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“Who is Sylvia, what is she, That all our scribes commend her?” Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

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By Lauren Hepburn

This International Women’s Day, Peter Harrington celebrates Sylvia Beach, the trailblazing bookseller and publisher who helped shape the literary landscape of her age. A century ago, she opened a higgledy-piggledy bookshop and lending library on Paris’ Left Bank called Shakespeare and Company. It was celebrated and frequented by exceptional artists and authors, from Simone de Beauvoir to Man Ray, and Beach’s collections helped promulgate English-language writing across Europe. Today, Beach leaves behind two particularly astonishing legacies: not only the world’s most famous bookshop, but also the publication of one of Modernism’s greatest works, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Beach was born in the United States in 1887, and lived on Library Street in Princeton, New Jersey. She was a europhile; after living in France from 1901 to 1905, when her father was assistant minister of the American Church in Paris, Beach travelled back to Europe a number of times and even lived in Spain before returning to Paris at the end of World War I to study literature at the Sorbanne. 

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Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, Paris 1938.

Soon after, she visited La Maison des Amis des Livres, a bookshop on the banks of the Seine that was owned by Adrienne Monnier. That a woman should run such an enterprise was rare and impressive, and it galvanised Beach to open one herself. In 1919 a decisive telegram was sent to her mother: ‘Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.’ So, with a little financial support and the help of Monnier, who became her lifelong friend and lover, Shakespeare & Co. opened later that year. It was soon so popular that they had to relocate to a bigger space on Rue de l’Odéon, the same street as Monnier’s own lending library. Ernest Hemingway’s evocative description of Shakespeare and Company is as inviting as the shop must have been: ‘a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.’ 

In her memoir, lovingly entitled Shakespeare and Company, the full extent of Beach’s influence on the literary circles of Europe and America is revealed. Her intimate recollections position the bookshop as Paris’ most multicultural salon. Through it, she brought a dizzying number of international artists and writers together, both on the shelves and in real life. Friends and patrons included the likes of Ernest Hemingway (‘my best customer’), F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘Mr and Mrs Pound’ from the US, Jean Prévost, Paul Valéry and André Gide from France, and from Britain and Ireland, T. S. Eliot, DH Lawrence and, of course, Joyce. 

“My loves were Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company.” – Beach

Beach’s detailed account of publishing Ulysses in 1922 is indispensable. After Joyce revealed to her that no one would print his controversial epic in full, she offered to, under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company. Unpaid, Beach near-sacrificed herself to do so. A monumental struggle with printers eventually led to 100 copies being distributed by Shakespeare and Co. on Dutch handmade paper. Due to his own financial troubles, Joyce later negotiated a more lucrative contract with a US publisher, but Beach was steadfast, writing in her memoir, ‘A baby belongs to its mother, not to the midwife, doesn’t it?’ But without Beach’s vision, courage and perseverance, Ulysses may never have been.

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First edition, first issue, of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922.

During France’s occupation a German soldier entered Beach’s bookshop and demanded to buy her personal copy of Finnegan’s Wake, the book in which Joyce paid tribute to his publisher: ‘for Who-is-silvier’. True to character, she boldly refused and, in response, was threatened to have the shop’s contents confiscated. With the help of Monnier and others, Beach hastily packed up and hid her entire library and closed the doors of Shakespeare and Company. Little did she know how her legend would live on.