Ever since I heard of it, I have always relished the roll of the words in Robert Graves’ title Antigua Penny Puce, which promises at once a story of rarity and pursuit. It is clearly inspired by such legendarily rare stamps as the British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta, the Treskilling Yellow and the Blue Mauritius. This is one of the most notable novels or stories with a stamp-collecting theme (it had the blander title The Antigua Stamp in the USA).
I looked out for a copy and found, first a tatty old faded Penguin, and then a library rebound copy of the first edition jointly issued by the author’s own Seizin Press of Deyá, Majorca, and Constable of London. This copy had been encased in plush maroon boards with gilt lettering which converted Graves’ modern, art deco novel so that it looked like a relic that might have been preserved in camphor in a cedarwood muniment chest.
Robert Graves was not himself a stamp collector when young, but he did collect coins. And, in a letter home from the front in 1914, in case he should not return, he bequeathed to his sister Rosaleen ‘my share in the old coin collection’. This is echoed in a brother and sister’s shared childhood stamp collection in his novel. It is escalating disputes about the ownership of this that drive the plot.
Graves started the novel in 1934 and conducted careful research: though he was living in Majorca, he got friends to attend and report on London stamp auctions, read catalogues and sent Stanley Gibbons, the leading British stamp dealer of the day, a detailed questionnaire. He also consulted collectors and other dealers. He was particularly careful to ensure that there was no existing stamp like the one he had invented, the Antigua Penny Puce, but also that it could seem authentic.
Though the novel has been understandably overshadowed by Graves’ I, Claudius; his survey of poetry and legend The White Goddess; and his war memoir Goodbye to All That, nevertheless it proved popular and successful. As well as the Penguin paperback in 1968, it was also reissued by the library imprint Cedric Chivers in 1971 (reflecting demand from readers) and by the literary press Carcanet, with another of his novels, in 2003.
The book reveals a sportive, satirical side to Graves’ work and a shrewd understanding of the collecting instinct, sibling rivalries, the arcanery of the legal world, and the vicissitudes of literary fortunes. As with many collected objects in fiction, there is a sense of a sort of inexorability attached to the stamp, as it becomes an emblem for fierce, morbidly compulsive human emotions.
Graves was not an admirer of the collecting instinct. He wrote a comic poem ‘The Philatelist-Royal’, where facetiously he depicts this office-holder as making increasingly grandiose claims for the hobby: ‘It was more democratic,/ More full, more ecstatic,/Than the Bible, the bottle,/The Complete Works of Aristotle,/And worthier and betterer/And etceterier and etcetera’).
Nevertheless, Graves' novel is a fascinating study of the passion
that the fabulously rare in any form can provoke. I wonder what he thought of book-collectors?
(With thanks to ‘Sources, Collaborators, and Critique in Antigua, Penny, Puce’ by John Woodrow Presley in Gravesiana, The Journal of the Robert Graves Society, No 22, for valuable background information).