Ella from Box of Books recently sent me a copy of A Compendium of Imaginary Saints, a book she not only wrote and illustrated, but one she made, as in, created the covers and bound the pages. I am in awe — the book is extraordinary.
It’s small and easy to hold in your hand, with gold varnish on the covers. You can see pictures of it here and a description of its contents here. The inside cover tells you that the book is published by The Absent Classic publishing company: “Printers of Unexpected Books.” For those of you who don’t know about The Absent Classic series, it consists of a series of blog posts Ella created, each one featuring a made-up classic complete with a picture of the book’s cover, some excerpts, and information about the author’s life. I loved this series; I wished the books actually did exist so I could read them. Ella’s first TAC book was called Great Victorian Zombie Stories. How could anyone resist that, assuming there actually was a book to resist? Many of the books in the series came from the nineteenth century and captured perfectly a certain kind of Victorian sensibility — serious, pious, and deeply odd. (I can’t seem to find where these posts are now — help me Ella!)
Next there is the title page (also pictured in the post linked to above), which tells you that the Compendium is by Eleanor Hofstead and illustrated by Gloria Glass, Ella’s authorial and artistic pseudonyms. Then there is a brief note by Thaddeus R. Windrow, the editor-in-chief of The Absent Classic, which gives a brief biography of Hofstead — she is “a Catholic schoolteacher and amateur hagiologist,” who “spent her lifetime absorbed in the rich tradition of Christian saints.”
And then the main text begins, a one-page biography of each saint, with the saint’s portrait on the facing page. The portraits are perfect, what Ella calls “imitation medieval,” flat, simply-drawn faces in black and white, surrounded by a golden halo. And the biographies are fascinating — they are also portraits in miniature, telling about conversion experiences, visions, good works, and horrendous deaths. Each one ends by telling you what the saint is patron saint of, and this is where Ella’s sense of humor comes in, because these saints are patrons of some odd things. Here’s one of my favorites, quoted in full; it’s the biography of St. Eve of Aquitane:
St. Eve of Aquitane was born in France around 1645. As a young girl, she was noted for her extraordinary beauty, and also for her quiet, humble disposition. Although her mother, a near-destitute widow, arranged several wealthy matches for Eve, she refused them all. By the time she was in her twenties, her beauty was so famous that people came from all over the countryside to look at her. Finally St. Eve rubbed her face with nettles and thorns until she was scarred, whereupon she was left alone as she desired, to pray and meditate. She is the patron saint of acne sufferers.
There are also bios of the patron saint of reformed prostitutes, of school principles, of rescue workers, of male nurses, and of divorce lawyers. These are extraordinary saints indeed. I love the way the book mixes the realistic — the portraits, the horrific details — with the amusing and slightly absurd — there’s a patron saint of tatto artists!
Included with the book is a flyer about The Absent Classic publishing company, this particular title, and the next title to be printed: “Selected Works of J.E. Echwell,” which will “offer the best stories, drawings, and essays of that celebrated Victorian moralist, the founder of the Society for the Improvement of Literature.” I’m looking forward to it already!