Infinite riches in a little room

There is a little poem that appears in the front of every volume in the Everyman Library series:

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, / In thy most need to go by thy side.

I have several of the old, pocket-sized Everyman books on my shelves. The one open in front of me is Jane Eyre and was a form prize awarded to my mother by Rochester Girls’ Grammmar School (which she hated). My mother’s maiden name is written in faded blue-black ink on the ornate certificate glued into the front –  a coat of arms surrounded by imitation gothic lettering. Jane herself informs me that she is number 287 of Everyman’s Library. Knowing my mother’s date of birth and how old she was when she married my father, I think this must have been a school-leaving present.

My mother’s Jane Eyre is faded, she is foxed; she is without a dust jacket although she would most likely have had one originally. The link below takes you to a summary of the history of Joseph Dent’s founding of the Everyman Library in 1906: you can see what the dust-jackets would have looked like:

Joseph’s boast was that:

For a few shillings the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals; for five pounds (which will procure him a hundred volumes) a man may be intellectually rich for life. Infinite riches in a little room.

Jane Eyre is a cheap, post-war publication made when materials were hard to come by; her paper is so thin that when you hold her up to the light you can see through her; her print is so tiny that it hurts your eyes, but I treasure her.

She smells of the passing of time; she smells of all the dusty bookcases she has inhabited, first in my grandmother’s house, then in my mother’s and then in the dreadful succession of my own; she smells of all those cardboard boxes she was crammed into and unpacked from, and of the damp from temporary storage in garages and sheds.

She smells of The War and yet reminds me that war, and all such temporary horrors, can be transcended. What better escape from the drabness of Britain in 1946 than to Thornfield Hall, the Madwoman in the Attic and the magnificent, flawed and blinded Mr Rochester?

As a child I assumed that the little poem had been written by the publishers – how clever of them – but I was wrong. I now know it’s a quotation from Everyman, a medieval play in which the character ‘Knowledge’ promises the character ‘Everyman’:

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, / In thy most need to go by thy side.

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