THE NONESUCH PRESS. SHAKESPEARE, William.
Of all my beloved books my best-favoured is perhaps my Nonesuch Shakespeare. My father bought the seven elegant leather-bound volumes in 1940 for one hundred pounds and treasured them all his life.
They graced his book-shelves in London, Paris, Cologne and South Yorkshire. At present they have a home on my shelves here in Portugal. They are still in well-nigh perfect condition.
I recently checked out an identical set for sale on the net and read the following technical description:
Seven octavo volumes (24.3 x 16.5 cm). full limitation of 1,600 sets. Designed by Francis Meynell and printed by Walter Lewis, Printer to the University, at the Cambridge University Press in Monotype Fournier, with new capital letters made for this edition, on Pannekoek mould-made laid paper.
Bound in London by A.W. Bain in publisher’s full gilt tan niger morocco leather, spines in six compartments, top edges colored pale pink and gilt on the rough, other edges uncut.
The text is printed litteratim from the First Folio, except in the case of Pericles and the poems which were not included in the Folio and hence are reprinted from the Quartos…. The Shakespeare represents the chef d’œuvre of the Nonesuch Press and is a model of careful proof reading and imaginative setting. The best of ancient and modern conjectural emendations are unobtrusively set in the margin for the benefit of a glancing eye. This is the finest of all editions of our greatest poet. (Meynell, The Nonesuch Century, p. 69.)
About 40 years ago, on leave from the Algerian desert and with my pockets jingling & jangling with cash, I went to visit my brother in Norwich where he had been roosting for a couple of years after attending the university there (UEA). During my visit I haunted the inevitable second-hands bookshops with which such medieval cathedral-cities so richly abounded and came across the first public edition (1935) of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom produced by Jonathan Cape in tan-coloured buckram; a big, heavy impressive object – I had to have it! I dithered, weighing the pros & cons (as one did) … it did have the Kennington Plates showing all the tribal sheiks … but on the other hand 5 quid bought a lot of pub-time in those days … I prevaricated, stepped out of the shop, stepped back in again; I think I’ll take this one, I remarked casually to the shop owner and carried off my prize. What was the point of that little vignette, I can hear you (who are still reading this) ask?
Simply this, what the opinion of a writer whose life and work I greatly admire (T. E. Lawrence) thought about the Nonesuch Shakespeare brought a warm glow of approbation in my heart. In a letter to David Garnet, Lawrence writes:
We turn over to the Nonesuch Shakespeare. There you have created a most marvellous pleasure…. It satisfies. It is final, like the Kelmscott Chaucer or the Ashendene Virgil. And it is a book which charms one to read slowly, an art which is almost gone from us in these times. Every word which Shakespeare uses stands out glowing. A really great edition.
I think that it is very fitting that the work of the towering genius of English literature … is not clothed in borrowed robes.