The Secret Life of an Old Book – A Snapshot of Two Women

1910 Edition, The Religious Tract Society

It is August, and the sun is high in the sky. On the Norfolk coast, children run in and out of the lapping waves, sand clinging to their legs and cheeks and hair. Their stomachs are full of ice cream and candy floss, the sugar of the seaside treats and the salt of the sea clinging to their lips.

I loved the feeling of the hot sun on the nape of my neck and the cold water lapping against my knees, or soaking in to my swimsuit, bright blue with huge white flowers – I would lay on my stomach searching for shells and the oddly bright coloured stones which I loved to collect, though would invariably leave at my Grandparents house when we came home at the end of our stay.

Yet as much as I loved those hot days of sand and sea and salt and sugar, I loved the rainy days more, because those were the days my Father and I would go in the car and explore the plethora of second hand book shops that were dotted across the villages and small towns of North Norfolk. We would rarely buy anything (that wasn’t the point, and money was too hard to come by); the joy was in slowly, painstakingly searching through the rows of books, in shops that smelt of old leather, beeswax polish and tea.

There is something spiritual in finding and opening a book which has been un-read and unopened for decades – the scent of the paper, the way the words seem to reach out happily to you like old friends as they enjoy being read for the first time in too long; how they ache to give up their stories and lay against your hands like content dogs against the caress of their owners.

These days I can rarely explore a good second hand book shop as luxuriously as I once did in my childhood, but my Father still has an eye for a fascinating old book and this evening brought be a real treasure: a copy of Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyon.

This particular edition was published in 1910 by The Religious Tract Society (which later became the Lutterworth Press). The forward is a mini-history of both Pilgrims Progress through its various editions in Bunyan’s lifetime, and the RTS itself. The text for this edition (“…presented to readers of every class…”) is ‘as it stood when Bunyan’s death removed all possibility’ of further revisions by the author. And the second part has, it says, been ‘carefully collated’ with the 1686 second edition, which was the final edition to be printed in Bunyan’s life (the third edition being published in 1690, two years after his death).

What makes this book special is the clue that it contains, in a small handwritten inscription on the inside cover, to the journey which it has been on through in the hands of its previous owner or owners. As a child in those old shops in Norfolk, it was always those hand written inscriptions which fascinated me as much as the books themselves. Who were these people who had written these brief messages, and who were the people to whom they had been written? What had their lives been like? What had these books meant to them in their lifetimes?

This particular inscription reads:

Beatrice Cooper

with kind wishes from her mistress –

Dunston Lodge

Christmas 1911

And in the bottom left had corner, a Bible reference – Genesis 12, vs 2.

Here we have two women – one of some rank, yet nameless; and one who was a servant of the nameless mistress, but who has a name, an identity. I wonder at how the one came to give to give the book to the other – a Christmas present to a servant: was it a gesture of kindness and affection? Or the act of a woman of class doing her ‘Christian duty’?

And what of the woman who received it? When Beatrice received it was she pleased with it? The book is 105 years old but it is in excellent condition, yet the spine is not stiff, which suggests that it was read. Did she love it, cherish it? Or did she read it because her mistress expected it?

It is a mere snippet – and yet in just a tiny handful of words there is a story potentially as fascinating as the story within the book. 1910, the year the book was printed, was the year of Black Friday, the year Mary Macarthur led the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath to victory in their fight for a minimum wage, the year that there were two general elections, the year George V succeeded his father Edward VII as King and Dr Crippen was arrested, tried and hanged for his murdering his wife. In 1911, when Beatrice received the book, workers at the Singer sewing machine factory had gone on strike; suffragettes had stormed parliament, there had been a census and the hottest summer on record lasting from May to September.

How were these events shaping and changing their world?

There are lives and stories there, beckoning and yet perhaps unattainable. These women are but whispers of spirits upon the page, but I know that I will pause often on those words, and wonder. I will hover over the copper plate script and think about Beatrice and her unnamed mistress, bound to that book as inexorably as the author whose words inhabit the page.

Go then, my little Book, and show to all

That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,

What thou shalt keep close shut from the rest:

And wish what thou shall show them may be blessed

To them for good, may make them choose to be

Pilgrims better by far than thee or me.  ~ John Bunyan