Limited Editions Club: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1934/1946)

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1934)
LEC #62/6th Series V. 3 in 1934
Artwork: Decorations by George W. Jones
Translated and introduced by Frank Ernest Hill
LEC #268 out of 1500. LEC exclusive.

Click images to see larger views.

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Front Binding – 
Hello friends! It’s time for another comparison post between different LECs of the same work, and this month’s post brings the original 1934 printing of Geoffrey Chaucer’s immortal The Canterbury Tales. After this, you can look at the later 1946 edition which brought in Arthur Szyk to illustrate the tales, but for now let’s focus on this one.

Chaucer’s literary importance to the English language cannot be understated, as his work stands as among the earliest remaining texts in the language and is considered “the father of English poetry”. So it’s little surprise to see his best known work come out in the first few years of the Club. In 1940, the LEC would issue Troilus and Cressida, which would reunite the author with this book’s designer George W. Jones (who I’ll get to momentarily); in 1946, the aforementioned second Canterbury was issued, and that was the last time his words were put to paper by the Club. The Heritage Press only reissued the latter Canterbury. However, I was just notified by fellow Devotee and friend Django6924 of a variant edition of the Canterbury Tales for the Heritage Press’ Illustrated Bookshelf subseries, which I’ll let him explain:

The Heritage Illustrated Bookshelf Tales From Chaucer. This slim volume uses the same binding as the HP version, the Szyk illustrations which in their reproduction are an exact match for the ones in the HP, but instead of the Hill translation, uses “selected tales told for young people by Charles Cowden Clarke.”

Clarke’s retelling is in prose, includes the Prologue and nine of the tales. The Prologue is abridged to only describing the characters in the related tales, and the more ribald tales, the Miller’s Tale and the Monk’s Tale, for example, are excluded. Some of the byplay between the characters is also cleaned up; when the Pardoner finishes his tale in the unexpurgated version, he offers his holy relics to the other members of the party for “a grote,” and to the Host first as he is the most sinful. He says he will let the Host kiss the holy relics and the Host replies:

Thou woldest make me kiss thyne olde breech,
And swere it were the relyk of a seint,
Though it were with thy fundament depeint!
But by the croys which that Seint Eleyne fond,
I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond (testicles)
Lat kutte hem of…
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!

In the Tales From Chaucer, the Host just introduces the next character.

Jones wore many hats on this publication; not only was he the designer, but he also created and colored the decorative initial flourishments featured within, and served as the printer and binder. Jones operated his own printing shop, The Sign of the Dolphin, which handled such duties for this particular book. He created a few well known fonts such as Venezia, Granjon and Baskerville, and showed a talent for initial embellishments highlighted in this edition. He retired from his shop in 1938, but did come out of retirement for Troilus to mimic the design of this particular rendition. He also served as the designer for the Arthur Rackham illustrated edition of Dickens’ The Chimes in 1931. He passed away in 1942.

Design Notes – Here’s the Quarto‘s comments on this book:

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Spine

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Slipcase – This slipcase has the unusual distinction of having a lot of the basic publication info on its spine, as well as a handwritten limitation number. This was far more common on early LECs, I’ve come to realize.

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Pre-Title Page – This book features an interesting feature of having two title pages. The first, which I’m calling a “pre-title” page, features the publication info, and a frontispiece of Chaucer. This is a pencil drawing Dorothy Woollard did based on a bust inside the Guildhall Library and Jones got permission to reproduce it from the “Chairman of the Library Committee of the Corporation of the City of London”. The signature is reprinted from the sole remaining one in the Public Record Office in London. Frank Ernest Hill served as the translator, editor and introduction provider — his work would be revised further for the 1946 edition. Macy did comment on Hill’s contribution in the Quarto above.

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Title Page – Jones is incredibly talented at decorative initials! The title and author get the deluxe treatment here.

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Colophon – This is #268 of 1500, and was issued with Jones’ signature.

Examples of Jones’ decorations (right click and open in new tab for full size):

Personal Notes – I got this from fellow devotee NYCFaddict earlier this year with a big lot of other titles. Definitely among the favorites I received this year!


The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1934)
LEC #175/17th Series V. 1 in 1946
Artwork: Miniatures by Arthur Szyk
Translated and introduced by Frank Ernest Hill
LEC #1122 out of 1500. Heritage reprint also shown in this post.

Click images to see a larger view.

