I'm currently reading Rhododendron Pie, the first novel by British novelist Margery Sharp (1905-1991). Sharp is best known in the United States for her series of children's books about The Rescuers, which were the basis for a pair of Disney animated films. In all, she wrote twenty-seven novels between 1930 and 1977, and fourteen books for children—most of them featuring the heroic mice Bernard and Miss Bianca. Rhododendron Pie is a charming and beautifully-written first novel, featuring a very sympathetic heroine, Ann Laventie, who is both proud of and slightly out of place in her eccentric family. She feels slightly ashamed of her ordinary concerns, like whether she's putting on weight, and disguises her weight loss book in the dust jacket of a Librairie Hachette edition. She reads only two languages to her father's five. She is quiet and polite in company, not all urbanity and sarcastic wit like the rest of her family, and is the only one of the family who truly makes friends with her neighbors. It's impossible not to love her, but for some reason the British publishers of Rhododendron Pie, Chatto and Windus, printed only about 1,500 copies. Margery Sharp went on to become a bestselling author (The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown are perhaps her best-known adult novels), but her first novel was never reprinted. There is now only one copy available on Amazon.com, priced at $1,800!
Another rare book (though rather less rare) that I actually own is the Virago Modern Classics paperback edition of Rachel Ferguson's The Brontës Went to Woolworths. I bought my copy from Amazon.co.uk last year for £7. Currently on Amazon.com, there are eight copies available, ranging in price from $57 to $167 dollars. On Amazon.co.uk, there are five copies starting at £165.
Until recently, it was also difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a copy of Winifred Holtby's novel The Crowded Street (1924). But earlier this year it was reissued by London's Persephone Books, which rediscovers and reprints forgotten books by twentieth-century women authors. Persephone Books has also reprinted Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady, but hasn't rescued the Brontës from their high-priced oblivion. Part of the reason may have to do with the personal tastes of Persephone's founder, Nicola Beauman. Several years ago (2005) I asked her if she would consider reprinting Rhododendron Pie, but she confessed to me that she isn't "a complete fan of Margery Sharp."
Persephone Books is not the only British publisher reissuing rare and out-of-print books. Virago recently acquired the rights to reprint, as Virago Modern Classics, a pair of novels by Stella Gibbons, whose most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm, has remained in print since 1932. But other of her books remain rare and expensive; for example, The Matchmaker (1949), of which four copies are available on Amazon, starting at $80.
Another British publisher, Faber and Faber, has started a new imprint, Faber Finds, which "aims to restore to print a wealth of lost classics." Faber Finds is also soliciting suggestions for titles to add to their list. And here in the United States, New York Review Books is reissuing its own series of lost classics, and is also soliciting recommendations from readers. Perhaps there is still hope for Rhododendron Pie, but I'm not holding my breath. For now, I'll savor my temporary possession of the slightly brittle copy from the Lawson-McGhee Library in Knoxville, Tennessee, which I obtained through Interlibrary Loan.
What rare, out-of-print books would you like to see in print again? Let me know in the comments.
From the comments:
Jim H. suggests Richard Brautigan's Please Plant This Book (one copy on Amazon for $1,250) and The Galilee Hitchhiker (one copy on Amazon for $1,500).