The Thirty-Nine Steps first edition dustwrapper

Michael Ross


The unsolved mystery of which is the correct dustwrapper for the first edition of John Buchan's most famous novel was aired again when Avonworld Books recently acquired an almost unbelievably fine example of the second impression, complete with its original dustwrapper. The book is identical in every respect to the 1st edition save for the words 'Second Impression' on the title page.

According to Blanchard (A32) The Thirty-Nine Steps was first published in book form on 19 October 1915 (having previously been serialised in Blackwood's Magazine, written under the pseudonym 'H. de V.', in July, August and September 1915). Both the second and third impressions were also published in 1915, so were 'hot on the heels' of the first, the second probably only weeks (or possibly even days) afterwards. Janet Adam Smith tells us that 25,000 copies were sold by the end of the year.

The dustwrapper is particularly scarce as it is believed many, possibly most, copies of the first and early impressions were acquired and eagerly read by soldiers serving in France, and a fragile paper wrapper was likely to be an early casualty in those conditions.

In common with other known examples of the dustwrapper on the first edition of this title, this one has the coloured painting of the scene in the house in Queen Anne's Gate on the front and the list of Blackwood's Popular Shilling Novels (including The Thirty-Nine Steps) on the back, with boxed advertisements for other recently published Blackwood books on the front and rear flaps:

Front flap - Ian Hay's New Volume THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND

Back flap - MY POLICE COURT FRIENDS WITH THE COLOURS by Robert Holmes

Within the last two years a dustwrapper with different boxed advertisements on the front and rear flaps has come to light. These are quoted 'plaudits' for Blackwood's Magazine, the text of which, somewhat surprisingly, as one would expect publicity blurbs for a monthly magazine to use the very latest quotes available, has dated press extracts from 1911--12 and 1913 and is, word-for-word, the same as on the dustwrapper for the first edition of Buchan's The Power-House, published a year later in 1916. The 'newly- discovered' example of a Thirty-Nine Steps dustwrapper, very badly torn and with some missing pieces, was sold at auction for 3000 but was restored professionally and was subsequently re-sold to a collector (on a copy of the first edition of the book in its usual condition of browned pages, etc) reportedly for close on 7,000.

Not unnaturally, this version (with the Blackwood's Magazine flap advertisements) was then claimed to be the 'true' first edition dustwrapper. A great deal of 'detective work' has since been done in what has become a personal crusade for some collectors to get to the bottom of the mystery, but as yet to no avail. A useful clue would be to know the actual month of publication of either of the books advertised on the flaps (listed on the blurb as 'just' published), but enquiries at the British Library and other book publication reference sources have drawn a blank.

Thus, to date no one knows. Majority 'expert' opinion has for a long time held that the dustwrapper on the second impression acquired by Avonworld is exactly the same as the wrapper on the first, and close examination of that particular copy goes some way to proving the case. The only browning in the book is on the endpapers where, especially on the rear papers, the pattern is precisely consistent with the flap on the wrapper, indicating that this dustwrapper had been on the book since it was new. Further, it is unlikely that the publishers, eager to get out more copies quickly with a 'run-away best-seller' on their hands, would have bothered to change the advertisements on the flaps at that stage.

Unlike every other copy Avonworld has seen, there is no browning of the pages whatsoever. The blue boards and lettering are near pristine, again consistent with the dustwrapper having been on the book all its life. The only defects are minor bumping to the extremities and a slight 'bubbling' of the blue cloth about half way down on the back board. There is no sign of any staining so this is not due to water or damp. It is believed this is purely the effect of a breakdown in the glue used to secure the cloth to the board, probably due to temperature variations over the years. As to the dustwrapper itself, it is bright and complete, with only very minor chipping and rubbing at the extremities.

By coincidence, in early February 2001 the existence in a private collection of another copy of the first edition in dustwrapper was reported 'through the trade' and, what's more, so it is said, the book is inscribed by Buchan (to someone: details not known) as a presentation copy 'on publication'. Apparently, the dustwrapper on this copy has the Blackwood's Magazine advertisements. If this wrapper can be proved 'beyond reasonable doubt' to be 'original' to the book, then the whole argument is wide open again. Maybe Blackwood's used both flap versions on the first and early impressions. In view of the dated quotes in praise of the magazine, it is possible this was a 'stock' set of flap blurbs which were used when no current newly published book blurbs were available.

If any member has any more information which would help to solve the mystery once and for all, Avonworld, and a lot of JB collectors, would be extremely grateful!

Blanchard R G, 1981 The First Editions of John Buchan - A Collector's Bibliography. Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut.
Adam Smith J, 1965 John Buchan. Rupert Hart-Davis, London.


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