Lights, Action, Camera

A thrill of the present day is to see any of the publications of Thomas Bird Mosher resurface in contemporary ways. While writing the bibliography two books using Mosher’s publications came to my attention: William Morris’s Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (Mosher, 1900) and George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea (Mosher, 1902). The former is actually a modern facsimile of Mosher’s production including the ruled pages, shoulder notes, decorative head- and tail-pieces, and overall design, but of course done in the form of a cheap paperback by Newcastle Publishing Co, Inc. of North Hollywood, California in 1977 with a “Forgotten Fantasy Classic” cover by Robert Kline. The other book, reprinted by Austryn Wainhouse who’s the director and publisher of The Marlboro Press of Marlboro, Vermont came to my attention shortly after By the Ionian Sea was on the market in 1991. I contacted Wainhouse and offered to purchase the original Mosher source book if he would inscribe it, so today in the Mosher collection I have not only the Marlboro paperback edition with related advertisements, but also the sage green Mosher book which carries this inscription:

Come upon in Albany, in the course of a visit to the Dove and Hudson Bookstore there, this edition of By the Ionian Sea provided the basis (and the inspiration) for the Marlboro Press imprint of 1991. A.W.”

The credit to Mosher appearing on the back cover states: “By the Ionian Sea, originally published in England in 1901, was last brought out in this country [America] in 1920 by Thomas Mosher, whose lovely little edition of what he called this ‘beloved book of Italian wandering’ is the basis for the present reprint.” The above two books, then, formed the beginning a small yet interesting collection of resurrected Mosher books which have entered modern culture; however, little did I know that this would only be the beginning of an interesting hunt for Mosher à la modern.

Back in April 1996 I had an opportunity to have a prospectus presented to Mark Montgomery of the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) channel. Montgomery was with a French camera crew from Paris filming a six hour documentary at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. Their subject was Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a consultant to the production was George T. McWhorter with whom I’ve had many a delightful conversation and e-mail exchange. In fact it was George who assisted with the Mosher Press bibliography both by unreservedly opening the Special Collections doors at the University of Louisville for my bibliographic research, and later by making a substantial personal monetary gift to the bibliography’s production in exchange for having the Mosher bibliography dedicated to his friend and Mosher collector, Kenneth H. Shanks. George was my “inside man” so to speak, and it was through his good auspices that the prospectus for a documentary on Mosher was passed along to Montgomery for A&E’s consideration. Alas, nothing came of it although Montgomery did present it to the powers that be, and my hopes for a documentary or something involving ol’ Moshwig in film came to a halt, that is, until October 26, 2004.

The message light was blinking, but the perfunctory routine of listening to recorded messages was interrupted by a most unusual call which I thought just had to be a personal joke someone was playing. I’ve been at the butt end of such pranks before, always the first to laugh aloud at being tricked once the gig is up.. The voice claimed to be Yuriria Montero, production assistant at Eldesco Productions in Spain. She was saying something about a film they were getting ready to shoot in Northern Ireland and Madrid, and something about getting my permission to use a Mosher book in the film and that I was to call her back as soon as possible. “Right” I said, smiling to myself. I put down the pencil without writing the phone number and headed upstairs to prepare to leave for an appointment in Philadelphia. With a list of possible suspects in mind, I was now laughing aloud at this practical joke. Perfection, I thought. This is a new high, to get a person with broken English to call be about such a fantastic thing. Really! Then, just before getting underway, I checked my e-mail messages, and there it was again! “I’m writing you from Spain, from a film production office” and going on about how they are in the pre-production phase of Isabel Coixet’s new film, “The Secret Life of Words” (La vida secreta de las palabras) and how Mosher’s edition of The Letters of a Portuguese Nun by Marianna Alcoforado was being used in the film, how they want to show the book and how it would be used to help define the lead character as “an object that decorates his set and defines him.” As she went on, it became clear that they must have come upon the Mosher Press and the Mosher Books websites and began to think that I, apparently, was still in the business of the Mosher Press productions and therefore wanted to “contact your company to receive a written permission to show the jacket of this book.” She ended with her phone and e-mail contact information, so just before scooting out the door I hurriedly dashed off the computer keyboard: “I will work with you on this, but right now I’m headed to Philadelphia. When I get back this evening I’ll write a full reply to you. Thank you for asking” to which, amazingly, I got the following brief reply a minute later: “Many thanks for your quickly answer. I’m waiting for your news.” Was this really on the level? It seemed to be.

