Louisa May Alcott’s First Novel, The Inheritance

Written in 1849, first discovered in 1988 and published in 1997, The Inheritance, as expected, is a breath of fresh air. This is no surprise, considering the era in which it was written, when writers consistently wrote with dignity, delicacy, insight, and restraint. It is considered Alcott’s first novel, written when she was only seventeen years old.

 

My first reaction, as the plot unfolded, was that this story reminded me of MansfieldPark, by Jane Austin. In both stories, the heroine, a poor girl of low status with the highest of character, is indebted to the unkind head of the household, but is befriended and defended by the hero, a rich, honorable authority in the household. The ending was a bit common and predictable, but the details, reactions and the uprightness of her characters were not.

 

It’s a lovely book, but not perfect. I wouldn’t usually be excited about reading a novel that began with a detailed description of a house and its landscape, yet the opening sentences show that this type of flowery description must have been popular in that time:

 

“In a green park, where troops of bright-eyed deer lay sleeping under drooping trees and a clear lake mirrored in its bosom the flowers that grew upon its edge, there stood Lord Hamilton’s stately home, half castle and half mansion. Here and there rose a gray old tower or ivy-covered arch, while the blooming gardens that lay around it and the light balconies added grace and beauty to the old, decaying castle, making it a fair and pleasant home. The setting sun shone warmly…”

Alcott The Inheritance

During the first third of the book I was actually impatient, because we were seeing scene after scene which demonstrated with exaggeration just how good and sweet and self-sacrificing Edith Adelon is, how much the same is Lord Percy, and how much he loves Edith from the start. It’s a little too much for me, when a man reacts so decidedly, so quickly, toward a woman. And it is always hard to get into one of these eighteenth or nineteenth century stories about people who sit around all day, looking for ways to amuse themselves, because none of them has any kind of job or responsibilities to speak of. (Even if they are rich, don’t they have some contribution to make to the household or society?)

 

Again, the author shows her mastery of suspense. As soon as the conversations start, and we find out something tragic happened to the awaited Lord Percy, and we start to see the envy and evil in Ida, it is impossible to put down. The good and evil are sharpened, and go to extremes as the story goes on, and the reader can hardly believe (in a good sense!) how rotten some characters can be and how angelic and suffering Edith can be.

 

A little mystery is added with the arrival of an unidentified elderly man, and soon after Edith burns all chances of ever having any financial security or standing in life. We are in awe of her complete lack of selfishness, and frightened at such a level of undeserved trust.

Alcott The Inheritance 2

I enjoyed every page of this high quality book. But what makes it so extraordinary?

 

First, the focus of the heroine is different from that of a typical contemporary book: instead of seeking love, security, power, respect, revenge, or any other “worthy” goal (by some standards), Edith seeks the good of others. She seeks to serve and to sacrifice, and she is grateful, humble, gentle, truthful, and disciplined. How uplifting.

 

Second, she admires a man with the same qualities as her. Most contemporary heroines admire a man who has wealth, power, prestige, and good looks, but rarely does the heroine know much about his moral character and inner strength and convictions. Edith respects a man who respects her. The concept of “love” in this period of books is also different. Love in The Inheritance is based on what is inside, instead of what is on the outside.

 

Third, the expression of love is in good deeds and kindnesses in this novel, whereas contemporary fiction usually shows love expressed in sensual physical contact.

 

The fourth extraordinary quality relates to my pet peeve with fiction, a lack of believability. Although it is certainly made up of idealistic, romantic characters, I found the dialogue, plot and events realistic and natural.

 

This widely available book is a treasure, ideal for a young girl. An A+.

 

An interesting note: according to the scholars who found the manuscript in Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1988, The Inheritance is the novel Jo March writes in Little Women. To read an interesting article about the discovery of this manuscript, click here.

5 Hours in the Library and No Reading Allowed

Our grade 12 students did their final exams last week and I helped supervise the tests. I was with students in the library, and as supervisors, our job is to move among the students to ensure security, so we are not allowed to sit, catch up on our work, or check emails. Or read!

 

After several hours, most students had finished and left, and there were only a handful remaining which were well spaced apart. As I cruised in circles around the library, I began to scan the sets of books stacked on the counters and in the returns carts as I walked by. MacBeth, To Kill a Mockingbird, Life of Pi, Tuesdays with Morrie, War Child, A Long Way Gone, The Kite Runner, Of Mice and Men, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. How many of these had I read?

