In Tolkien’s Gown, Rick Gekoski provides exciting peeks into his extensive career as a rare book collector and dealer. Tolkien’s Gown is divided into twenty sections, each of which describes Gekoski’s dealings with a particular work of literature. We have, as the title indicates, a description of Gekoski’s experience discovering and selling J. R. R. Tolkien’s school gown, as well as the novelist (and recent Booker Prize winner) Julian Barnes’ disgusted response to the practice of dealing writers’ garments. Gekoski also details his experience in selling wonderful association copies of books including Lolita, The Colossus, and Brideshead Revisited.
In addition to these forays into the world of rare books, Gekoski provides glimpses of his experiences with literary manuscripts. In particular, Gekoski discusses the development and eventual sale of the On the Road scroll manuscript, D. H. Lawrence’s decision to trade the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in 1924 for a farm in New Mexico, and Gekoski’s purchase of Ian Hamilton’s paper exchanges with Salinger—including a legal deposition detailing Salinger’s writing process.
The Lord of the Flies section is particularly compelling, as Gekoski discusses his relationship with William Golding and the Lord of the Flies manuscript. Gekoski made Golding’s acquaintance by working on a bibliography of the author’s work; Golding, however, resented the intrusion and retaliated by parodying Gekoski in The Paper Men (1984).
Despite this affront, Gekoski and Golding developed a fairly close relationship while Gekoski was writing the bibliography. Golding was anxious to secure his financial security, and he viewed his manuscripts (particularly Lord of the Flies) as a nest egg. Thus, Golding invited Gekoski to view the manuscript. Gekoski writes:
I was invited to accompany him down to his bank branch in Truro, to inspect—with an eye to valuation—the holograph manuscript of Lord of the Flies. As we entered the bank, a slight hush enveloped the tellers, as Golding was clearly their greatest local celebrity. In fact, on his first visit to the bank after being awarded his knighthood in 1988, a tongue-tied young woman teller had blushed bright red, and stuttered, ‘Good morning, Sir Golding,’ which made him feel, he confessed, like a character out of Mallory.
The manuscript, which was kept in a safe deposit box, was a remarkably homely object. He had used school exercise books to write in, often huddled over coffee in a corner of the staff room during breaks. What was most striking was the fluency of the writing—there were very few amendments or corrections, and he was later to recall that he had the story so clear in his mind that he felt he was copying, rather than composing it.
In this passage, Gekoski captures the excitement and revelations provided by beholding a great literary work in manuscript. Although Golding never did sell the manuscript to Gekoski (whose valuations he found far too low for the item) the Bodleian is currently preparing to put it, along with other Golding manuscripts, on display for a celebration of the author’s centennial. This exhibition will be curated by Golding’s daughter, Judy Carver, and will be on view from November 5th until December 23rd. More information is available on the Bodleian’s website.
Gekoski’s story of his experience with the Lord of the Flies manuscript is only one of many captivating episodes in Tolkien’s Gown, published by Constable in London in 2004. Any biblio- or codicophile will find the book an enticing read.
University of Texas at Austin