Front Binding (LEC on the left, Heritage on the right) – It’s been nearly 10 years since I wrote this post! It was also the very first comparative post I did on the blog, so it seems a little fitting I get to resurrect it to add another layer of comparison to it with the 1934 original! With this particular edition, quite a few changes took place to differentiate it from its earlier cousin. First off, George W. Jones was no longer alive, so he could not provide any of his design or decorative expertise. Second, Arthur Szyk, who literally just had his first production with the Limited Editions Club with The Book of Job issued two volumes before this one, would provide his incredible miniatures to Chaucer’s iconic characters. Third, the book would have a Heritage reprint that scales quite well against its fancier cousin, and fourth, George Macy himself would take on book design duties.

I just found out about a fifth difference! Thanks to the Devotees, I learned that the 1946 Tales removed the “Prioress’ Tale” from its collection of narratives. Devotee BionicJim noticed this:

There is a publisher’s note at the beginning stating simply that it has not been included, which seems to be news to the translator, Frank Ernest Hill, who also wrote the introduction dated March 1946. Here he states that his is the first “complete” translation, which isn’t relevant if The Prioress’s Tale isn’t included, and he even references the tale later in the Introduction while illustrating one of his points.

Django6924 replied with a well-reasoned hypothesis as to why it was cut:

The Prioress’s Tale (and her Prologue) is definitely in the 1934 LEC. I’m not sure about the statement that it is partially lost: although it may not be printed in more recent common editions (for the same reason it is omitted in the 1946 LEC), it is in The Riverside Chaucer (1987) which is the standard critical edition of Chaucer’s works, the 1986 3-volume Folio Society edition of the Canterbury Tales, as well as the 1992 Everyman’s Library edition.

Yes, as you point out, I’m sure Macy left it out due to sensibilities arising from the aftermath of the Holocaust. I will quote from Larry Benson’s introduction to The Prioress’s Tale in The Riverside Chaucer:

The Prioress’s Tale is a “miracle of the Virgin,” a very popular genre of devotional literature, and the story that she tells was widespread in medieval Europe…yet this tender tale is also a tale of violence; the Prioress seems to dwell on the sickening details of the child’s murder and the savage punishment meted out to his murderers…Even more difficult for the modern reader is the anti-Semitism the tale. In Chaucer’s time there were almost no Jews in England; they had been banished a hundred years before. The tale is set therefore in far-off Asia, and its Jews are the stock boogiemen of the fairy-tale-like miracles of the Virgin. The tale’s anti-Semitism is thus somewhat different from modern varieties. It nevertheless inevitably discomfits twentieth-century readers….

Seeing as Szyk himself was Jewish, it’s possible Macy didn’t wish to offend his artist, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.

Here’s the announcement letter from Macy for this edition:

I will provide a proper bibliography for Szyk early next year in my update to the Book of Ruth post. For funsies, let’s look at the Quarto comments on this release:

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Spine

Title Page – The LEC edition went with a nice blue ink for its title page, while the Heritage ran with standard black. Otherwise, they’re about the same. Not too surprising, as this was common practice to drop color from Heritage rereleases. Frank Ernest Hill’s translation from the 1934 edition is reused here, but has further revisions, so it might be the definitive.

Introduction – The LEC continues to spice up its pages with color – blue and red are used throughout the text, while the Heritage reprint stays with black only. The LEC also has the added bonus of “feeling” the text with your hands (and by that, I mean that the ink rises above the page slightly, and you can notice the difference brushing the page with your hand), which is just incredible.

Signature Page – This was a copy from my old university’s library, and is #1122 of 1500. Szyk has a very nice signature, I must say.

Title Illustration – Flip the title page and you’ll see this decadent piece that Szyk did of the entire cast of the Canterbury Tales. The LEC original (top) is much more vibrant with its colors and detail, which isn’t much of a surprise. It’s a bit hard to tell in these shots, but the LEC artwork has a nice border around it that’s a light tannish color, and the text on the right or left of the portrait shares that attribute, as you’ll see below.

The Host

The Wife of Bath

Personal Notes – Nine years on and I’m still on the hunt for this one. Szyk’s titles for the LEC tend to be coveted items, so they usually run a pretty penny. Someday! Luckily, I was able to check out both the Heritage and LEC from UC Merced’s library back then for this post.

LEC Newsletter

Updated 11/24/2020 by JF

4 thoughts on “Limited Editions Club: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1934/1946)”

  1. Great reviews, Jerry (as always)! I share your admiration for G W Jones (not just because he was British! he was a genius), and the 1934 Tales and the 1939 Troilus & Cressida are among my favourite LECs, despite being unillustrated.
    Keep up the good work. I have some catching up to do on your last couple of years.
    And congratulations on your own book!

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