Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Mystery Book

The book I had ordered arrived in the mail yesterday. It was a volume published by Cassell in 1912, and its late arrival on my doorstep was not, for once, attributable to the vagaries of the English postal service. It had been ordered from E-Bay and one might wonder what had possessed me to order “The British Boy’s Annual” of that date.

I was researching the period for a forthcoming book and my interest was in seeing what the young man of the period might be reading. The book is fascinating. It was from the era when the end of empire appeared inconceivable to any patriotic Britisher.

As one writer in the book puts it:

“There lies before me as I write, a map of the world on which the lands comprising the British Empire are coloured red. It does not matter where I look – north, south, east or west – for everywhere I see red smudges scattered all over the face of the globe.”

Many of the stories are concerned with the derring-do of true British heroes and the style of writing is distinctly adult and obviously aimed at the teenager about to become a man. At the time of publication, Captain Scott was still on his way to the South pole, and no doubt the editors were looking forward to publishing his success in next year’s volume as they mention his expedition as being in progress.

Turning the pages I had a strange sensation. The book was in its ninety fourth year – and yet it appeared to be almost unread. Now whilst I am sure that the sixteen year olds of the period were a little more careful with their property than a modern teenager, it struck me as remarkable that this volume was totally unmarked and showed no sign of wear. The flyleaf, that had presumably been inscribed with the owner’s name, has been carefully removed, leaving me with no clue as to his identity.

To me this is a pity. I have a complete set of Dickens, circa 1930, once the property of a Miss Hannah Stuttard that she purchased in 1933. I know this as she carefully inscribed each volume with her name and date. From odd pieces of paper, used as bookmarks, I could conclude that Miss Stuttard was probably a school teacher in Burnley in 1935. If any of Miss Stuttard’s relatives should read this, they might like to know that her books are still in excellent condition and in regular use.

But The British Boy’s Annual puzzled me. How had it survived, not only a British boy, but the ravages of time so well? Pondering over this, it struck me that the owner would have been probably sixteen or seventeen years old when he took possession of the book, almost certainly it would have been a birthday or Christmas present. Less than two year later, the First World War broke out and he would have been a prime candidate for the armed forces. The book would certainly have been an encouragement for any young lad to “do his bit for King and country.”

I wonder if he never came back from the war and that his relatives preserved his belongings in his memory?

There seems no other explanation for such a book in such pristine condition, and they might like to know that it will be as well looked after in its new home as it clearly has been over nearly a century.

I just wish they had not removed the flyleaf.


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