Several times a year, Senate House Library provides small displays to support academic conferences. The Library demonstrates thereby that the items in its special collections, far from being museum pieces, are relevant for research. Conference delegates are able tangibly to see some of the items talked about and items of related interest, as well as realising the availability of resources that they can return to consult later on.
100 Dubliners, celebrating the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s first book of fiction, presented a certain challenge on the display front. Displays rely on attractive exhibits, and James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) is not, in its first edition, an attractive book – in fact,
it is a rather drab one. Yet it had to be the centrepiece of any display based on Dubliners, and perhaps the very drabness, from the point of view of the materiality of the book, is useful in demonstrating the modest beginnings of a book which was to become a landmark in the history of literary modernism, of Irish literature, and of the short story form, but which had a long and rocky pre-publication history.
Drabness, indeed, was nothing unusual, as is clear from the display of two roughly contemporaneous books which are better looking only in having their title pages in red and black. George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903) is considered by some to be the progenitor of the Irish short story, and credited as an influence on Dubliners. And W.B. Yeats’s Poems, 1899-1905 (1906) was chosen for display because of Yeats’s friendship with and influence on James Joyce, and for reference within Dubliners to the Celtic Twilight.
The first edition of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) was selected for display on the basis of its oblique reference to the alleged burning of an edition of Dubliners by its Dublin publisher in 1912. The Wake is not much prettier than the earlier volumes, but it does reflect the status of a by now established writer. The copy is one of an edition limited to 425 numbered copies, signed by the author, and the margins are unusually large: 4 cm for the outer margin, and 6 for the bottom margin (5.5 cm below the page number).
Unappreciated in the years leading up to 1914, Dubliners had become well and truly canonised by the time the Dolmen Press brought out its edition in 1986, illustrated by Dublin-born painter Louis le Brocquy. Visually, it would be the drawing point of the display, were it not for Hanna & Neale’s New Large-Scale Plan of Dublin, showing Dublin as it was about one hundred years ago. Joyce, incidentally, frequented their bookshop …