After returning, I wrote a brief letter which I thought would be all they’d need”

Yuriria Montero

Production Assistant

Dear Ms. Montero:

Yes, you have my permission to use the cover of the 1900 Mosher edition of The Letters of a Portuguese Nun. This 1900 Mosher edition is a reprint of the London, David Nutt, 1897 second edition of Edgar Prestage’s English translation. The Mosher book’s cover, I’m reasonably sure, is not in copyright and using it in your film shouldn’t be a problem especially since you’re just showing the cover. I am not a lawyer, nor can this be considered as legal advise, but from where I stand I don’t see it as being a problem.

Is it possible to get a clip, or a short run of that portion of the film to see how you use it, or can you update me on when the film will be available?

Phil Bishop

Now of course they didn’t need my permission. The book, its contents, and the artist’s design on the front cover, are all in the public domain by now, but if it made them feel a little better that they actually got some form of permission for the book, and because of that they were lead to search out the possible owner of the rights which appeared to be me, well… so much the better. I wasn’t going to argue the point, so cheerfully gave them my “permission” for whatever that was worth.

Over the next few months we stayed in contact and it occurred to me that what really might be the “cat’s meow” would be if I could acquire the actual book they used for the filming. I was told they were in Belfast filming until the week of the December 20th after which the crew would return to Madrid and only then would they “know what happened with all materials used in the film.” Ms. Montero had received my request to purchase the Mosher book, and wrote “let me confirm if I understood you. Do you want to buy the book (”Letters of a Portuguese Nun”) that we used in the movie?” She got it right, and I followed up immediately with the response:

You are correct, I want to buy the book used in the movie IF it is the same book you discussed before: Marianna Alcoforado’s Letters of a Portuguese Nun published and printed by Thomas Bird Mosher.

As per your instructions, I will contact Covadonga R. Gamboa toward the end of next week and ask her “about the destiny of the book” and hopefully I will be able to buy / purchase it, AND get a letter from your company stating that this was the book which appears in a scene in the Isabel Coixet movie: The Secret Life of Words.

Thank you so very much for getting back to me on this. I have been following the news about the filming of the movie and knew that they are in Northern Ireland. I’m quite excited about what you’re doing, and was very pleased to see the actors involved and that the film is in English. If you have a chance to speak with Covadonga R. Gamboa before next week, please tell of my interest in the book.

Best wishes for the upcoming holiday season!

So from that point on, all my contact would be with a new actor upon the stage, one Covadonga R. Gamboa, which would become a fun adventure in itself. The next twenty-five pieces of e-mail correspondence would encompass all that was finally needed to try to secure the little Mosher book.

The “crew” was returning to Madrid, and all the filming in December was completed. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding “The Secret Life of Words” (La vida secreta de las palabras), but this much I know. It was both written and directed by Isabel Coixet (b. April 9, 1960, Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain) whose latest film “My Life without Me” won a number of awards on the international film festival circuit (Best Canadian Feature at the Atlantic Film Festival; prizes at the Bordeaux, Berlin, and Sant Jordi International Film Festivals; a 2004 Goya Award for Isabel Coixet’s adapted screenplay; and lead actress, Sarah Polley, was named “Best Actress” in a Canadian Film by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle (also nominated for a Genie Award for Best Actress). It’s an El Deseo production along with the collaboration of MEDIAPRO, and by modern movie standards, is a low-budget film of around four million euros.

“The Secret Life of Words” packs some notable actors in it, including Tim Robbins (acclaimed American actor/director, star in the Oscar-nominated “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Mystic River,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “The Player”) who plays a lead role of Joseph, Julie Christy (British actress whose long career recently included great parts in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Troy” and “Finding Neverland”) whose role in this film hasn’t been disclosed, Sarah Polly (Canadian star of “My Life without Me” as mentioned above) as Hanna, and several other actors. In brief, this is what I’ve been able to find out about the film thus far. The storyline involves Hanna, a mysterious thirty-year-old Yugoslavian war survivor of the conflict there. After the war she lives a monotonous, lonely life working in the local textile factory, until she is sent on vacation and somehow gets involved in a world of men on a North Sea oil rig for several days. There she has to care for Joseph who’s suffering from severe burns which has also blinded him. She meets a number of unusual people in curious relationships, and nobody wants to talk about certain events occurring on the rig, events which are important if one wants to understand the lives of those people and which set the stage for future events. Where does the Mosher book come in? My understanding that focus is made on The Letters of a Portuguese Nun to help viewers understand just what makes this blind-man Joseph tick. Beyond that, I can’t say, because like everybody else, I haven’t seen a movie that hasn’t been edited yet.

