Fables (John Gay, 1727)

A collection of poems geared towards children of upper-class families destined for public life. Indeed, Gay wrote them specifically for George II’s youngest son, Prince William. Almost all feature anthropomorphized animals illustrating some moral point, often the perils of vanity and pretense, or the dangers of being taken in by self-serving sycophants posing as friends. At the same time, there’s a certain sarcastic undertone that rather suggests the distinction between politics and realpolitik is a polite fiction.

At least in the fourth edition (1738), every single poem has a large woodcut depicting its principal scene, and they’re all exquisitely detailed.

Inscription: A gift to William Webster on occasion of his 14th birthday, June 7th, 1741.

Fenwick’s Career (Mrs. Humphry Ward, 1906)

John Fenwick is an artist in a small town in the north of England. At home, his prospects are limited. He wants nothing more than to go to London and make a name for himself in the art world. One of his patrons makes him a loan that will take him there, but his wife (Phoebe) and young child (Carrie) will have to stay behind — if only for the first year, until he finds an income.

The first few months are rough. Fenwick is hotheaded and didactic, not at all easy to get along with, but at his core, he’s deeply unsure of himself and is embarrassed by what Londoners must think of his country ways. Through an artist acquaintance, he’s introduced to a potential patron, Lord Findon. Findon is a talkative man and the conversation turns to marriage — Findon, assuming Fenwick is single, warns against marrying young and to never think of a wife before being firmly established in a career. Fenwick, terrified of losing his only prospect, says nothing to correct him.

Findon commissions a portrait of his daughter, Eugénie de Pastourelles, and during the time she spends sitting for it, she and Fenwick become good friends. She sees through Fenwick’s pompous exterior to the insecurities beneath it and patiently helps him find his footing in London society. All the while, Fenwick has kept quiet about Phoebe — afraid that if he told Findon now, he’d be offended at not being told earlier. He’s told Phoebe all about Findon and his daughter, though, but Phoebe — always a bit jealous and distrustful — becomes convinced that de Pastourelles is trying to beguile Fenwick.

As the year nears its end, Fenwick finds success, and at last, his paintings begin to sell. He’s out of his studio when Phoebe arrives unannounced. She’s convinced herself that her husband has been having an affair. In the studio, she finds sketches of de Pastourelles and several of her letters, which infuriate her for talking about art and books beyond her intellect, but it’s a reference to Fenwick being a bachelor that sets her off — now she knows that Fenwick cares no more about his simple, rustic wife. She leaves a note telling him that she’s left him and has taken Carrie with her.

Twelve years pass. Fenwick’s brief accession ends with a quick decline into dire straits — his drive is gone, and his art has suffered.  All that keeps him going is his friendship with de Pastourelles, which comes to an end when her father discovers that he’s married — he, also, had suspected there was love growing between the two, and was offended by what he thought were Fenwick’s false intentions. The search for Phoebe begins anew, but once more leads nowhere. He prepares to kill himself before he’s interrupted by de Pastourelles, who brings word that Phoebe has been found and wants to see him.

She had fled to Canada and realized her mistake almost at once, but like Fenwick, the momentum of it kept her from changing course, and as the years pressed on, while she deeply regretted it, the momentum only grew stronger. At last, after learning conclusively of Fenwick’s innocence and hearing of his recent condition, she decided to return. The meeting is, to neither’s surprise, difficult. What’s passed can’t be forgotten or ignored. It’s Carrie, who of course shares none of the blame and Fenwick has longed for many years to have back, who really reconciles her parents. It helps that she’s thoroughly Canadian and has none of the English repression that the others are stifled by.

Inscription: On the front flyleaf is written “M. L. Harris, 5/17/06” in ink, in a somewhat small, almost timid-looking hand. A more confident “M. L. Harris” had also been written on the front endpaper in pencil, but was carefully erased, leaving only a faint indentation behind.

