The Trouble With Bookends

There was no word in the English language for “bookend(s)” until 1908. That’s right, the word bookend is a year younger than my house. And therein lies the trouble with bookends. For the record, the term “book prop” did not appear until 1862, and “book support” arrived on the scene in 1874. The French had appui-livres, support books, but it never gained traction in English usage. After all, who in England ever listened to the French? When one is striving, as one of course does, for Regency vocabulary and usage accuracy, learning such a common and one assumes age old concept is shockingly modern causes the brain to explode, or at least gives the sensation it will.

This matters because in my forthcoming novel My Mr. Darcy and Your Mr. Bingley, a particularly contentious conversation among ladies taking tea causes Jane and Elizabeth Bennet to take up poses of dismay at either end of a settee, with a confused Georgiana Darcy sitting between them. Mr. Darcy enters the drawing room and finds all of the ladies present agitated, but the vignette made by Jane, Elizabeth, and his sister reminds him of bookends with his sister as the book. And why the hell not??? You or I would think exactly the same.

And so the scene was written, posted for all members to read at A Happy Assembly, and submitted in manuscript form to Meryton Press. It never occurred to anyone to question anything so simple as bookends. Indeed, I don’t know how my estimable and damnably curious editor, Gail Warner, got the wind up about this, but I do remember her comment in the edits: “You’re not going to believe this…”

It can be said of my nature that I am often rebellious, and to prevent my brain exploding I began my own research. On occasion I can trip Gail up by executing an end run to the online Oxford English Dictionary, which can be accessed through my local library, bless them. In this case, all was in agreement with Gail’s sources. The OED gives random uses of a term, starting for “bookend” in 1908. Think of a really bad word, scream it as loud as you can, and you will be somewhere near my tenuous emotional state. (But I was amused by the most recent noted entry for bookend from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2003, “A pinch bottle of Haig and Haig scotch whiskey served as a bookend on the shelf.” If you’ve never had a shot of pinch Haig and Haig, you will want to now.)

As it happens, Wikipedia has an entry for bookends. It is no shock that the bookend evolved with the book. The Greeks had scrolls, obviating the need for bookends. Scroll-ends has never caught on, has it? In the middle-ages books were great flat things stacked on top of each other. It was in the Georgian era that books got smaller and started to be stored upright with spines outward, on vast arrays of built-in bookshelves for personal libraries.

In the Regency era, when presumably everyone had filled in their wall shelves and needed more space, the swivel bookcase, as shown here, was invented. One or a series of these sat in the open space of a personal library, near chairs, and although I didn’t get it in the picture, on the top was a knob for turning the device on an axis. Like on one’s built-in bookcases, the shelves were meant to be full—chock a block with no room to spare, and extra books were stored laying down and stacked (books used as bookends, and yet no bloody term for doing so). The bookcase you see here was dated to 1818, and found in a local antiques shop for a princely sum.

(As a side note, I must mention that small versions of these were made with open handles to turn the swivel; handles which were also used to carry the petite bookcase from room to room by ladies of a literary bent. It was very fashionable, and certainly Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy would have been given one by her bookish father for a wedding gift.)

Where, you might ask, does this leave our perplexed author and her editor, who is by now wholly sorry she asked the question? Since Darcy could not be seen scrambling to come up with an apt bon-mot for the appearance of Elizabeth and Jane with his daft sister between them, some other familiar paired objects must be found. Not one to give up a fight when I can be obsessed instead, I searched Regency and Georgian paintings online, hoping some old coot had been posed in front of his books, with structures not known to be bookends but serving that function, in the background. Then Darcy could say the Bennet sisters reminded him of his painting of Lord So-and-So in front of his books. But no, I must suffer for past sins, evidently. No such painting could be found.

My purpose here is not to give away the grand, and I do mean grande, finale to my search for Darcy’s thought picture of Elizabeth and Jane. You will see it soon enough, on the back cover of My Mr. Darcy and Your Mr. Bingley. No, my purpose here is to whine like a big dog, which I am satisfied I have done pretty well, and to warn off any other innocent authors of Jane Austen Fan Fiction who might want to ever consider using the term “bookends”. I mean, heaven forbid I should have to rewrite the scene, right? That thought never occurred to me, although a dark nameless fear grew within me—no doubt feeding on all of the gray matter from the brain explosion—with each dead end in the search for a matched pair of somethings that might look like bookends without being called bookends.

I am still married, I never kicked the dog or the cat, I didn’t develop a drinking problem, and I didn’t throw anything. I absolutely did not end relations with my editor. She was as delighted as I with the ultimate solution to the trouble with bookends, but that is a tale for another day!

2 thoughts on “The Trouble With Bookends

    • And it’s true. How could such a simple thing as wanting to call two sisters bookends lead to such havoc! You’ve no idea my turmoil. Hope readers find the scene worth it. At the time, readers know what happened, but Darcy is completely in the dark.

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