 

I mentally ticked off A Long Way Gone, as this was our school-wide reading project this year, a first hand account of the horrors of life as a child soldier in Africa. I’d read MacBeth when I was in high school, and more recently read Life of Pi, Tuesdays with Morrie, and Of Mice and Men, so I ticked those off, too. It was tempting to try to read one of the others on the sly during the next hour or so.

 

Soon there was one student left, and I found myself scanning all the shelves. Did they have any 808.02 books (writing books)? (To my disappointment, they did not.) What could a book called Guns, Germs and Steel be about? There were many intriguing titles. I found a sticky note and jotted down some of them to add to my reading list.

 

On the counter I also saw a sign that said “Summer Reading”, and nabbed one of the sheets of paper in the box. I was happy to see that I’d read a few of the ones on the list (but not many), and now have more recommendations of new works to balance out my many old books that I’ve recently acquired.

 

Here are the books that one teacher is recommending to our students. See how many you’ve read. Should they be on a list of top-notch books? Did you enjoy them, or not? Do any of the others strike your interest?

 

1984 – Orwell

The AshGarden – Bock

The Bean Trees – Kingsolver

The Chosen – Potok

Crime and Punishment – Dostoevsky

CrowLake – Lawson

Davita’s Harp – Potok

Fifth Business – Davies

The Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck

Great Expectations – Dickens

The Great Gatsby – Fitzgerald

Heart of Darkness – Conrad

The Hero’s Walk – Badami

The Kite Runner – Hosseini

House of the Spirits – Allende

The Lovely Bones – Sebold

Life of Pi – Martel

The Metamorphosis – Kafta

Monsignor Quixote – Greene

The Mosquito Coast – Theroux

My Name is Asher Lev – Potok

Frankenstein – Shelley

No Great Mischief – MacLeod

Obasan – Kogawa

The Outsider – Camus

The Poisonwood Bible – Kingsolver

Pride and Prejudice – Austen

A Separate Peace – Knowles

Snow Falling on Cedars – Guterson

The Stone Angel – Laurence

Things Fall Apart – Achebe

Under the Ribs of Death – Marlyn

The Wars – Findley

Wild Geese – Ostenso

Windflower – Roy

WutheringHeights – Bronte

Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, MacBeth, The Tempest – Shakespeare

 

Happy Summer Reading!

I Love Old Books! (Part 4)

Even though I don’t necessarily need to read all the gems that I find at the book sales—it’s enough to surround myself with them—I do read them.  Now, to be honest, if a book is more than 50 or 100 years old, after quickly thumbing through it to touch and smell the pages, I generally don’t feel excited enough to sit down and read it on the spot.  I confess that I expect to find it dry, pedantic, colorless or irrelevant.  But I am almost always wrong.

I find surprisingly relevant, valuable words, stories and messages written by authors with extraordinary depth, thoughtfulness, insight, and wholesomeness, and a different internal perspective than many contemporary authors.  Their attitudes and perspectives very often inspire and elevate my own.

Some antique books are actually difficult to read because they are visually and verbally dense, but they are well worth the effort.  An example is R.D. Blackmoor’s Lorna Doone, written in 1869.  The first time I ever saw this book was at a library in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, where we were camping.  I had an afternoon to relax so I decided to see what kind of love stories people in the ­­­­19th century wrote.  But the “old” definition of romance is not focused entirely on a love story.  I was surprised and at first disappointed that the Romance of Exmoor was not the kind of romance that Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer wrote.

Lorna Doone falls under the definition of “a novel depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, romantic exploits, etc., usually in a historical or imaginary setting.”  I muddled through the first several chapters and then realized I didn’t know what was going on with the characters or the plot.  I had to restart it about four times, but after that, something magical happened and I got into the language.  Then I couldn’t put it down!  I encourage you to give it a try, in the original or a more recent version.  It’s a story of loyalty, love, courage, heroism—and it’s not just the men who risk their lives.

titus

Another example is one published in 1894, Titus, a Comrade of the Cross, a book my mom gave me.  Apparently, the original publisher of this book offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could produce a manuscript that would set a child’s heart on fire for Christ. In six weeks, the demand was so great for Florence Morse Kingsley’s book that they printed 200,000 additional copies.  Can you imagine that in 1894?

