I have been thinking about Christmas presents – not really surprising given where we are in the year. But this married up with the annual attempt to clear out some books from our shelves – and resulted in this nice little unassuming discovery …The rather shabby Mr. Ingleside by E.V. Lucas – perhaps not a writer you’ve heard of? Neither had I, but I was curious so I read it – and found it unremarkable. In a nutshell – it’s the story of a man with two daughters and the girls’ search for employment.
What made it special to me was the inscription inside: my grandfather Vin had given this book to my grandmother for Christmas 1926.
Vin died in 1933, aged only 36. He had never recovered from the amoebic dysentery he’d fallen victim to when serving with the ANZAC troops in Palestine during WW1. As a family we know so very little about him now both his sons have died, so every small nugget of information is deeply precious … Christmas 1926 – my father was born in March that year, and my Australian grandparents, Vin and Dora, spent Christmas at the family holiday house, Uringah, at Cowes on Phillip Island near Melbourne …That’s my grandmother’s handwriting in the photograph album above, and it’s my grandfather’s in Mr. Ingleside. Why did he choose to give her that book, I wonder? It was published in 1910 so it wasn’t new. Did he wish to make a point – that she’d found her profession with motherhood?
What’s even more intriguing to me as his granddaughter is that he’s inscribed the book to Dordy, not Dora – but Dordy was what we grandchildren were instructed to call her! It makes me wonder if she spent her whole life missing him …
So, this find led me on to thinking about Christmas (and birthday) presents in general and how very much the culture of giving has changed. In the old days – when I was a little girl (and way back from there when my parents and grandparents were young) – Christmas and birthdays meant the gift of a book. No, I didn’t say “books”, I said “book”. Because so special was this book in a world where there wasn’t much “stuff” that it felt like the most special gift in the world. And because this gift of a book was so very special, it deserved a very special inscription.
Dora – when much younger (aged just 18) – was given music for Christmas 1917: Chopin’s Nocturnes. Purchased from Allan’s at Collins St in Melbourne …This copy has been much played (by me as well as her). These are her pencil marks. There is an indefinable connection in playing from sheet music that you know your grandmother once played …The inscription in my copy of Pepita by Vita Sackville-West also tells a story from my grandmother’s life …This was a gift to her for her birthday from her good Australian friend Kate Wight in 1937. Kate had featured in my grandmother’s photograph albums of the 1920s. Here she is (on the right) with her sister Peggy in their father’s garden at Kyabram in Victoria … By 1937 Vin had died and Dora had moved to England and re-married …In fact, 1937 was the same year that Dora married her second husband Roger at Chislehurst church in Kent – and there is Kate in the centre of this picture of wedding guests. Did she come to England specially for the wedding, I wonder …Gifted books in my other grandmother’s family also raise questions. My other grandmother Doris was given A Day in a Child’s Life by her father Otto in 1900 – she was 5 years old …It’s a really exquisite book with enchanting illustrations by Kate Greenaway – actually so special that it’s in very good condition and looks like it’s never been read – or played … Did she perhaps not like it very much? Far more likely, I think, is the possibility that it was considered so very special that she was barely ever allowed to look at it. Certainly I never handled it as a child.
