Rare Books, Hidden Gems and The Elephant Man

After two years of literary events and book shopping being relegated to the internet, now we are slowly coming back to having events and fairs in IRL (in real life)!

The Norwich Book Fair at the Millennium Library in Norwich in April this year was held as part of the Provincial Book Fairs Association (PBFA) calendar of book fairs around the United Kingdom. The free event was well attended and the bright atrium of the Forum was a perfect way to show the books to potential customers.

Local second-hand booksellers had set up stalls for the public to peruse old, rar or limited edition secondhand titles. The stalls were close together and each had marked out the types of books for ease of viewing, such as murder, mystery, and art. All sellers had a broad range of subjects and titles. This meant you had Agatha Christie rubbing shoulders with Beatrix Potter and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Cassell Book Club first edition 1967

In this mix I had the good fortune to discover an original edition (Cassell, 1923) of ‘The Elephant Man and other reminiscences’ by Sir Frederick Treves.

Treves was a prominent British surgeon in the 1800s, who after meeting Joseph Carey Merrick (often misnamed as John) and giving him his card, was called on to help him when the police rescued a cowering Merrick from a over-excited crowd at Liverpool street.

At Liverpool Street he was rescued from the crowd by the police and taken to the third-class waiting-room. Here he sank on the floor in the darkest corner. The police were at a loss what to do with him. They had dealt with strange and mouldy tramps, but never with such an object as this. He could not explain himself. His speech was so maimed that he might as well have spoken in Arabic. He had, however, something with him which he produced with a ray of hope. It was my card.’


Those words ’It was my card’ are so wonderful! This was Merrick’s ‘get out of jail’ card. Fortunately Treves was at the London Hospital when a messenger came for him. Treves then went straight to the station and Merrick was taken to the Hospital, where he received kindness, food and a safe place to sleep.

Etching of ’The Elephant Man’

Merrick was suffering from a rare condition called ’Proteus syndrome’ that had made his life intolerable. The condition leads to an overgrowth of bones, skin and other tissues and finally extreme disfigurement and deformity. He had trouble walking, using his hands, speaking and his skin was rough and his head so heavy that he couldn’t lie down properly as the weight would asphyxiate him.

Treves would write compassionately about Merrick’s life, with all its difficulties and sadness, in his book. Below is the first page.

Page from Sir Frederick Treves book

In 1982 the book was made into a film with John Hurt as Merrick and directed by David Lynch. The story of Joseph Merrick is terribly sad, bit it is also an example of extreme perseverance to survive despite his terrible disability. He was, as Treves tells us, ’remarkably intelligent. He had learnt to read and had become a most voracious reader.’

For more information on Joseph Merrick I would suggest looking at his wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick

This gives a good overview of Merrick’s life and travails and how he was saved by the good fortune of meeting Frederick Treves, and his own sweet nature and love of reading.

One thing I find very interesting is that Merrick’s favourite pursuit was reading love stories. Treves story about Merrick is most definitely not a love story! But by the end you do feel a sense of caring about Joseph that is similar to reading a good romance. Treves shows him to be a nice, intelligent and lovable young man in his twenties and I love that.


Published by Yasmin Keyani


One thought on “Rare Books, Hidden Gems and The Elephant Man

  1. The Treves sounds like a good find, and especially as it comes up to its centenary year. I think I’d tend to not gravitate towards book fairs as I’m partial to a bargain found serendipitously in a charity shop.

    Liked by 1 person

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