The Green Book; or, Freedom Under the Snow (Maurus Jokai, 1897)

A fictionalized account of the final years of Tsar Alexander I and the conspiracy to assassinate him — “the green book” being a list of conspirators all desirous of overthrowing the current government, but all for different reasons, and with contradictory goals. The indecision delays and hinders the plot, but what ultimately spells its doom is that, while the oppressed masses have their grievances and can easily be goaded into a fight, what they haven’t got is an understanding of the abstract notion of “freedom” that the conspirators expect them to die for, and any rebellion based on freedom alone must fall apart (namely the failed Decembrist Revolt).

Many of the characters are taken from or inspired by history, but wholly fictional is the ringleader of the conspiracy, Zeneida Ilmarine. Zeneida fights against Russia’s subjugation of her home country, Finland, but realizes that she and the other conspirators face almost certain death and she wants to keep her beloved Pushkin out of it. Pushkin, the poet, very much believes in capital-F Freedom. The greater part of the book focuses on Zeneida’s complex but successful plot to remove Pushkin from the danger he would plunge himself into.

The book ends with the coronation of Nicholas I and the author observing that freedom is like tree roots under the snow — invisible, but growing, and ready to spring forth when the time is right. Jokai  wouldn’t live to see the revolution, which was still 21 years in the future when the book was published, but after that line, you can’t help but mentally substituting Nicholas II for Nicholas I in those final pages and marveling at how prescient Jokai was.

No inscriptions on this book. The start of chapter six is dogeared — perhaps that’s as far the original owner got.

Jeremy (Hugh Walpole, 1919)

A coming of age story about a boy named Jeremy and the growing independence he feels during his last year at home in the nursery before he starts to school — a life that, to an adult, would seem terribly monotonous and dotted only by the most trifling events, but events that in the eyes of a child loom great and important.

Written as a memory of 30 years ago, the author simultaneously seems to condemn the stifled emotional atmosphere and detached parenting style of Victorian England while also wistfully recalling it.

Nearly all of the books I read are quite old, and most have inscriptions on the front or end papers that can sometimes be as interesting as the books themselves. I think I’ll start a new tradition: from now on, I’ll quote a bit of whatever is scribbled or stamped in the books I read. This copy of Jeremy came from a lending library in Skowhegan, Maine. The first loan stamp dates from 1927, but it was last borrowed by Katherine Robertson on May 15th, 1962 — a rather young girl, I should guess, based on her handwriting.

The Wrong Twin (Harry Leon Wilson, 1921)

The local aristocracy of Newbern Center, the Whipple family, is running distinctly low on male heirs. It’s decided to adopt one of Dave Cowan’s twin boys. Dave is something of a vagabond, drifting from here to there whenever the wanderlust sets in, unable to imagine how Newbern’s landed residents could be content to stay in such a small town for any length of time. He’s also something of a philosopher, expounding to whoever will listen about the origins of the universe, from when “star dust” clumped together into planets and chemical reactions in the same created the elements, which “electricity or something” shook into life, and after millions of years humans evolved, and will millions of years in the future evolve into something else.

Of his two sons, Wilbur takes after his father — unconventional and rough around the edges, but full of wonder. Merle is well-mannered and highly principled, if more than a little conceited. Sharon Whipple favors Wilbur, believing in the boy’s “gumption”, but he’s overriden by Gideon and Harvey D., who prefer Merle’s “refinement”. After the adoption papers are signed, Merle Cowan becomes Merle Whipple. The two grow up following their separate paths. As far as employment goes, Wilbur samples a bit of everything and gains more or less experience wherever he goes. Merle, having decided (less from actual education than from sheer will) that he’s an intellectual, falls in with a rabble-rousing crowd of trust-fund Bolsheviks, perpetually certain that the revolution is just around the corner. Only when his allowance is cut-off does he return home.

At the break of war, Wilbur enlists and goes to fight in the trenches in France. He returns shell-shocked and prematurely aged. Young Patricia Whipple had also joined up as a front-line nurse. She and Wilbur knew each other as children, but now realize that they love one another and decide to marry.