The Book List: The fake titles Charles Dickens used to decorate his library | The independent


Five minutes in China
Forty nods to the pyramids
Abernethy on the Constitution
Bishops carpenter bench
Toot’s Universal Writer
The art of Orson’s label
Downeaster’s Complete Calculator
History of the Middle Ages
Jonah’s tale of the whale
The virtues of Captain Parry’s cold tar
The Ancient Humbugs of Kant
Bowwow. A poem
Criticism of the quarrel
The gunpowder magazine
Steele. By the author of ‘Ion’
The art of cutting your teeth
Songs from Matthew’s Nursery
Paxton Bloomers
On the use of mercury by ancient poets
Drowsy’s Memories of Nothing
Heavyside’s conversations with no one
Common book of the oldest inhabitant
Gruffiology of Growler, with appendix
The Books of Moses and the Sons
Burke (from Edinburgh) on the Sublime and the Beautiful
Teazer comments
Evidence of Christianity from King Henry VIII
Miss Biffin on driving
Progress of Morrison’s pills
Lady Godiva on the Horse
The modern miracles of Munchausen
Richardson’s Dramatic Literature Show
Hansard’s guide to restful sleep (as many volumes as possible)
History of a short chancellery costume
Catalog of statues of the Duke of Wellington

One of the 19th-century fashions among English scholars was to decorate rooms with ornamental books instead of actual bookcases, often using humorous titles.

Thomas Hood has built up a particularly extensive collection optical illusion in Chatsworth in 1831 (later embellished with titles by Patrick Leigh Fermor in the 1960s) and in 1851, as did Charles Dickens when he moved to Tavistock House in London.

Here is his letter to local bookbinder Thomas Robert Eeles, in which he attached the above list of his own in-house titles:

Household Words Office,
Wednesday evening, October 22, 1851
Dear Mr. Eeles,
I am sending you the list I made for the return books. I would like the “History of a Short Chancery Costume” to appear at the bottom of one recess, and the “Catalog of Statues of the Duke of Wellington” at the bottom of the other. If you want more titles, and tell me how many, I will send them to you.

Dickens organized his fake library when he moved into Tavistock House

While many titles are clever puns, others refer to famous Victorians.

Miss Biffin was a Victorian mouth painter with no residual arms or legs, James Morrison sold “cure-all” quack pills, and Captain Parry was an arctic explorer who is also listed in the Chatsworth “library” (Captain Parry, designs for friezes).

Dickens also specified the length of some titles, so Five minutes in China comes in three volumes, just like Drowsy’s Memories of nothing. He seems to have been very pleased with the results, which were posted in his study.

Tavistock House, Tavistock Square, November 17, 1851
Dear Mr. Eeles,
I must thank you for the admirable way you made the bibs in my room. I am personally obliged to you, I assure you, for the interest you have taken in my whim, and for the promptness with which you have fully executed it.

In fact, he was so happy that he repeated the design when he moved to Gad’s Hill in Kent, and even added more titles.

The books here are part of a remarkably well-disguised bookcase rack from his desk. Here is the second list:

Some titles are based on real people, like The Mouth Painter

Life and letters of the learned pig
The pleasures of boredom (A poem)
Was Shakespeare’s father happy?
Was Shakepeare’s Mother’s Day?
General Tom Thumb’s Modern Warfare
Woods and forests. By Peter the wild boy
Tapeworm Treatise by Tim Bobbin
Malthus Nursery Songs
Hudson’s Complete Failure
Adam’s Precedents
Cockatoo on perch
Emigration swallows
Aqueduct (by Father Mathew)
Shelley’s oysters
The Scottish Violin (Burns)
The life of cats
Groundsel (by the author of Chickweed)
Drouett’s agriculture
Mag’s diversions
The cook’s oracle
The Oracle of Delphi
Critical edition of Meller
Hoyle on turnip
Butcher’s Suetonius
Noah’s architecture
The locomotive explained by Colonel Sibthorpe
Acoustics (cod sounds)
Optical (Hooks and Eyes)
Strut’s Walk
Haydn’s comments
Richardson’s Dramatic Literature Show
Socrates on marriage
The virtues of our ancestors
The wisdom of our ancestors
Phrenology (Italian organ)

Again, among the right words – The life of cats comes in nine volumes – are topical references. Colonel Sibthorpe was a member of Parliament known for the range of movements he opposed, from Catholic and Jewish emancipation and the Reform Act of 1832 to the Great Exhibition.

He also believed that train travel would never take off and stage coaches would make a comeback. Mag’s diversions was a first working title for David Copperfield.

Drouett’s agriculture is a reference to the man of the same name who ran a dilapidated boarding school for poor children and about whom Dickens wrote several highly critical articles.

Dickens’ fakes received reincarnation as part of New York Public Library exhibit Charles Dickens: the key to the character.

As part of the 200th anniversary of the writer’s birth, the curators have recreated several titles from the exhibition libraries.

A Book of Book Lists’ by Alex Johnson, £ 7.99, British Library Publishing

Tap to buy


Leave A Reply