100 Dubliners: commemorating Joyce’s short stories

On Friday 31 October and Saturday 1 November, the Institute of English Studies at Senate House is holding a conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s first book of fiction, Dubliners, and Senate House Library is putting on a small supporting display in the ante-room of the Senate and Jessel Rooms.

The conference “100 Dubliners” presented a certain challenge on the display front, because displays rely on attractive exhibits, and James Joyce’s Dubliners is not, in its first edition, an attractive book – in fact, it is a rather drab one. Yet it had to be the centrepiece of any display based on Dubliners, and perhaps the very drabness, from the point of view of the materiality of the book, is useful in demonstrating the modest beginnings of a book which was to become a landmark in the history of literary modernism, of Irish literature, and of the short story form. Two roughly contemporaneous books displayed are better looking only in having their title pages in red and black: George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903), considered by some to be the progenitor of the Irish short story, and credited as an influence on Dubliners; and W.B. Yeats’s Poems, 1899-1905, chosen for display because of Yeats’s friendship with and influence on James Joyce, and for reference within Dubliners to the Celtic Twilight. The first edition of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), selected for display on the basis of an oblique reference to the 1912 alleged burning of the Dublin edition of Dubliners, while no prettier, reflects the status of a by now established writer: the copy is one of an edition limited to 425 signed and numbered copies, and sports unusually large margins.

Unappreciated in the years leading up to 1914, Dubliners had become well and truly canonised by the time the Dolmen Press brought out its edition in 1986, illustrated by Dublin-born painter Louis le Brocquy.

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The visual drawing point of the display is Hanna & Neale’s New Large-Scale Plan of Dublin, showing Dublin as it was about one hundred years ago. The Dolmen Press book is part of a full set of Dolmen Press books acquired by the library to supplement the private press books in the Sterling Library, and other books were all acquired by Sir Louis Sterling by virtue of being first editions. The map is from the Malcolm Morley Collection of theatrical material and demonstrates the serendipity of library holdings in unexpected places.

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