For years I was thrilled enough to just look at the unique cover and text.  But again, once I finally started reading it and got a feel for the language, I was immersed in a suspenseful adventure.  In the midst of the gripping plot, I discovered that a whole chunk of the pages was missing (don’t tell Mom!), but I just picked it up on the next available page and devoured the rest of it.  In fact, I felt such admiration and affection for one of the characters, we ended up using his name for the middle name of one of our children.

Are you a kindred old-book-loving spirit?  Leave me a comment, or a Like, so I can find you!

I Love Old Books! (Part 3)

Happy New Year!  I wonder what books 2013 holds!

I enjoy everything about old books: hunting for them, inhaling the smell of leather and studying them: their covers, publishers, inscriptions, signs of aging, and knowing that I am holding something that was on this earth in a different century. I don’t necessarily need to read all the gems that I find; it’s enough to surround myself with them. But reading them is the frosting on the cake!

In my first post on old books, I mentioned McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, published in 1853 by Winthrop B Smith. After digging it out of storage (behind some other books), I thumbed through it and was curious to know what exactly the students were learning from those readers at that time. So I started on page one and made the commitment to read the entire book (over 300 pages of small font). It was a big commitment because I assumed that the lessons were going to be hitting-over-the-head moralizing, boring history, monotonous poetry and irrelevant essays.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise. I wish my school reading assignments (and my children’s) had been as full of such disturbing, dramatic, eye-opening fiction and non-fiction as these. They would motivate a student to read. Even the moralizing stories were great. Yes, there was tough slogging through some, but I was usually rewarded by the end of the piece.

I admit that I skipped most of the diction, articulation, pronunciation and vocabulary lessons. But from time to time, I would read those, and I found it humorous to see how the “incorrect” pronunciations were a Southern U.S. accent:

“E-spe-cial-ly, not ‘spe-cial-ly…
Gov-erns, not gov-uns…
Win-dow-blind, not win-der-bline”

As I was noting my favorite selections, I was curious to know a bit more about the authors, and found most of them well-represented on the internet. One that stood out for me was The Steamboat Trial, by Jacob Abbott, and not so easy to find online, so I’ve included the first 2 pages here, and the last 2 pages here.

Here are a few other poems, plays and essays well worth checking out: Washing Day, by Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld, Shylock (from The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare), Remarkable Preservation by Professor Wilson, and Religion the Only Basis of Society by William Ellery Channing.  Hope you find something that grabs you!

I Love Old Books! (Part 2)

Ever since the Crossroads Used Book Sale, I’ve been enjoying my new old books and writing about why they are such a delight to me. I treasure them because I believe these books were far more precious in their day than a book is now, simply because of the relative scarcity of books and the cost of publishing. Only the cream of the crop would be published. Owning something that was highly valued by the society that produced it makes me value it, too. It is evident that these volumes were made to last, and they did last. Would a book published in 2012 last until 2112? Maybe, but probably not as well as those leather covers and thick pages have lasted.

Here is a well-travelled Christmas present.  Notice the “This is My Book” section from Edmonton, Alberta, and the sticker from Santa Monica, California.  It is Myths Every Child Should Know, originally published in 1905, edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie.

Myths Every Child Should Know

And those marvellous inscriptions! Did everyone have such exquisite handwriting? Judging from the old school books which made handwriting such a priority, I think  most did. (I used to have legible handwriting, until my fingers got out of the habit of writing slowly and gracefully!) Not only is the penmanship a work of art, but reading the note makes me feel like I’m getting a peek into the personal life and family of the original owner.

Here is one of my favorite signatures, in The Pleasures of Life by Sir John Lubbock (copyright 1887).  I also love the embossed designs and flowers on the cover.

Any book can transport you to another world and another time in the same way a traveler goes on a holiday, but old books can be like the person who actually lived in that other place and time. You can’t help but notice the differences in language, attitudes and the political climate that come through unintentionally by what the author writes. It makes me feel like I know the author’s world, instead of just reading about it in a history book.

Here is a sweet children’s story book with an inscription from 1923, given as a birthday present.  (Don’t you just love how they used the term “Master” for boys?)

And this 1915 book was a reward for a job well done, learning the Ten Commandments…

Do you have any old books that particularly thrill you? Do tell! Send me a message on my About page if you want to send me photos to include on another post.

Happy hunting, and happy reading!

I Love Old Books!

