Much Sound and Little Sense


       Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, popularly known as W. S. Gilbert, was born November 18th, 1836 in London, England. He pursued a career in law in 1861, the same year he started to contribute to the newly launched Fun magazine with his “Bab” ballads, along with the comic illustrations he did himself. Because Gilbert’s poems and illustrations, both nonsensical and satirical, were received so well when Fun began he continued to contribute and add to the kind of feel Fun became known for. Though the pay was poor, £1 per column, each measured by the cashier whether they were verse or prose, Gilbert continued to send in his poems and woodcuts, always signed “Bab.” Most often Gilbert said he felt pressured by deadlines and churned out what he could, which was always well received regardless.

       Gilbert furthered his artistic career when playwright Thomas William Robertson recommended him to produce a Christmas piece in under two weeks. He succeeded, and in 1870 he met Sir Arthur Sullivan and they began working together the following year. Their most famous pieces include the operettas The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, and Mikado. The pair eventually split due to financial strains and personality differences. Gilbert wrote a few burlesques, or risque parodies, including one called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in later years.

       While Gilbert was teaching two young women how to swim in a lake,

one had difficulties and called for help. Gilbert jumped in to help her and fought to bring her to shore but suffered a heart attack in the lake, dying later that day, May 29th, 1911, at the age of 74.


       The “Bab” Ballads were first collected and published in 1868 by John Hotten in London. The second collection of these ballads was printed as More “Bab” Ballads by Routledge, still a prominent publisher in England, in 1872. These two volumes converged in 1884 when Routledge published this particular copy of the book, named The “Bab” Ballads: Much Sound and Little Sense and marked as the “complete edition in one volume.” After much research, it can be surmised that the title page of this book, which along with a handful of the last poems are missing from this copy, is the one pictured here. This lack of title page made it very hard to track down the actual publication date and identify which copy of Bab this book

actually was.

       Despite the disrepair of the text block this copy has a cover in amazing condition, which means that the cover is still intact (front cover, spine, and back cover still connected) and its color has not faded (still in the determined original green). Based on the bookseller label, it can be said that the book was sold sometime in the early 1910s or 1920s by the rare books dealer Joseph McDonough in Albany, New York. From the wear on the label front in the gutter-edge of the front end-page, it is apparent that this book was still intact when he sold it. Since this is the only ownership mark found in what remains of the book, prior ownership cannot be easily determined, or even the reason for its disrepair. I bought this broken book for five dollars at an antique shop about four or five years ago in 

Virginia, and it has been on my shelf ever since.


       Based on what has the book is being sold as, intact, elsewhere, this particular copy does not hold all that much monetary value. If I were to ever sell it, I would do my best to conserve it first, making it somewhat whole again. This would change the monetary value of the book slightly, elevating it to the $10-$15 range rather than the $2-$3 range I would have it in initially. But the conservation wouldn’t do too much to the price because the book is still not completely intact or even all that valuable on the market right now. To learn how I got this price, visit the worksheet page here.

       It holds some scholarly and trade value, however, as it tells us about McDonough’s stock and how this and similar books of the period were sewn and covered. It can be used as a valuable teaching tool for those wanting to identify certain types and eras of binding and as a practice piece for conservation apprentices, like me!

All works used are listed in the bibliography under this biography's title heading.