It’s always a thrill to make an unexpected literary discovery. I experienced such a thrill last week on a visit to The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
Whatever your views are on bankers and their (im)moral qualities, there is no doubt that Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) used some of his wealth to create an impressive legacy in his private library, built to house an astonishing collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts. The building itself is beautiful, and the library within a bibliophile’s dream.
Shelf upon shelf of beautifully bound books and manuscripts line the walls of the main library, the upper tiers reached by means of two concealed spiral staircases. My first job as a teenager was as a ‘Saturday Book-Shelver’ at my local library; I envy the lucky soul who held this position at Mr Pierpont’s Manhattan library.
Nowadays, the books are kept safe behind locked gates; only the bound spines are visible to suggest what joys lie tantalizingly out of reach. There are at least five meters of bibles and prayer books, a large section of children’s literature, including an intriguing collection of miniature books, and a whole section devoted to Goethe. There are musical scores, medieval Books of Hours, and Trollopes galore.
The Morgan allows the visitor a peek at the treasures by displaying a small selection on a rotating basis. Several books lie open, Snow White-like, within glass cases, offering a glimpse of literary history to those of us who have only Billy bookcases lined with modern paperbacks at home.
One book in particular caught my attention and fired my imagination. Les Fleurs animées is a wonderful creation by J J Grandville. He was a nineteenth century caricaturist, made famous by Les Métamorphoses du jour,which comprised a series of scenes in which individuals with human bodies and animal faces were made to play human comedy. Grandville worked for various periodicals, whilst continuing to produce collections of lithographs, among which was Les Fleurs animées.
Les Fleurs is a compendium of poems, stories and vignettes about flowers, accompanied by beautiful, well-observed lithographs of ‘flowers’ – anthropomorphised depictions of each subject. The Morgan’s copy was open at the page occupied by La fleur de Thé and La fleur de Café.
In this charming tale, Le Café pays a visit to Le Thé in her native China. But all is not as it seems, because there is some disagreement (in fact, a millennial-long feud) as to which flower is the most important. Unfortunately, the display case was made of anti-theft glass and I was unable to turn the page to find out how the argument ended. However, it did inspire me to do some research once back home and with what results!
It turns out that the edition on display at the Morgan was a copy of the second volume of Les Fleurs; the first contains tales and poems about flowers as varied as the rose, the violet and the chèvrefeuille (honeysuckle). L’immortelle (everlasting flower) and lavender each bemoan their lot in life: lavender laments that she is condemned to die a dry, parched death, whilst the everlasting flower wishes she could experience the first flush of a springtime youth again; never again will she be visited by a bee, or feel the brush of a butterfly’s wing.
Then there is Margueritte, the humble daisy.
To illustrate this flower, Taxile Delord, the author of the texts for both books, writes about a young girl called Anna. She, naturally enough, plucks the petals from a margueritte to discover whether ‘he loves me; he loves me not’. Anna is told a secret: namely that men play a similar game to find out whether they, in turn, are loved. ‘Young lady,’ Anna is told, ‘never answer. Men will reject you having deflowered you.’
There are also wonderful lithographs of the poppy spreading her hallucinogenic seeds,
and of Le perce-neige (snowdrop).
She laments that whilst it is she who calls on Spring to awaken, she is condemned never to feel the warm heat of the sun, to hear the sweet birdsong or to experience the joy of love, (unlike her lucky friend the primrose).
Volume two, of which tea and coffee are part, also depicts the Hawthorn (l’aubépine) and le Sécateur.
This story is more a warning from a mother hawthorn to her young; it tells of the terrors to be found on the edge of the woods; the cold bite of the sharp blade.
I could go on, but there are hundreds of pages of wonderful pictures and charming stories; too many by far for this blog post. I encourage you to seek out a copy of this delightful find (paperbacks are available, I believe). I am now hankering after an original copy, like the one I saw in the Morgan. Sadly, I think the only way I’ll get my hands on a first edition is by smashing that display case. Which is, of course, highly disrespectful; not to mention illegal. But it would grace my Billy so well…..
Incidentally, le thé and le café never do agree. They have what can only be described as a heated debate: “I reign in England'” says tea; “I in France,” replies coffee. “I inspired Walter Scott and Byron,” boasts tea; “and I Molière and Voltaire,” replies coffee. In the end, they take their dispute to a tribunal; the jury, goes the story, is still out.
(You can read – in french – the text of tea and coffee by clicking here.)