After repeated e-mails to Covadonga R. Gamboa, I finally received a response on January 10, 2005 letting me know that she finally has gotten back to the office after almost two months and that she read over all my persistent entreaties. Things seems to be moving along just fine, but then a setback. She informed me that she’s still trying to negotiate getting the book but noted the problem that “…Isabel Coixet, the director, …wanted that book too.” Heavens, how was I, here in tiny Millersville and worlds apart both geographically and professionally, to compete with the film’s director for the same book! So I decided to pull out all the stops, or at least every bit of feeble means I was able to muster under the circumstances, and wrote to Ms. Gamboa:

Terrific to receive word from you! No problem with it all taking longer than expected.

Please, let Isabel Coixet know that I can supply her with another copy of that Mosher publication. It will look just the same, or most likely will be an even better copy. I have hundreds of the Mosher books. So she can get her wish to have “a copy” and I can get my wish to have “that copy” along with a brief letter that affirms that that was the actual book used in filming “The secret life of words.”

I’m just as excited as can be that you got in touch with me. I’m sure we can work something out to everybody’s satisfaction. Isabel Coixet will have a copy just like the one in the film (actually I can send her a couple copies) with the same date and the same cover design and being the same edition. I would like the actual copy filmed (along with brief letter of authentication or better yet signed by Isabel Coixet with a note in her hand that this was the copy used in the film) to put with my huge Mosher Press collection. And I would also pay you for the copy that was filmed. It would go into my collection and NOT for resale.

Also, we can do all to your satisfaction by my first sending you another copy of the book so you an see that I mean exactly what I say, and so that Isabel Coixet can feel assured that this is just like the book filmed. I am very excited about the film, and will order a copy for myself when it reaches the DVD market, and of course will go to see it in the fall when it’s released.

I might also add that I can supply Isabel Coixet with additional books from Mosher’s same “Old World Series”. So if she wants, I can supply her with another copy of Letters of a Portuguese Nun PLUS several other Old World Series books, all at no cost. She could end up with a treasure trove of good material in addition to her own personal copy of the book. I’m just trying to make it plain that I’ll do what it takes to get that actual copy used in the filming for the Mosher Press collection.

One last thing. Here’s information on who I am and the Mosher Press collection that I’ve formed. You are free to use it in discussing things with Isable Coixet, or in introducing me to her. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have, OR correspond with her directly if she likes.

The information on me is at

[former Millersville University website]

Information on the Mosher collection is at

[former Millersville University website]

I’ve very excited you got in contact, and look forward to hearing good news from you.

Best wishes,

Then, nine days of silence. Had I said too much? Did I appear to be begging? Should I have written a much briefer note? Had I blown it? I couldn’t wait any longer and I fired off another e-mail asking what was up, and several hours later received this response:

I’ve been talking [to] the Director, Isabel and the Producer, Esther Garcia about your offer. They are telling me that if they could have a couple copies of the book (same edition), they will be pleased to give you the one that we have use in the film. (signed by Isabel Coixet with a note in her hand that this was the copy used in the film). Could you send me those copies?

Eureka! The decisions were finally made, and my feeling of complete inadequacy in having any bargaining power was now behind me. Along with confirming the e-mail’s reception, I had to find out exactly which edition was used since Mosher had two printings, one in 1900 and the other in 1905. I also wanted to confirm the mailing address in Madrid, and that by “couple” she was really referring to just two copies. I know what “couple” means, but nowadays one can’t be to sure that a person using it doesn’t actually mean several. It turns out that the 1900 edition was the used, and affirmative answers clarifying her remarks had all but settled the matter. Now I had to get the fine copies of The Letters of a Portuguese Nun.

Getting the first copy was no problem since I just pulled my own personal copy from the Mosher collection. There’s now a hole in the collection, but I’d take care of that later. I had other copies in storage, but none of them were in very good to fine condition, so I scouted the Internet and came up with one which sounded like it would most likely fit the bill. It did, and I was pleased when I received it via overnight express. Both copies were neatly packaged in an International Priority Mail envelope and sent on January 22 which I followed up with the following e-mail letter:

This morning I sent the two very well packed copies of The Letters of a Portuguese Nun (Mosher, 1900) by International Priority Mail, so you should be receiving them soon. One is marked specifically for Isable Coixet (with an inscription to her) and the other is for Esther Garcia.

In return, would you please send me the copy of the same Mosher title that was used to make, and which appear in, the film “The Secret Life of Words” inscribed by Isabel Coixet herself with specific mention that this was the very copy used in her film. If any of the following things can accompany the little book I would most appreciate it. I leave this up to you since I can’t demand such, but rely totally upon your good graces to perhaps provide me with a little something extra (believe me, it takes so little to make a book collector happy):

In addition to Isabel Coixet inscribing the book to me indicating that this is the very copy that was used in making her film. — The longer the inscription the better, and should be dated

1. If a brief letter on either the director’s or the producer’s letterhead (or your company letterhead) could also restate that this is the copy that was used in the film and that you are sending the copy, inscribed by Isabel Coixet, to me.