She’s the one of the left below, perhaps 2 years old here …?By contrast with A Day in a Child’s Life, Baby’s Opera has been very much handled, and is really in tatters! There’s no inscription of it being a gift to her inside. Is that perhaps what gave license for this book to be used more frequently?! Marvellous illustrations, this time by Walter Crane …The inscription is from her to her grandson James (my son – and her first great-grandchild) for his first birthday, 25th December 1981 …These little nuggets of inscriptions make me wonder so much about the people involved. This book, John Hullah’s The History of Modern Music , published in 1862… Was a gift to my great-grandmother Mathilda Rose Herschel from her mother on her 19th birthday, 15th July 1865. Quite a dense learned book …Rose was certainly an accomplished musician. In later life the family lived near Cofton in Devon. They were regulars at the tiny church there and she played the organ for services. It’s lovely to have discovered that music with her name on it is still kept at Cofton church …As a family we don’t remember Rose so much as a musician as an artist. She painted prolifically – this (unfortunately photographed through glass) is her son, my grandfather, perched on the stairs, perhaps aged 3 or 4 …?1934 was a good Christmas for my 10-year old mother Mary shown here about that age (looking rather fed up) with her younger sister Jill on the left …She was given two books! She must have loved The Book of the Heavens, because it is sadly coming apart …It was a present from her parents. I wonder if she was given this charming little bookplate for Christmas that year too? It’s clearly written in a childish hand – and been written out once – unsatisfactorily, one presumes – and erased and written again …By contrast, Mrs. Lang’s The Book of Saints and Heroes, is a lot less thumbed. Perhaps a little worthy … A present from her grandmother Grace – not her grandfather Otto. This is clearly a family that gave presents separately. Perhaps they couldn’t decide on what to give …?My parents Dick and Mary continued the tradition of marking birthdays and Christmas with an inscribed book. I was given Lavender’s Blue for my third birthday – and it’s been well-used!My mother’s handwriting of the inscription is sadly smudged …Charming pictures throughout … But the book is in absolute tatters …And has been lavishly (and not very well) coloured in …I’ve even stuck pictures in to the back. Perhaps this indicates a passionate love for this book – but no, I don’t think that’s true. It’s just a good friend that travelled with me and met overfamiliarity …I do look a bit of a wild child …When we were older, my father Dick loved to give us Folio Society books – most of which, I am afraid to admit, I have never read – and they have vanished from my shelves. But one hasn’t …Poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, a Christmas present from my parents Dick and Mary in 1974 is a book I really treasure …Several years later they gave me Mary Gostelow’s Embroidery …I asked for this book for Christmas. In those days you waited for books and clothes that you wanted – you couldn’t buy cheap second hand on Ebay nor did you have the disposable cash to go out and buy what you desired immediately. You waited. And this book was worth the wait – lots of lovely inspirational illustrations …There are other books on our shelves not connected to my family but which also were at one time given as Christmas gifts. I really like Needlecraft from Elizabeth Craig’s Household Library …Which was given: To My Darling Alice, Christmas 1952. But did Alice ever use it? I like to think it was a gift from her husband but it may have been from a parent. Whatever there’s no evidence that she actually liked it because the book is as pristine as a book published in 1950 could be …All that wonderful useful information gone to waste!By contrast, Continental Knitting by Esther Bondesen has been well used …And rightly so – so much of delight therein. Who wouldn’t want to make an ear-warmer like this …?!It was a present from Gwyneth to her grandmother for Christmas 1953. Lucky grandmother is all I can say! (And lucky me because it only cost me £1.50) …And while I’m on the subject of craft books, this treasure of a book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E. Finley … Has a cracker of an inscription on the flyleaf! I don’t know who Katherine Matthew and Alice Ogle were, but I’m hoping that Katherine considered Alice as good a friend. Perhaps she even gave a book back – hmmm, I wonder if it was a crafting book …It’s a lovely book …Then there are books that were given as prizes …
I’m back with my Australian grandmother Dora now. She was given these two fine volumes on the English National Gallery to mark that she had been head girl at Merton Hall, Melbourne Girls Grammar School ...She started at the school when she was 16 in 1915, and I’m guessing this photograph must have been taken about that time …It is such a fascinating reflection on Anglophile and Anglocentric Melbourne that she was given these books on the English National Gallery despite the fact that Victoria had its own National Gallery from 1861 … My English grandfather Percival won the most distinguished prizes. This beautifully bound copy of Smith’s A Smaller Dictionary of the Bible (small it may be but it’s a really great reference book for obscure biblical names and places) … Was awarded to my grandfather in 1908 as the Toplady Memorial Prize for Divinity. It would be quite intriguing to read what my grandfather wrote to win such a prize …Another award book that has found its way to my shelves once belonged to my father Dick …He was given Van Loon’s The Arts of Mankind for the holiday task he completed in 1938 …To be perfectly honest, it’s not the most interesting of books – a bit out-of-date and old-fashioned. But it remains on our shelves because it brings to mind this young man on the left, shown here with his mother Dora and younger brother Bill (not yet in long trousers) and I wonder if this photograph is a glimpse of the end of the holiday in which he did that work …Not all book prizes in our collection were awarded to members of my family. I found this copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse in a second hand bookshop some time ago and it is kept in the car in a rather small glove pocket (for those dreadful times when you are stuck in a traffic jam and there is no mobile coverage). It is in woefully poor condition, but a book I am very fond of …I hope the poor condition wouldn’t offend the one-time owner, Tim Bliss. who was runner-up for the Gonner Prize for Literature awarded by Dean Close School sometime in the 1950s. If you check out his Wikipedia page to read about this distinguished neuroscientist, you may be able to guess why this book went on the pile of books to go to the local charity shop …Perhaps the most intriguing of our books are those where we cannot identify the donor. The Fireside Book of Folk Songs is just such a book …On the flyleaf, my mother has written below her name and the date the intriguing initials R.H.D …Some years ago she very helpfully wrote her memoirs and I know from those that she went to Moscow in 1948 for a couple of years as PA to the Economist’s Foreign Editor. Her brother John was working at the British Embassy there then, so she had an interesting and most enjoyable time mixing with fellow expatriates and exploring Moscow.
