Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Sphinx and The Book Collector

Another author celebrated by the American bibliophile and ardent collector Paul Jordan-Smith in his For the Love of Books (1934)— see the earlier post on Jan Mills Whitham— is Norman Davey (1888-1949), now also a mostly forgotten figure. His novels are high-spirited romances with a tinge of the tone of Michael Arlen to them, though not quite so insouciant or with such a distinctive style.

Unusually, his first two novels were both censored. His first, Perhaps – a Tale of Tomorrow (1914), a fantasy about a revolt on the Isle of Wight, was suppressed when it appeared at the beginning of the First World War, in case it might be construed as being a satire about Ireland and so discourage enlistment. The entire edition was pulped. Consequently it is very rare indeed, but Jordan-Smith managed to get a copy that had been taken home by one of the publisher’s staff. It was later issued as Yesterday (1924).

Davey’s second novel, The Pilgrim of a Smile (1921) is probably the best place to start. It is a Stevensonian, or Chestertonian, type of adventure which opens at the Curio Club in London, an establishment that only admits as members those who are, or have done, something unusual (though not necessarily useful). Here a poet, an artist, and an actor are the last to leave the bar, accompanied by an apparent nonentity who describes himself as an ‘agent’, though not for what.

In their somewhat cheery state they go to the Embankment and address the Sphinx couched at Cleopatra’s Needle, each craving a boon. The first three seek from her respectively love, vision and fame, but their modest companion asks instead to know the secret of her smile. A series of vivid episodes ensue. However, an entire chapter had to be excised when it was considered somewhat racy. It was later published on its own as The Penultimate Adventure (1924), and a 1933 edition of the novel reinstated the chapter.

The novel does have its fantastical dimensions – for example, the three inebriates and their solemner companion think at the end of this episode that they see the Sphinx take to the air to fly over the city, and this is quite an eerie scene: and the ending of the novel also has a sardonic, almost sombre quality.

Davey's third novel, Guinea Girl (1921), seems to play a bit safer in its depiction of a demobbed officer’s ill-fated fascination with a blonde who likes to play the tables at Monte Carlo. It is exuberantly written but cannot avoid seeming somewhat inconsequential.

This and several of the following novels that I have tried are always full of high spirits and lively invention and they are not quite like anything else being written then: I can see why Jordan-Smith was interested in him. Indeed, Davey was by training an engineer, and such was Jordan-Smith’s devotion that he even tracked down Davey’s first book, on gas turbines, and another on tidal power.

But my own interest in Davey was as much stirred by a different piece of writing. Davey was himself a book collector and wrote, while on service with the Royal Engineers in France, a narrative poem in Byronic rhyming couplets to a friend, reminiscing about their book-browsing expeditions in London.

It is dedicated ‘To A.H.C.’, dubbed Bibliophilos, and we learn from the first line that the surname of his friend is Christie. With its yearning memories of his own books waiting for him in his study, and of old shops on and near the Charing Cross Road, it is a charming piece that will readily be appreciated by all bibliophiles

The recollections include an occasion when he and a friend chanced upon an obscure bookshop with rare, much-desired volumes (‘. . . such a case/Of books as stood in view beside the door/Never in book-shops had we seen before . . .’). Furthermore, they were remarkably cheap (‘All ticketed in shillings; five, six, seven’).

But they happened not to have much in the way of funds with them (‘ . . .we had no cash to hand,/Save just enough to pay our homeward fare,/And not a solitary sou to spare’).  When they tried to return with replenished funds, they simply could not find the shop again (‘nor sign nor trace . . . t’was very odd’).

This piece may be found in his book of poems Desiderium MCMXV-MCMXVII (Cambridge: Heffer, 1920). An earlier volume of Poems (1914) is scarce, and he also had four poems included in Cambridge Poets 1914–1920: An Anthology (1920). Perhaps even those not naturally drawn to poetry may still enjoy this light-hearted but also wistful evocation of the joys of book-collecting written in very different circumstances on active service.

A Checklist of the Books of Norman Davey

The Gas Turbine (Constable, 1914)

Poems, with a Prefixed Essay (Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, 1914)

Desiderium MCMXV-MCMXVII (Cambridge: Heffer, 1920)

The Pilgrim of a Smile (Chapman & Hall, 1921)

Guinea Girl (Chapman & Hall, 1921)

Studies in Tidal Power (Constable, 1923)

Good Hunting (Chapman & Hall, 1923)

Yesterday: A Tory Fairy-Tale (Chapman & Hall, 1924)

The Penultimate Adventure (Elkin Mathews, 1924)

Babylon and Candlelight (Chapman & Hall, 1927)

Judgment Day (Constable, 1928)

The Hungry Traveller in France (Cape, 1931)

The Pilgrim of a Smile, restored ed (Chapman & Hall, 1933)

King, Queen, Knave (Grayson & Grayson, 1934)

Pagan Parable (Grayson & Grayson, 1936)

Cats in the Coffee (Chapman & Hall, 1939)

The Ghost of a Rose (Chapman & Hall, 1939)

(Mark Valentine)

Image: ‘A 1916 Sphinx Drawing by Charles Ricketts’  (


  1. Well, Mark, the estates of forgotten but fascinating writers should put you on an allowance. I must now go searching for "The Pilgrim of a Smile" and see what else of Davey's lurks in the recesses of the internet. -md

  2. Some wonderful titles--Babylon and Candlelight, Pagan Parable, and especially The Ghost of a Rose
    -Jeff Matthews

  3. This prompts me to wonder about the sociological implications of a novel's chapter being suppressed in 1921 only to be greenlighted for publication in 1924, and returned to the original source novel by 1933. What words or situations were so controversial, only to be considered tame enough for the public so short a time later, presumably with no textual changes?

  4. " When they tried to return with replenished funds, they simply could not find the shop again"
    Ah! A phantom bookshop, how alluring.