2. If you have any picture(s) of the scene with Joseph (Tim Robbins) and the book, or just of the book, or both.

3. Any clip from the film, perhaps an unedited clip showing the scene and the book.

4. A portion of the script for the scene.

5. Anything else that might relate to the book which was used in the filming.

Listen, I realize that these are additional things, and that’s not what you initially agreed to, so I fully understand if the only thing I get in the mail is the inscribed book. I’m totally at your mercy, and I will be very pleased just with the book, but… and this is a BIG BUT… if you can provide anything else before all this disappears while you move on to your next project and your next movie, you will certainly make this Mosher book collector a very, very happy man indeed.

Thank you so very much, Ms. Gamboa. I have greatly appreciated what you have been willing to do for me in connecting with Isabel Coixet and getting all the arrangements made. You are a very good woman, and I’ll certainly include mention of your kind assistance in my memoirs, really! And PLEASE do thank Isabel Coixet for me. I have a hunch that I’m going to become a VERY BIG FAN of her and her movies.

With my very best and most sincere wishes,

On the 27th I received word that the “delivery was perfect” and the director’s copy which I inscribed was being sent to Barcelona where she lives. As for the clips, etc., all that would have to wait until the editing process is completed which, according to messages on the Internet, could be as early as May 20th, or as late as sometime in the fall.

The book and letter of authentification arrived here in Millersville on February 14th and I fired off the following:

The inscribed book, along with the signed letter from Esther Garcia, arrived safely here in the U.S.A. Please thank her and Isabel Coixet for providing these. I am very pleased, and thank you so very much for helping this to happen. I will be writing a lengthy essay on this for my memoirs and will be including your name as one who helped to make it possible.

I’ll be in contact in the not too distant future about the clip, photo stills, etc., and I very much look forward to the movie in fall 2005 and will purchase my own copy of it if it goes on DVD. Thank you again!

I also asked Ms. Gamboa what I could do to reward her for fulfilling her role so well as intermediary, to which I’ve never received a reply. Certainly after I receive those film clips, etc., I’ll have to do something nice for her. And the letter and inscription in the book? They’re absolutely great. In the letter, the producer has written on El Deseo letterhead:

Madrid 8th February 2005

I, Esther Garcia, Producer of the qualified movie “The Secret Life of Words” that Isabel Coixet has directed, I certify that this copy of “The Letters of a Portuguese Nun”, is the book that we have used in the filming of the movie.

The Book, which takes a manuscript inscription from the own [sic] director, has been sent to Philip R. Bishop.

Best regards,


Esther Garcia

Her letter is the kind of business expression that I was hoping for, and collaborates the role of the book along with the director’s inscription. The biggest winning in all this is, of course, the inscribed copy of the book itself which now carries the delightful hand-written light blue ink inscription on the front free flyleaf:

We use this very | book in “The secret | life of words”. | I hope “the portu- | guese nun” or her | ghost will be | proud of the | film..| Isabel | Coixet | December 2004.

Now that’s an inscription coming from an artist. Apparently Coixet dated the inscription to coincide with the month that the filming ended, because clearly we were in 2005 when all these negotiations were finalized. I can understand her wish to have this object from the film related time-wise to the days of filming in December 2004 since she was asserting that this was the very book used during that filming, and the filming itself belonged to the December 2004 time period. That portion of her inscription expressing her hope that “the portuguese nun or her ghost will be proud of the film” is simply precious, and comes from someone representing the artistic aspirations for recognition. Now we must wait for the finished product, the edited film that’s being readied for release by late summer of by this fall at the latest. Of course, I’ll be in contact for the clips, photo stills, or whatever else they can provide of the book’s appearance, but most importantly, we have to wait to view the film itself. Here’s hoping that it’s a good one.

As for the letter and inscribed copy of the book, that’s now all inside a solander case along with the letter’s envelope, the “Pro Forma Invoice” (which indicates the “purpose” of the volume to be of “no commercial value, for cultural purposes only” and the monetary value to be 10 Euros), the DHL package labels, and the copy of the completed DHL Express shipping form. I’ll be adding any stills and clips, and of course a copy of the DVD when it’s released, and will be holding a little party when the film is released. Stay tuned for the second act!

© Philip R. Bishop
15 April 2005

This essay is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the September 2005 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.