Some people tuck things into books – ephemera they want to keep safe, or items that have a particular resonance with the book itself. These slips and scraps tell a story all of their own. Some years back I went though a phase of writing wish-lists to the universe. I would date each one and tuck it into my edition of Pride and Predudice. It’s kind of bitter-sweet to look back on the lists today. The particular things I yearned for paint a picture of where I was at those stages. Some are fearful wonderings about whether I want to be a mother. Some are more robust and discuss career plans. One note is a kind of shopping list for must-haves in a possible romantic partner. I seem to have had incredibly low standards.
Uncovering one’s own past can be interesting, but even better is coming across someone else’s story. Slips of paper or scraps of material which have been purposely kept as a memento can give a glimpse of someone’s life which is impossible not to analyse to glean their meaning. Consider this late eighteenth century French-English dictionary belonging to a young Cork woman called Margaret Anne Hare.
The book is part of the Bantry House Collection. Margaret Anne married Richard White (at that stage, Baron Bantry) in 1799. She was 20 years old and he was 32. As well as a nice sketch of a tree, Margaret has written what appears to be a list of under garments – night caps, petticoats, pockets and bedgowns – and beneath these some capital Bs. Was she making notes for her trousseau while doodling her the initial of her husband to be? Towards the end of the book there is a single flower placed beside the entry for scarification. Scarifying was a method of blood letting, the eighteenth-century go-to cure all for most ailments. Bloodletting was performed on Marie Antoinette while she was giving birth to her first child. Did this happen to Margaret Ann also and she subsequently placed the flower in the book? Or is the flower marking a different word beginning with S? It could be that the page has no particular significance, or someone else tucked the flower in the book……….we’ll never know, but I’m sure that flower holds some story.
Book Traces is an online catalogue of old books which their past owners have customised. All the marginalia, pictures, letters, flowers, locks of hair, bear fascinating traces of the past. Shown here is a charming hand tracing of schoolgirl Miriam Trowbridge’s who. has writen, “Ruthie Whitehead’s ugly hand—Oh! No, I mean beautiful one—”. Perhaps the two girls were bored during English lesson, and began a whispered, doodling exchange.
In my Guides, I tuck small ephemera in between the pages. For the second guide, I’m planning to include a series of love letters for the reader to discover. I’ve yet to find such letters though I know some couples wrote to each other often. The Duke and Duchess of Leinster were one such pair. Also Daniel O’Connell and his wife Mary and Napoleon wrote to Josephine.
I have received love letters myself over the years. There is a certain thrill in reading something penned by someone you care. Particularly when they are discussing your charms and the bond you share. Their words seem to conjure the person before you as a palimpsest of themselves. You can hear their voice as you read what they have written.
If I can find just the right letters for the second guide, the old words might just come alive again in a similar fashion.