Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Wondering about a ‘lost’ author: The MS. In a Red Box (1903) John Lane, The Bodley Head London & New York.


In 1980 I was holidaying in Brixham, Devon and came across a second impression of this book in a second-hand book shop. It is a historical novel which begins its tale on10 May 1627 and is set in the marshes of Lincolnshire around the ‘Isle of Axholme’. Apart from being a lovely book to both handle and read, I was intrigued by the opening dedication:

This Work Is Dedicated To Its Unknown Author
                      By The Publisher

Extracts from the ‘Publisher’s Note’:

One day in April last a parcel was sent to the Bodley Head. On being opened it was found to contain a MS. in a red box, without an accompanying letter, without title, author’s name, or address.

According to the usual course it was then sent to the publisher’s reader, who reported on it with enthusiasm; meanwhile there had been no inquiry from the author, and the publisher read it for himself, and fully endorsed the opinion of his literary adviser.After some discussion, the following advertisement was inserted in the pages of The Athenœum and The Academy:-

                                   To Authors
              Notice, -               If the Writer of a
                      Historical Novel, without Title,
              Author’s Name, or Address, sent some
              weeks ago to the Bodley Head in a
              Red Box, will communicate with the
              Publisher, he will hear of something to
              his advantage.
                                                 JOHN LANE.
                      Vigo Street, London, W.
  After a month or so, when no one had claimed it as their work, it was decided to go ahead and publish the book under the title ‘The MS. in a Red Box’. It is likely that the publishers did not wait very long before printing the book because they wanted to maximise potential sales following the interest aroused by that publicity.

For the last 30 years I have been under the mistaken belief that the story ended there. This morning, when looking for something to read, I pulled the book down from the top shelf and thought it would be interesting to see what the internet could offer on the subject. I was surprised, and not a little disappointed, to discover that the author was subsequently discovered to be one John Arthur Hamilton. My disappointment was marginally assuaged when I discovered that an identical copy of the book is currently on offer on an internet site for £85. Not a bad potential return on a 20p investment.
What I would like to find out is: how and when John Arthur Hamilton was identified as the author. Any insights would be very welcome.

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