husband in Highgate Cemetery, not far from Karl Marx’s grave. During her lifetime she had warm friendships with literary figures, including a prolific correspondence with Henry James.  She embraced the age of cinema, writing cinematic treatments of some of her works, two of which were made into silent movies. 

Hilary Ely

Made possible with National Lottery Heritage Fund logo

Image credit: Claire Saul