Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Book of Hours

Many of Jane Shaw's stories involve restoring the fortunes of impoverished middle-class people. This theme is touched on in her very first book, Breton Holiday, when Raymond wishes to join the cavalry but the family does not have enough money, so he has to sit a civil service exam instead. A little treasure would change all that. In Susan and the Home-made Bomb, the Harding family are unable to afford to send Jennifer to the Sloane School of Art because of her grandfather's unusual will forbidding the sale of their large house. The discovery of a Fra Angelico hidden under a hideous painting solves the Hardings' problems. And in No Trouble for Susan, poor, forgetful Mrs. Gregson is about to be evicted from her cottage by the heartless Sir Arthur Symes and is saved at the last minute when John Hunter announces that the little book she had found among her late husband's belongings and had hoped to get a few pounds for turns out to be a Book of Hours, worth £15,000.

In previous posts, I've looked at the dubious claims made in Jane Shaw's books concerning the value of the treasures her characters uncover and compared them with how much they are worth in real life. Her claims in Where is Susan? that an 1862 one-shilling Deep Green stamp was worth £900 and in A Job for Susan that a 1954 half-crown was worth £12,000 turned out to be totally untrue, with the real value being only a fraction of the prices stated in the books. Therefore, I began to wonder about the Book of Hours.

A Book of Hours is a medieval prayer book, elaborately written by hand on vellum and lavishly decorated. They were originally commissioned by devout catholics who wished to follow a monastic prayer cycle, hence the name. However, they soon became the status symbol of the Middle Ages, the medieval equivalent of a Rolex watch. The longer and more lavishly illustrated, or illuminated, they were, the higher the price. They were mostly owned by royalty and the nobility. As the fifteenth century progressed, shorter and less luxurious books appeared and they became more affordable. They are by no means rare. The fact that they are made of vellum means that they are durable, and the fact that they are considered by many people to be the most beautiful books of all time has resulted in their careful preservation and enduring popularity among collectors.

But how much are they worth? A little research shows that the less lavish books can be had for a sum in the low five-figure range. The highest price ever paid for a Book of Hours, according to Abe Books, was £8,600,000 for the Rothchild Prayerbook in 1999. So we have a wide range of prices to work with. The really high prices are paid for the larger and very lavish books that are illustrated by famous artists. Mrs. Gregson's is constantly described as being small but beautifully illustrated. The fifteen thousand pounds that Sir Arthur ended up paying for the book would be equivalent to around three hundred thousand today. I suspect that this figure is somewhat inflated but theoretically possible. So, unlike the 1862 one-shilling Deep Green and the 1954 half crown, the Book of Hours in No Trouble for Susan may, with a little stretch of the imagination, actually be worth the price it is given in the story.