The Green Fairy Book: Large Paper Edition

The Green Fairy Book Large Paper Edition (1892).

Not very green, is it? Perhaps a ‘subdued verdigris’ if you felt like being pretentious. Or a ‘pale jade’, which would still be optimistic if not false. No, I think ‘glaucous’ would be the most accurate word to describe the colour of the boards–the spine is irrefutably squalid white. Behold the so-called Large Paper Edition of the Green Fairy Book, published in the same year as the first edition. A large paper edition, as you might guess, is “One of a (usually small) number of copies printed on a larger size of paper than the main bulk of the edition; either for presentation, or for subscribers, or to be sold at a higher price” [1].

In my readings for my previous Fairy Book posts, I’d been alerted to the existence of these special, limited editions of the first few Fairy Books–the first four, to be exact. I was lucky enough to find this one at the Osborne. These editions are “expensive limited editions with larger format” and have “longer introductions by Lang” [2]. The latter feature was one of the reasons why I searched the Osborne catalogue for these editions, but the introduction of large paper Green Fairy Book is unfortunately identical to that of the standard edition.

According to The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, these editions were published with the idea that book collectors (of questionable taste) “would help defray the cost of the general edition. This device was never again thought necessary” [3]. Surely this implies, if it does not bear out, that the standard edition cost more to prepare than the special edition? It all seems very topsy-turvy to me. There seems to be little to justify the price, obviously higher than that of the standard edition, and even less to recommend it to the rational book collector (bibliomaniacs are another case). The edition in itself is disappointing in too many respects.

The Green Fairy Book, first edition (1892).

First there are the boards, which I have already briefly commented on with regard to colour. They are aesthetically humble if not homely. But if they are not handsome, they ought at least to be harmonious with respect to their title and/or contents. It is called the Green Fairy Book, for no obvious reason except that each Fairy Book is designated by the colour of its covers. How funny it is to have a Green Fairy Book that isn’t even green! Indeed, a quick search on AbeBooks reveals that the large paper editions of the Red, Blue, and Yellow Fairy Books were issued in the same uninspiring grey and white paste boards.

Paste boards and untrimmed edges.

Paste boards! That is, paper boards made from layers of paper and wrapped in paper, whereas the standard editions are clothbound, to say nothing of the pretty gilt pictorials (handsome and harmonious). Did the Editor or publisher perhaps think the limited edition unworthy of the dignity of cloth?

Frontispiece and title page in the large paper edition.

I had always considered special or limited editions of books to be unmistakably superior to their standard editions, but this copy seems to be superior only in size and thickness of paper. In ABC for Book Collectors, John Carter says of the large paper copy, “The paper will often be of superior quality; and, in the 18th century particularly, these were generally called fine or royal or imperial paper copies” [4]. Presumably, a large book is better than a small book because there is simply more book, more material. Indeed, for the ancient Egyptians, size mattered, since they weren’t as wasteful as we are. It was ‘the bigger, the better’ when it came to their papyrus, and the largest size was ‘Imperial,’ whereafter ‘Royal’ followed, and so forth. These names are retained in the traditional British inch-based paper size system according to which this large paper copy would be closest to a ‘royal octavo,’ royal denoting the full sheet size (20″x25″), and octavo the folding format (i.e. the full sheet was folded thrice to create 8 leaves, or 16 pages). A royal octavo is 6.25″x10″ or thereabouts.

Frontispiece and title page of the standard edition, with intervening China paper.

Besides that, there isn’t anything royal about the edition. In fact the size is rendered ridiculous because the page size is far too superior to the size of the text. Enlarged page size seems aimless and unjustified if unaccompanied by enlargement of page content, but this lack thereof is sadly characteristic of large paper copies. As Carter eloquently put it, “Extravagantly large paper makes an unsightly book, unless the type is reset to accord with the increased page-size; for the result is all too often a blob of type in an expanse of margin” [5].

Blobs of text in an expanse of margin.

Interestingly, “in the 18th century the classics were often issued in this form” [6]. But as to the origin of this custom, now happily discarded, I’m actually not sure. English printer and engraver Sir Emery Walker conjectured “that the custom ‘may have originated in consequence of a former habit of binders to cut the margins off when rebinding a book'” [7].

Apart from an early claim to rarity, and better paper (though the paper in the normal edition is not absolutely inferior; I found it surprisingly stout), the only other possible virtue of the large paper edition itself is its unopened edges. According to Carter, “This means that the leaves of a book issued entirely untrimmed (and therefore having the folding of its component sections still intact at the top and fore-edges) have not been severed from their neighbours with the paper-knife” [8]. The result is that many edges are actually folds, without cutting which the book cannot be read in its entirety.

Table of contents. I’d have to crawl in there to read it!

I think it would be fun to open unopened pages–I’m told a playing card works best–for the sheer novelty of it, though it would probably get tedious after the first few fairy tales. But evidently the previous owner was not of the spirit to indulge in this activity, because the book is wholly unopened–not a single fold has been sliced. I must admit that having a book so close to its original condition of issue is desirable, but keeping it that way–how unloved and unenjoyed a book! Which just shows that there are some eccentric collectors who “prefer their books not only unread but unreadable” [9]. What, then, is a book for? Thankfully “the majority of book collectors adopt the sensible attitude that a book, even a collector’s item, is designed to be read” [10].

Unopened top edges.

To mitigate my condemnation of this large paper edition, I’ll add that it is not improbable that its dreary covers were only provisional and meant to be bound “to the purchaser’s taste, at his order and expense” [11]. Before the days when publishers, as opposed to buyers and retail booksellers, provided binding for books, that is, between 1450 and 1823 (as far as English books are concerned), books were sold either 1) “at a higher price in some usually simple binding put on by or for the bookseller” or 2) unbound, or, as later, with temporary covers, to be bound elsewhere at an additional cost to the purchaser [12]. Perhaps the vast margins are an indicator of this custom. Personally I find the idea of customized binding quite attractive. But whether or not this was the intention, it seems many owners agreed that the large paper copies in their original boards did not deserve shelf space, and engaged the services of a bindery. A quick search in Abebooks will yield a large paper a Blue Fairy Book halfbound in navy leather and marbled paper; a Green Fairy Book halfbound in green leather, with green decorative endpapers; and a set of all four large paper Fairy Books bound in full morocco leather in their respective colours, with gold gilt, and marbled endpapers.

Leatherbound large paper copies. The first two are the Blue and Red Fairy Books, the 4th and 5th the Green and Yellow.

To pay more money only to pay more money still–clearly only a road taken by the wealthy book collector, or the credulous.

Photo of leatherbound large paper copies courtesy of Peter Harrington.

All other photos courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. p.130: Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. London: Granada, 1980.
2. p.176: Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1984.
3. p. 176, Ibid.
4. p.130, Carter.
5. p.130, Ibid.
6. p.274: Glaister, Geoffrey A. Encyclopedia of the Book. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.
7. p.274, Ibid.
8. p.210, Carter.
9. p.208, s.v. uncut, Carter.
10. Chapter 9: Wilson, Robert A. Modern Book Collecting. New York: Knopf, 1980.
11. p.203, Carter.
12. p.202-203, Ibid.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Green Fairy Book: Large Paper Edition

  1. M.C.

    The large-paper editions were intended for customizing by wealthy customers. If you were, say, William Morris (whose Kelmscott Press revived much of the interest in printing traditions, especially those Holland-board bindings), and your library used a custom leather binding and size (which it certainly would), you would buy the books, have the local bindery remove those flimsy paper covers, trim the pages and bind them to suit your shelves, and then settle in with an ivory paper-knife to enjoy your volume!

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