But nowhere in her memoirs does she identify anybody with the initals R.H.D. A mystery!
It’s a lovely book, with beautiful illustrations …And a wonderful – and eclectic – range of of music. I really treasure it …I forget where Stephen picked up this copy of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers. Good value for 3/6! It once belonged to C. Honora Blandford and rather coyly she notes it was given From a Friend on the 9th June 1870. Is one to understand that A.E.B. are the friend’s initials, or are they some other subtle allusion? I don’t know, but it remains very intriguing all the same … Perhaps I will solve these mysteries one day. I was certainly thrilled to be able to place the story behind my little Book of Psalms …It had two helpful clues – the name on the flyleaf …And the purple permission stamp for the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad Colberg in Saxony …You can read what I discovered about the provenance of this little book here …
And then there are husbands!
Jane Grigson’s Fish Cookery has been a well-thumbed guide to my cooking life since 1981 …And the inscription really speaks for itself …And yes, he did go and change the nappy!Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres is a rather obscure and dated poetry epic. I think – were I to be truthful – that this book would have gone to a charity shop were it not for the inscription …Way back in my university days …I made a friend who was then with another lady but is now my husband …Still Shining On – but now together! Christmas 2020 update: I was given four beautiful books. No inscriptions, and somehow I don’t miss them. Which is a pity because how will future generations be able to tell the stories behind them as I have done here … ?!
8 thoughts on “The gift of a book …”
Katherine you have really excelled yourself with this piece, worthy of publishing in a magazine. How an inscription in a book can fire the imagination, as can its provenance. Steve and I enjoyed reading it together. We wonder if the initials in your mother’s Moscow book stand for an organisation, rather than a person?
Thank you so much Mandy (and Steve) for your generous comment! You may well be right about the initials – still working on that possibility!
Isn’t it wonderful when a simple inscription can provoke so many memories? What interesting back stories they have.
I wonder why we don’t write messages in books any more? I’m always wary that the recipient may not appreciate my choice and want to pass it on to someone else. Maybe we just don’t value books as we used to. My mother always writes her name in books before she lends them, though looking along my bookshelves, it doesn’t ensure their safe return.
Yes, I do agree that old book inscriptions are very precious, and it is sad that we don’t write in books any more. Like you I feel hesitant to write in books that I think may not be really wanted. But I also think it’s to do with value. Fine books like these can often be purchased for just a couple of pounds on Abebooks, and Amazon sells best sellers for ridiculous prices. All of which has changed the world of book ownership considerably. I still write in my valued books as your mother does before lending them!
Fascinating Katherine! I never knew your mother spent time in Moscow and therefore must have been part of the story of my parents meeting and courting, which my father chronicled with his usual gusto. I don’t remember any mention of your mother but maybe I just forgot? I also have never seen Mathilda Rose’s painting of the stairs with Grandad, not did I know she was a pianist! We had all the same songbooks and they are so evocative.
Glad you enjoyed it, Polly! Yes, my mother did spend time in Moscow just after the war – a very fascinating time to be there. Do you have any suggestions about those cryptic initials in the music book? Bun has the charming picture of Grandad on the stairs – I expect he’s got more material relevant to MRH and her music …. you must ask him 🙂
Loved this piece. As a former high school English teacher I found the story enchanting.
Thank you! It was great fun to write 🙂
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