While the essay form, investigating the ‘nature and causes’ of a phenomenon, lends itself to this subject, for centuries authors have created fictional scenarios for the same ends.
Satire and make-believe more readily escape the attentions of censors and of those who want the status quo to remain unchallenged.
But the current strength in the market for studies of society and individualism, both fictional and non-fictional, suggests that book collectors do not discriminate between the two modes.
A famous engraved frontispiece opens Thomas Hobbes’ daring English language Leviathan of 1651. It shows a giant crowned figure whose torso and arms are composed of over 300 persons – a literal ‘body politic’ where individuals come together to form the State.
How, Hobbes wondered, should society reframe itself now that the monarchy had been toppled? If anarchy looms, the individual is justified on the basis of selfpreservation in transferring his obedience to whichever power now rules.
First editions of Leviathan have long been sought after: the work was already appearing at auction in the 19th century, and John Carter and Percy Muir included the work in their seminal 1967 book Printing and the Mind of Man.
Indeed, back in 1989 the Garden copy sold at Sotheby’s for some $21,000, a record that was broken only in 2002 by the copy that belonged to Hobbes’ contemporary Richard Bulstrode – £34,000 at Christie’s South Kensington. The current high-water mark is the large paper copy from the library of the late Robert Pirie copy, sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for $120,000.
However, analysis by the company Art Market Research shows only a 15% rise in the cost of good copies of Leviathan at auction in the past five years, trailing more modern works on society. Bernard Quaritch is currently listing a copy with the frontispiece laid down at £11,000.
Move forward then, to 1726, when Jonathan Swift released his Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World… By Lemuel Gulliver. It was presented as a travelogue but recognised immediately by the public as a satire.
Intrigued but unconvinced by Hobbes, Swift explores whether man is inherently corrupt or whether he becomes corrupted. The feud between the giant Gulliver and the tiny Lilliputians is a parallel for the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the state. In the marketplace, the Chew-Glemby-Pforzheimer- Slater-Davidson copy multiplied from $11,000 in 1982 to $80,000 in 2015 (Christie’s New York), and the Martha Blount copy went from the same base in 1993 to £40,000 ($64,000) in 2011 at Sotheby’s. The auction record is a large paper copy sold by PBA Galleries in 2006 for a remarkable $170,000.
Precisely a century later, an apocalyptic, dystopian sciencefiction novel emerges, depicting a 21st century Europe ravaged by a mysterious pandemic illness that spreads worldwide and ultimately results in the near-extinction of humanity. Society is on borrowed time. Sound familiar?
In The Last Man, Mary Shelley’s hero Lionel grows up with no parental supervisions, and as a result is uncivilised until he comes under the mollifying influence of his friend Adrian.
England goes from monarchy to republic, war rages, a fanatical cult movement believes its leader will save it from the pandemic, and finally Lionel wanders the depopulated continents of Africa and Asia in search of other survivors.
For Shelley, the individual being is essentially isolated and therefore ultimately tragic. A relatively rare appearance at auction, the record for The Last Man is a copy sold – with extraordinarily prescient timing in late January 2020 – at Chorley’s Spetchley Park sale: £6500 in original boards.
Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the first Paris edition published the same year sold at Lyon & Turnbull this February for £4000. Robert Temple currently offers a copy for £7500, modestly described as “less sought after than Frankenstein because never filmed”.
“The sole end for which mankind is justified in interfering with liberty of action is self-protection.” So wrote John Stuart Mill in 1859.
His simply titled On Liberty argued that no civilized society should blindly pursue the public good without considering the individual, and it should resist the tendency of a democratically elected majority to tyrannize over a minority, echoing the symbolic giants of Leviathan and Gulliver.
At £90,000, the first edition sold at Bonhams in 2015 is over 20 times above the next-highest auction record – but that copy had once belonged to the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville.
Mill concludes that “a State which dwarfs its men… will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished”.
The ruling class of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World could not disagree more. Instead, they suppress individualism through psychological indoctrination and the distribution of a soothing, happiness-producing drug called Soma – at one point sprayed by riot police to quell an angry mob, like so much tear gas in Minneapolis, Hong Kong, Thailand or Sri Lanka.
Published in 1932, Brave New World has as its hero a noble savage, though Huxley’s John tries and fails to achieve the solitary individual existence of Mary Shelley’s ‘last man’. A good first edition that made £700 at Sotheby’s in 2001 recently reappeared at Bonhams and trebled in value to reach £2200. Last year’s Baum sale brought a brave new world of five-figure prices for Huxley’s most famous novel, as an unrestored copy made $11,000.
The word ‘Orwellian’ crops up ever more often in our lives. Indeed, The New York Times calls it “the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a modern writer”.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a typical 1945 first edition Animal Farm has increased in value by 40% in the past five years, according to Art Market Research.
Paradropped into the Eastern Bloc in the 1950s by the CIA, banned by some American schools as recently as 2017 and silenced on China’s Sina Weibo social media platform, Animal Farm remains deliciously revolutionary.
Yet Orwell still had work to do. If Hobbes felt that for self preservation the individual should comply with whoever is in charge, the terrifying apogee of this is reached in Nineteen Eighty-Four – where individuality is persecuted through omnipresent surveillance by the Thought Police. A proof copy, with the title in numerals rather than words, reappeared recently at Bonhams in the Jeremy and Penny Martin sale and made £11,000, more than quadrupling in price since its purchase in 2006.
Any hopes that a smaller, more contained society might allow for individualism are dashed by William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies.
These marooned schoolboys descend from noble to savage at breakneck speed. Faber initially rejected the parable, but eventually published it, with a dust-jacket designed by former official war artist Anthony Gross. EM Forster picked it as the “outstanding novel of the year”.
First-edition prices at auction have increased by about 66% in the past five years, and a presentation copy of the first US edition, inscribed ‘For EM Forster from William Golding in Gratitude and Pride’, made £6000 at Bonhams in 2020.
At the Clive Hirshhorn sale at Bloomsbury Book Auctions in 2012, a buyer paid £15,000 for Graham Greene’s copy of the true first, while another presentation copy made £12,000 at Forum last year. Sotheby’s took £11,000 for a signed copy in a trial binding in 2018.
The best examinations of society and the individual, whether philosophy or fiction, have a timeless universality. Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985; the destruction of female agency and individuality that she portrayed has come back with a vengeance in 2022 as the US Supreme Court considers overturning Roe v Wade.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not yet a super-expensive first edition, though. Forum sold signed copies for £650 and £700 in 2020 and 2019, while the presentation copy to EL Doctorow made $1400 at Heritage in 2014.
It was Doctorow who wrote the dust-jacket blurb for the first edition: “This visionary novel, in which God and Government are joined, and America is run as a Puritanical Theocracy, can be read as a companion volume to Orwell’s 1984 – its verso, in fact.”
There is nothing new in the world: if you build a library on society and the individual, you will have the closest thing to a crystal ball. The question is not whether these scenarios will come to pass. It is just when and where.
Matthew Haley has been the head of Bonhams UK book department since 2013.