The appetite for whimsy is mercifully much reduced now, but at the end of the nineteenth century it was vigorously wagging its bushy tail. The Sette of Odd Volumes, a bibliophilic society described in Ellen Crowell’s lengthy piece in The Times Literary Supplement of 18-25 December 2015 went in for it in a big way. The quaint antiquarian tone favored by the members may be indicated by this colophon from one of their 1883 books “Imprynted by Bror C. W. H. Wyman, Typographer of ye Sette, at his Printing-hovse in Great Qveen Street, over against Lincoln’s Inne Fields, within ye Parish of Saynt Giles in ye Fields, London, m.d.ccc.lxxxiij”. Their names for one another are heavily hilarious: “His Oddship”, “Scribbler of ye Sette”, “The Seer”, “The Magnetizer”,”Idler”. Indeed Sette Rule no. 19 specified that “No Odd Volume shall under any circumstances refer to any other O.V. save by his title and denomination in the Sette”. Rule 18 states “No Odd Volume shall talk unasked on any subject he understands”. “Volumes were elected on the basis of polymathic expertise rather than profession, political affiliation or social status. As the first published Year-Boke of the Sette (1883) proclaims, ‘Each of our members will feel that he forms part of an Intellectual Aristocracy’.”

The names of members of the Sette are not those on the tips of tongues unsensitized to late-nineteenth-century esoterica, but they did attract a number of well known guests to their dinners, including Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnston, Arthur Symons, Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Clemens, Bram Stoker, Edmund Gosse, George Meredith, George Sala, Sir Richard Burton, William Archer, Sir Sidney Lee, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Aubrey Beardsley whose program design for the occasion is shown here.Unknown

If this sort of thing appeals to you, The Oxford Companion to the Book informs us that the society still survives, though the TLS notes that its continuous operation lasted only till World War II. The Companion also tells us that though meetings are itinerant, “a handsome chair bearing the names of past presidents is currently housed in the Savile Club of London”. Envious Americans will be relieved to know that The Club of Odd Volumes, established in 1887 in imitation, is still meeting at its clubhouse at 77 Mt. Vernon Street in Boston.

Little books were frequently printed for private circulation to the Volumes (members): for example Coloured Books for Children (1887), New Year’s Day in Japan (1889), Old Blue and White Nankin China (1891), Repeats and Plagiarisms in Art (1889), Scottish Witchcraft Trials (1891) A Dissertation on Odd Numbers (1909), Cocaine (1924), and Corvo (1926) which A. J. A. Symons developed subsequently into The Quest for Corvo (1932).

The Society was founded in 1878 by Bernard Quaritch “so prominent an antiquarian book dealer that on his death in 1899 The Times called him the greatest bookseller who ever lived. ‘His ideals were so high, his eye so keen, his transactions were so colossal, his courage so dauntless, that he stands out among men who have dealt in old literature as a Napoleon or a Wellington stands out among generals’.” Clearly the Sette’s grandiloquence was catching.

Advertisements