Losing my marbles

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

I'm a bit obsessed with the marbled leaf in Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy. It must be one of the strangest pages in literature. (Or – to be more exact, not one but two pages, since a leaf comprises a recto and verso, a back and a front). It’s hard to know how to think of it, since it isn’t exactly part of the narrative, and it isn’t an illustration either. If you’ve ever read the book, you’ll know that it’s what Tristram, endeavouring - but mostly failing - to tell his life story, calls the ‘motley emblem of my work’. Motley, meaning disparate or incongruously varied, is the term for the jester’s mismatched and multi-coloured garb. This reference makes perfect sense in the context of the novel, which singularly fails to recount its narrator’s story in any coherent way, but jumps about between different moments and involves constant digressions into other people’s histories and even other books. It often seems pieced together from disparate bits and pieces. It’s appropriate that – in a physical sense, too - Sterne’s novel incorporates this stray page, a misfit that seemingly has no place in a novel at all. (There is a black page, as well this marbled page, both of them weirdly interrupting the story).

Perhaps one of the strange things about the marbled leaf is that it is out of place, disrupting the time and sequence of the book – we might expect to see marbled endpapers at the beginning or end of a book, but not in the middle. It’s also an anomaly because the results of paper marbling, by their nature, are always unique. Printing is about replicability and pages that all look the same. Marbling is the opposite. So these are pages that are never the same twice. Every one is different (at least in these early editions, before later printing technology allowed the marbling to be reproduced exactly). Just to prove the point, I photographed a lot of them in various different libraries and made a weirdly hypnotic gif.

You have to think that Sterne was a royal pain in the backside for his publisher, Dodsley. Sterne actually published the first two volumes of the novel at his own expense but it was in volume three, when Dodsley agreed to take over the production, that the author decided to introduce this unconventional leaf. Hand marbled leaves must have been unconventional and inconvenient to produce, not to mention expensive. Each would have to be created separately, folded back around the margins so only the central sections caught the paint. The page numbers were then stamped on, as you can see from the slightly irregular typeface.

These marbled leaves didn’t go through the printing press and weren’t part of the original folded quire or gathering, but were a later addition to it. But what are the logistics? How would you go about incorporating these pages into a book, using the technologies of eighteenth century printing and binding? That's the question Dodsley must have wrestled with. Having squinted up close at many of these (in the Beinecke Library, British Library, the Houghton Library and the Bodleian), it seems that various methods were employed. Here’s the first Dodsley edition of 1761 (Beinecke Library, Im St45 759ep3), which simply has an extra leaf pasted in, glued onto an existing page using a little folded flap. The page numbers are in the correct sequence because an allowance has been made for this extra leaf, but the collation numbers are more revealing (you can see these at the bottom of the page, they’re instructions to the binder about how to order and folded the sheets). These show there is an extra leaf between folio L5 and L6.

In other copies, the collation numbers indicate that this extra leaf was pasted onto the stub of a ‘cancelled leaf’, (ie. one that had been cut out). Presumably a blank leaf was included in the original gathering, then carefully sliced out leaving just a narrow strip that the marbled leaf could be glued onto. In some copies, the blank placeholder page remained there permanently, or at least that seems to be what’s going on in this example. You can also find gaps left where it looks like a square of marbled paper was supposed to be pasted in, but evidently wasn’t. Even in its absence, it seems to generate infinite variations.

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