Aut Caesar Aut Nihil
London: Longmans, Green, 1883. First Edition. Hardcover. 3 vols. 1st edition (it’s in English no matter the Latin title, that translates as, “Either a Caesar or Nothing”). Fine (impeccable) and rare like this. Only one copy, frail and worn, has sold at auction in the last 50 years, and though 14 sets are listed on OCLC’s library holdings, not all are in cloth, and few (if any) are in condition close to ours. FINE. Item #771
Bothmer was born in London, married into diplomatic nobility (she was a countess), and then travelled the more politically active areas of France, Germany, and Russia. Aut Caesar Aut Nihil is her 4th, last, and best novel, a romantic thriller tapping the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, and it is a pretty good read, and because she knew the turf, it is true to the period’s details, dealing, as it does, with revolution, plots to murder the Imperial family, exploding bombs, and Russian nihilists running amok.
“Her girl could not have a better watch–dog than the honest, blunt young Eng– lishman to whom, she instinctively felt, every girl was as yet as sacred as his own sisters. As a matter of fact, Hudson had no sisters, being that risky product; an only child.” –Bothmer, Aut Caesar Aut Nihil
In the mid 20th century Bothmer’s 1st editions were vigorously chased by astute collectors, charmed by the good looks of any 3 volume Victorian novel in original cloth, and even outside of the 25 or so recognized landmarks, they did so with the boldness of an inner city racoon, and an undisciplined zeal for pretty shelves over literary essence. This is traceable to early 20th century education that taught a generation how to read but was less successful in teaching them what to read. Or why. The triple decker fetish got stale in the late 1970s when a new generation of collectors entered the market and decided that rarity, quality, and beauty, while meaningful, were subordinate to significance, and then broke up with the Victorians except for the commonly identified utmost of them, because like all passions for the superficial, eventually the substance gets some attention, and with books that means the inner content. We all know that booksellers can avoid mentioning faults by using the all–encompassing “very good,” but a lack of significance is more difficult to dance around, because the hardest thing to hide is something that isn’t there. So, though Aut Caesar Aut Nihil is still an agreeable read, and still in print, it isn’t Jane Eyre, and any tangible ardor for it will only reemerge in some antiquarian renaissance, a theoretically plausible cycle of revival that has little historical precedence. These days, all 4 of Bothmer’s novels reside on a long list of rare 19th century 1st editions that were never highly regarded for their narratives, and were ultimately trampled in the collector stampede for 20th century authors, their novels, and their dustjackets, especially those books that some collectors and librarians thought might, on a moving frontier, hypothetically become modern classics, and the identification of a 1st edition novel worth treasuring, and pursued with ready cash, was taken out of the hands of the academics, the critics, and the aesthetics, and redefined by the connoisseurs with a single, guileless, 7–word question; Do people still read it for entertainment? (Book Code).
That last paragraph expounds on shifting tastes and gives an example. It warns against ignoring the vogue when it is market driven, because if you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less. But it is not difficult to tell the difference between a bookseller with a grievance and a summer breeze, so even a gentle bump like that one stirs opposition from sellers promoting what once was, as still is, even when it isn’t.
Now, who wants to be a bookseller? Well, people like me who are too comfortably settled in the business to start collecting, too lazy to be a book scout, too inept at babysitting to be a literary agent, too independent to team as a librarian, too sympathetic to try being a critic, too smitten by some of life’s luxuries to be an underpaid editor, too self–respecting to absorb the rejections of an aspiring author, and too much in love with books to become a publisher. And since I am addressing bookselling, Mattel Toys has just announced that next summer they will release Bookseller Barbie. She’s just like Malibu Barbie except she can’t afford to live in Malibu.