The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios

February 16, 2012

In Susan Hill's superlative ghost story The Small Hand, a London book dealer named Adam travels on behalf of a wealthy client to a remote French monastery in search of Shakespeare's First Folio. Hill conjures up the eeriest of atmospheres as Adam's past catches up with him, and the Folio, while offering a pretext for the journey, seems to disappear from the narrative. Having read The Shakespeare Thefts, I see why Hill chose the Folio as the object of Adam's bibliomaniacal quest.

Eric Rasmussen's worldwide pursuit of extant Folios (he finds 232) brings him into contact with the misfortunes of those whose desire to possess a copy "continues to be something of a fetish". Among those who have succumbed to its pharaonic curse are Sir Paul Getty, who died within six weeks of his acquisition, and the unfortunate Sir Frederick Francis Baker, who, having completed his purchase in 1829, was fatally struck by the blade of a windmill the following year. Dean Sage, a friend of Mark Twain, Rasmussen recounts, purchased a First Folio on 9 April 1902. Two months later he was dead. Then there was Sir Thomas Phillipps, who stored his enormous book collection in coffins and scattered firewood throughout his house to provide a meal for the beetles he feared might otherwise consume his library. Phillipps was legally required to bequeath his estate to his daughter, Henrietta, who had eloped with the profligate James Orchard Halliwell. To prevent his son-in-law getting his hands on his library (from which Halliwell had already stolen a priceless copy of the first quarto of Hamlet), he had the entire book stock relocated and spitefully opened the manor house up "to the elements and to roaming cattle".

Rasmussen's compelling account goes on to demonstrate that such misfit collectors are still around today. Raymond Rickett Scott's attempt to pass off a First Folio stolen from Durham University as the property of Fidel Castro's bodyguard saw him arrested in July 2008. Scott had his 15 minutes of fame when, Rasmussen recounts, "he arrived at North Durham Magistrates Court in a silver stretch limo, dressed all in white, holding a cigar and a cup of instant noodles". He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

As these fascinating stories suggest, a book that currently sells for almost £4 million attracts a certain kind of notoriety. After 15 years of assiduous searching, Rasmussen confesses to being obsessed. "If it is there," he writes of one of the missing Folios, "one day my team and I will find it." While that level of persistence is to be admired, less agreeable is Rasmussen's insistence on his own wealth. "These are the people who, when you dine at their home, will casually say, 'I just happened on the only extant pre-1700 manuscript of Sir Thomas More's Richard III.' And I'll reply, 'That's impossible, you don't just happen upon such things!' (And then, in an impulse, I will buy it.)" Later, Rasmussen tells us: "I have a good library including a Shakespeare Second Folio in the original calfskin binding" and "I own a Ben Jonson Folio from 1692 that once may have been owned by Charles Dickens". Little wonder, then, that my US peers in the academy rarely fancy a job swap on UK wages.

Perhaps most tantalising of all the missing Folios is that owned by Christopher Beeston, apprentice to a leading actor in Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Might its marginalia offer clues as to the original staging practices or recollections of early performance decisions? Bequeathed to his son William, the Folio is described in 1682 as having been "purloined & embezzled". I wonder if that is the copy that ended up in Hill's fictional monastery.

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios

By Eric Rasmussen. Palgrave Macmillan, 240pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780230109414. Published 10 November 2011

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