Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Alice Johnson, Eric Dingwall, and their copy of Tertium Quid

From Psychic News, 1967

This began life as a note written in 2011 in response to a general request for articles on interesting psychical research/parapsychological finds in bookshops, to be included in a magazine series.  I’ve made one or two such finds, but not any I want to share, so I thought I would contribute something general.  I chose the anecdote by Eric Dingwall which opens his article ‘The Work of Edmund Gurney’ in Tomorrow magazine, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 1955, pp.23-29.  In the end the magazine did not run the series, and I’ve expanded what I sent to them.  Here is Dingwall’s account:

‘Walking one day in the streets of an ancient British city, I stopped, as is invariably my custom, before a bookstall in the street.   Amid a medley of books, all of which were priced at sixpence each, my eye soon lighted upon two blue volumes lettered Tertium Quid by Edmund Gurney.  Seizing them, I paid my shilling, and blessed my good luck, for I knew that this work was one of the rarest of Gurney’s books and I had never up to that time succeeded in obtaining a copy.

‘It was only on opening the first volume and reading an inscription that I fully realized my good fortune.  For the book had been a present to Miss Alice Johnson from Mrs E. M. Sidgwick, names so well known in psychical research that no comment is necessary.  It was clear that Mrs. Sidgwick thought that a copy of Gurney’s most interesting work would please her loyal colleague, and the pleasure of the latter doubtless equalled mine at being the possessor of such rare and valuable volumes.’

Edmund Gurney

Why was he so pleased with the purchase which had cost him such a modest outlay?  Gurney was a significant figure in the early history of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), until his untimely death at the age of 41 in 1888.  His Tertium Quid: Chapters on Various Disputed Questions, published in 1887, was a revised collection of essays on philosophy and aesthetics that had previously appeared in magazines.  It was praised by William James, given a rather less effusive review by George Bernard Shaw, was not much noticed otherwise, and effectively died with its author.  Eleanor Sidgwick was also a highly significant figure in the early SPR as researcher and administrator, in addition to being a noted educationalist, eventually becoming Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.  Johnson too had been extremely active in the SPR during its early years, working closely with Sidgwick, for a period as her private secretary.  Dingwall was a well-known authority on psychical research, among a variety of subjects.

Eleanor Sidgwick

Stumbling over the volumes was good fortune indeed for Dingwall, and we can envy him all the more because such lucky finds are rarer these days (though you can read Tertium Quid online).  Part of his pleasure was surely having paid so little for something exceptional.  He does not stop to consider how Johnson’s copy ended up on a stall in the street among a miscellaneous lot priced at 6d each.  Sidgwick died in 1936, so the volumes were given by her before that date.  Johnson retired on grounds of ill health in 1916 (the same year Sidgwick left Cambridge to live with her brother Gerald near Woking) and died at the age of 79 in 1940.  It is possible that Sidgwick presented them to Johnson as a leaving gift at her retirement, perhaps de-duplicating books she and Gerald both possessed, and they were disposed of on Johnson’s death.  One can speculate how much Johnson really treasured Gurney’s dense prose, and what else in her library was picked up in a job lot by a dealer for a song, which is presumably what happened to those ‘rare and valuable volumes’ of Tertium Quid.

One also wonders where they are now.  Presumably they were sold with the rest of Dingwall’s library at auction in 1987, the year after his death.   His papers went to the Harry Price Library, part of the University of London Library, but Tertium Quid was not with them, and ULL does not have a copy.  One hopes that, wherever those volumes which passed through the hands of three such eminent psychical researchers are, they are being cherished as much as they were by Dingwall.  His story of how he came across them was important enough to him to warrant beginning his article on Gurney with it (if a little self-indulgently), and it captures the excitement of the bibliophile when acquiring something really special.