Fergus Hume’s Hagar of the Pawn-Shop (1898)

Fergus Hume’s episodic novel, Hagar of the Pawn-Shop, was published by Skeffington & Son (London) in 1898. Hume is best known for his first novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), which was initially published in Australia, but he published prolifically throughout his life in a variety of genres.

In this post, I’ll be using an interlibrary-loan copy of the first edition of Hagar of the Pawn-Shop to talk about its materiality. Then, I’ll briefly discuss its contents and how the material form and contents cooperate and/or diverge in their individual purposes.


DISCLAIMER: I am new at this and I’m trying to practice. This is true both for my description of the books and of my use of terminology. I will probably get things wrong. I welcome feedback as long as it’s constructive.

DISCLAIMER 2: I’m working with limited equipment (read: my smart phone and laptop). I apologize for the quality of the pictures, but they’re the best I can do at the moment.

As I learned at Rare Book School, it’s best to start describing from the outside and work your way in. This edition of the book is bound in reddish cloth (it appears a bit faded, but I’d guess it was a stronger rust-red in its day).IMG_4216 It is a publisher’s case binding. The title, the author’s name, and some decoration have been stamped in gilt on the cover. In the top left corner, the decoration is what appears to be a lamp or chandelier. Staggered beside this, in the top right corner,  the title of the book appears in an antiquated type face (perhaps a Slab Serif, I’m not yet well versed in typography). Beneath it, in a slightly smaller font, the author’s name. Although the rest of the design is much faded on this cover, it was once a spider web, attached at the bottom of the chandelier and sprawling across the bottom two-thirds of the cover–even spilling over onto the spine. A quick consultation of other copies of this edition via Google search suggests that there was a spider positioned at the middle of this web and a fly just under the author’s name. I can’t see them, now. There is, however, the faint outline of a spider remaining on the spine. The spine decoration is also gilt-stamp. The title is at the top of the spine, in the same type face and font size, followed by the author’s name, again in a smaller size but the same face. The spider-motif takes up at least half of the spine. On closer inspection, it appears that the spider is holding something at the end of its web. Another quick Google search shows that there is, indeed, a fly dangling from the spider’s web on another copy of this edition. At the very bottom of the spine, the publisher’s name appears–in abbreviated form.

The back cover has not been decorated.

The fore-edge and bottom edge of the text block are untrimmed, or deckle-edged. The top edge appears to have been trimmed. Because this is a late-century publication which is making a strategic effort to appear like a fine antiquarian book (see my comments about the illustration, margins, and typeface below), I’d guess the deckling is intentional.

Inside, the first thing I note is that this is laid paper. Given the date, it is almost certainly machine-made.

The half-title is simple, in an older, Caslon-style type face. The title spread, in contrast, bears the clear influence of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press work (as do the part and chapter titles).


Title and publisher are printed in red, while the author (with a list of other books), city, publisher information, and date are in black. The cover type face has been discarded, here, in favor of a combination of a Caslon-style Roman and a Gothic. On the facing verso page, a single illustration has been centered. It consists of an ampersand surrounded by swirling lines in an ‘S’ shape. I’m assuming this is the publisher’s mark (it appears in/on other books they published, such as Richard Marsh’s The Beetle).


Look at that headpiece and tailpiece. This book is putting on fancy airs.

The illustrations look like wood cuts to my (admittedly only slightly trained) eye, which would fit with the book’s overall flirtation with fine printing styles.



Look at that headpiece and tailpiece. This book is putting on fancy airs.

In addition to headpieces and tailpieces, the blackletter running-head and generous (for a non-fine art publisher) margins attest to the attempt to make this book seem (1) historical and (2) fancy schmancy.

There are some rivers of white-space in the body of the text, which makes me wonder if this is Linotype. But honestly, the line spacing is fairly nice and the “rivers” I’m seeing are minimal, so I don’t have enough evidence to say one way or another for sure.

I will say that the more I handle this paper, the more I’m impressed by its thickness and lack of foxing after 118 years. This book is much prettier (and of higher quality) that I expected based on the author’s reputation (popular, not high art) and the relative obscurity into which the book has settled.

Finally, I was delighted to find the Publisher’s advertisements still intact at the back of the book. This could theoretically be used to help date the book if I needed it to. If I knew how many print runs were in each edition and how many editions it went to, that is. I’ll be writing about this book in my dissertation, so hopefully I’ll be able to figure most of this out. (I’m also not sure if this was ever serialized. Many of Hume’s books were, but I haven’t been able to find any data for this particular book. Yet.)



The Beetle! I highly recommend this book. I also highly recommend searching for this edition and feasting your eyes upon the amazing cover. If I had ~$800 to spare, it would be MINE.


I really want to read Amy Vivian’s Ring  and The Juggler and the Soul now. Skeffington & Son, rest assured your advertising money was well spent. 118 years later and it still works.

This thistle illustration, though. I just can’t get it out of my mind. *swoons*


Here there be discussion of the CONTENTS. And SPOILERS. Be warned. If you’d rather avoid either of those things, stop reading now.


As many books were beginning to do in the fin-de-siecle the cover of Hagar of the Pawn-Shop reflects the contents of the novel. The antiquated style and spiderweb suggest not only age, but neglect or storage. A variety of objects, fine and otherwise, collected in a “junk shop.” The form of the narrative–a series of episodes or short text-objects collected in a larger repository–also echoes this theme.

