As a lowly editorial assistant for an academic publisher in London, I would often look out through iron railings and coral geraniums onto Bedford Square and feel I was living a novel. My duties were far from dramatic: in book publishing you pay your dues early. I typed letters, took orders over the phone, opened the mail, and occasionally attended a conference with catalogues in tow. It was the setting that was remarkable; definitely the stuff of novels. Even the interior of our building was extraordinary: the chandelier of the aristocratic family who had once lived in the elegant Georgian building still hung in the reception hall, and our assistant editors did their editing and proofreading in an opulent ballroom, their two small desks awash in a sea of peach-colored carpeting.
Stepping outside to fetch sarnies (sandwiches – cheese and pickle, anyone?) for my betters was even better. There was no escaping the intellectual energy packed into the area: dozens of competing publishers occupied relatively small Bedford Square, and Bloomsbury’s atmosphere was heavy with literary history. The British Museum (then also the British Library) waited just around the corner, and a neighborhood full of antiquarian book dealers was mere steps away. All of these qualities made Bloomsbury a breeding ground for stories of intrigue.
Long before I summoned the courage to try fiction ten years later, this highly-charged little neighborhood and its world of books had begun to assert itself during occasional sleepless nights. Intermittent insomnia became a gift as biblioadventures unfolded on the blank screen of a relaxed mind. A character eventually emerged with the name of Alex Plumtree. I now recognize Alex as a blend of my husband’s nobility, idealism and good looks, and the traits of a much-respected publisher for whom I enjoyed working in my very first job out of college. This publisher happened to own his own publishing company, a working letter press in the barn, and a remarkable collection of antiquarian books.
Alex is frequently swept into perilous international intrigue by circumstances arising from the volumes he publishes and collects. Over time he comes to notice that his adventures often follow the action of classic works of literature. Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Samuel Pepys’s London diaries, and Beowulf have all played their parts in Alex’s ordeals. History has also become a theme as the series has evolved. Plots become more compelling when a long-disputed or little-known truth from real life is briefly thrust into the light of Alex’s world – usually because of a book – to be reconsidered after centuries or even millennia.
After ten years of writing the series, which now stands at six books, I can see that each of the books is a guide to some aspect of publishing and collecting books – whatever I myself was most fascinated with at the time. Unsolicited details the workings of a small academic press forced to cope with the works of an anonymous author – not to mention the occupational hazards of publishers and book critics alike. Unbound provides a short course in the basics of rare book collecting, features an antiquarian book fair at Bloomsbury’s Hotel Russell and incorporates Bloomsbury’s literary history.
Unprintable is one of my favorites for its printing lore. Set in Clerkenwell, once the haunt of political presses, horse-drawn book carts, and Oliver Twist, this book features a one-woman fine-art press. The book is packed with information about fonts, hot metal type, presses and the information that can travel via them, and also tells a bit about this fascinating area that used to house religious orders before the dissolution. (If you’re an Anglophile or a historian and you visit London, a walk through little-known Clerkenwell could be a highlight of your visit.)
Untitled finds Alex inducted into the Roxburghe Club, an elite group of book collectors that I renamed the Dibdin Club to escape litigation (after Thomas Frognall Dibdin, a founding member and Earl Spencer’s bibliographer). The queen herself is not sufficiently British or possessed of enough fine volumes to gain entry to this forty-four member club. It was surprisingly difficult to find information on this extremely private group, but months of interlibrary loan and microfilm perusal proved rewarding in the end. Alex’s adventures in this volume tell the truth about how this aristocratic group first gathered – to celebrate the purchase of a prized edition of Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone at an estate sale – and the group’s habits when they meet. This being fiction, I have embroidered on the traditions of the real group, but bibliophiles will be gratified to know that the Roxburghe Club really does produce a fine edition of some rare work from a member’s library each year. Only enough books are printed for each member to have several copies, and the president’s name really is printed in red in the member’s list at the front of each Club edition. Some of these editions circulate through the better antiquarian book dealers in London, at surprisingly affordable prices (considering what they are!).
Unsigned offers a glimpse into the British Library and its origins, as well as some of the ancient codices housed there. The plot gives insight into the history of publishing and selling books in London through the ages, and is set (with allowances for embroidery, of course) partly in a bookshop called Heywood-Hill in Curzon Street in Mayfair. Incidentally, Heywood-Hill is owned in part by several long-time members of the Roxburghe Club. The burnt-edged copy of Beowulf on display in the British Library gave rise to another plot thrust, conceived when I caught a glimpse of an academic text on the Beowulf manuscript in the British Library’s gift shop (and proceeded to live and breathe it for the next six months).
Most recently, Uncatalogued unveils secrets long hidden within the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge University. Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps) wrote nine years’ worth of diaries famous for their meticulous detail about life in Restoration London. Included are such delights as an offhand comment about the premiere of a play the diarist had seen one night by someone named William Shakspear, which he’d found mildly entertaining. (The Pepys Library is another excellent spot for Anglophiles to visit, by the way…but before you cross the pond, check the library’s rather erratic opening schedule. Also, in a quirk of fate almost too good to be true, there is an excellent, atmospheric but unpretentious antiquarian bookshop just outside the gate of Magdalene College.) Although Alex Plumtree is quintessentially English (his graduate work at Magdalene focused on Pepys’s diaries), his American mother insisted he follow her family tradition and attend Dartmouth College in the wilds of New Hampshire. This book finds Alex attending his fifteenth college reunion at Dartmouth. But the contents of the College’s rare books library figure rather more prominently in the holiday than he would like – and have a connection with Pepys’s own writings that someone is trying desperately to hide.
The last ten years of adventure with Alex have been full of joyful serendipity, and sometimes even a little spooky. The more I research, the more I find links between English history, literature and culture that seem to have been created for the ideas Alex is whispering in my ear. It’s a magical sort of arrangement that I don’t want to question too much – but only enjoy.