In fact, the cover and text design really draw out what I consider to be the text’s archival qualities. When I first read the novel, as research for my Master’s thesis, none of this stood out to me. I’d obtained a print on demand copy which included the text and nothing more.

But let me backtrack, a bit.

I first discovered Hagar of the Pawn-Shop via a sparse description in Michele B. Slung’s Crime on Her Mind: Fifteen Stories of Female Sleuths from the Victorian Era to the Forties, a text which contains a valuable descriptive catalogue “of over 100 women detectives, 1861-1974.”

Slung’s entry gets the date of publication wrong by one year (she states 1899), but otherwise does a fairly good job capturing the spirit of the text, if it is a little bit biologically essentialist:

HAGAR STANLEY. Fergus Hume. Hagar of the Pawn-Shop (London, 1899). A gypsy pawnbroker of considerable spirit, she is more of a problem-solver than a detective. Though she is untaught, her Romany heritage makes her naturally shrewd and quick-witted, and her adventures follow the appearance of unusual pawned objects.

There is much to appreciate just as there is much to challenge in this episodic novel. As Slung notes, the novel follows the adventures Hagar seeks out in relation to curiosities that are pawned in her “benefactor’s” shop. She has a complicated relationship with this benefactor, who was married to the cousin for whom she is a namesake and, in appearance, double. The violently anti-semetic, anti-woman, anti-everything-but-his-money Jacob Dix allows her to seek refuge from an unwanted marriage in his shop and home, but in exchange treats her as an indentured servant. When he dies, she stays as his executor until such time as his missing son can be found and the shop / inheritance can be turned over to him. In the meantime, she takes interest in a series of domestic and exotic objects that circulate through the shop.

Interestingly, the first of these objects is “a rare edition of a celebrated Italian poet,” or, as the episode title calls it, a Florentine Dante. Despite her unconventional upraising and lack of formal education, Hagar takes something that is almost a bibliophile’s interest in the text:

It was an old and costly book, over which a bibliomaniac would have gloated.

The date was that of the fourteenth century, the printer a famous Florentine publisher of that epoch; and the author was none other than one Dante Alighieri, a poet not unknown to fame. In short, the volume was a second edition of ‘La Divinia Comedia,’ extremely rare, and worth much money. Hagar, who had learnt many things under the able tuition of Jacob, at once recognized the value of the book; but with keen business instinct…she promptly began to disparage it. (28-9)

It’s fascinating to me that Hagar identifies the value and provenance of the book at a glance, particularly since her identity as a minority (in terms of race, class, and gender) is being constantly interpolated.

Also interesting: the potential of the fineness of the represented Dante to reflect and perhaps interrogate the “fineness” of the book in our hands. In reading about a book “over which a bibliomaniac would have gloated,” one must be aware that the tome one is holding is not such a book, despite–or perhaps precisely because of–the way it constantly signals the artistic values such books would have upheld.

But, to get back to the story. Eustace Lorn, the young man intent on pawning this book, turns out to be Hagar’s love interest and future husband (I told you there would be spoilers). In this “adventure,” she helps him save the book from an unseemly debtor, and he sets off to find Jacob Dix’s son, so Hagar can return to the gipsy life she so misses.

He succeeds, after ten more “episodes” in which Hagar hones both her pawning and her investigative skills. When she ultimately does return to the life she used to lead, however, she is not entirely unmarked by the lifestyle she’s been leading for the majority of the book. That is, although she isn’t required to become a “Proper Lady” (ala Mary Poovey) or join the middle-class and settle down in order to successfully achieve her marriage plot, Hagar doesn’t go back to being a gipsy entirely. She goes back to the open road in a caravan her husband has purchased, but she goes back as a used bookseller.

Travelling the country in a little yellow caravan full of used books, Hagar seems at once to escape middle-class hegemony and to be entrapped in it and the means of its circulation. By peddling books, she and her husband are peddling culture. It would seem that Hagar has gone from one form of indentured servitude to another.

Yet, a consideration of both the publishing industry and the information we now have about the English common reader (ala Jonathan Rose) hints at another interpretation altogether. First, in a publishing market with few cheap options for books, used books democratized the market by making novels and other codices available to people of lesser means. Especially in a caravan sales environment, Hagar and her husband would have been able to undersell competitors if they so desired. Second, scholars now realize (1) that the working classes both read and appreciated the same canonical texts that middle and upper-class readers enjoyed, but that they did so in a variety of ways. In fact, the variety and of interpretations were as often progressive as they were conservative. The spread of second-hand books, then, can as easily be interpreted as a radical spread of democracy and ideas as it can be interpreted as the spread of middle-class hegemony.

This book, in design and content, both performs and challenges class (and, arguably, gender) in interesting ways.

I plan to parse all of this out further in my dissertation, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the ways in which the physical form of the book and its contents interact and, perhaps, inform one another.

Final disclaimer: I will not be including literary analysis portions in every post in this series. Sometimes, I will emphasize my description of the book. In rare cases (such as this one), when I’m describing a book about which I plan to write in my dissertation, I’ll do a bit of contents-discussion and analysis as I have here.



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