As I mentioned in a previous post, my strategy when tackling huge used book sales is to go to the old books first. But I wonder why? What is it that makes the old books such a delight to me? It was probably my mom who instilled in me a love for old things that stand the test of time, and how I appreciate that, because otherwise I may have skipped the old for the new and missed such joys!

What really excites me is that a hundred-year-old book feels like my little piece of history; these bundles of paper have survived—with little or no aging—for a century! What else do we have that is a hundred years old? For example, can you imagine that the book you hold in your hand with the hundred-year-old copyright was ON THIS EARTH when the Titanic sank, all during World War I (did a soldier have your book in his backpack?), when the first talking movies were invented, when Alexander Fleming was discovering penicillin (could he have owned it?) and during the stock market crash of 1929?

Who bought it first? And how did it get from its first owner to its most recent owner (me)? Did it get handed down to a relative, who loaned it to a friend, who lost it while traveling on a ship and it was eventually found by another passenger years later, who kept it safe and sound in a drawer until giving it to a library, which eventually put it on a bargain table where someone bought it for an antique-lover, who finally donated it to the Calgary Crossroads Book Sale where I bought it?

Here is the first really old book I found, McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, published in 1853 by Winthrop B Smith. In about 1990 I was browsing around one of the wonderful used book stores on 16 Avenue NW (that is no longer there), and when I told the owner that I collected old school readers, he said he didn’t have any upstairs, but I could look around in the basement. I picked through boxes and bags of books and found this gem. I think I paid $5 for it.

The spine is in rough shape, and it shows another document under the spine and the top left corner of the front cover. If anyone knows what that practice was for, let me know.

The front cover has a name stamped on it, my best guess being “J. Bruce Smith, HC CALGARY”. It makes me wonder if the schools stamped each book with the student’s name, or if that particular student stamped his own name on it. Or is the Smith on the cover related to the publisher Smith?

Inside the cover on the first page is an inscription (I love inscriptions!). It looks like “Elias N. ___, Jan. 3rd, 1859”.

It actually looks like 1839 to me, but in the text it says it was published in 1853.

The Table of Contents is filled with “Directions for Reading” and interesting-looking Prose and Poetry Lessons, some by authors we still read today.   Here is a readable version of the Table of Contents.

In the back there is a refund notice: “Refund 2.50 if returned before June 20, 1932, A.W. ___”. It’s interesting to think that around 1932 the book was already 80 years old, so perhaps it was in the reference section of a library.

Wow, this book was around during the California Gold Rush, and in the same year the Washington Territory was created from the Oregon Territory. Maybe some of the children in the covered wagons did their schooling from my book. Vincent Van Gogh was born, in 1953, and Napoleon was married that same year. This book on my shelf was published almost 10 years BEFORE the U.S. Civil War began. Did a ten-year-old student worry about his father fighting in Gettysburg while turning these very pages?

Enough pondering. I would so love to hear about some of your favorite old books! I hope you’ll post a comment below, or even send me photos, so we can trade stories.

Warm weather means book sales are sprouting up

With the temperatures rising—finally!—the rummage sales are blossoming all over town, and my favorites are the huge city-wide used book sales. What could be better than 100,000 used books all in one place at bargain prices?! I don’t have to actually need any books to get excited about these, I just like being there to look at the variety of books, surrounded by all the volumes and all the people who love them. I especially like to check out the old books. Then my challenge is to keep in mind the limited space on my bookshelves and the many books I’ve acquired but haven’t yet read.

Calgary Reads held their annual sale on May 14th, and handing money to the volunteers of this worthy organization was a delight, knowing that it would fund tutors to help children around the city improve their reading skills.
Lucky for me I was looking primarily for children’s books, which were 50¢ or a dollar, and I had my “urban shopping cart” with me to carry all my treasures around with me. I am proud to say that I stuck to my plan of buying only books that I can not easily utilize from the public library and that are directly related to writing projects I am actually working on (as opposed to all manner of books and reference materials that I might possibly need one day for another future project).

Since I was downtown at the Calgary Reads sale, I decided to stop by Fair’s Fair, one of the largest used bookstores in town, and drop off the books that had been on the backseat of my car for a while. Another successful browsing experience: the credit I got was $2 less than my purchases.

Coming up in June is the Calgary Book Drive and Sale. According to the Calgary Herald newspaper, any books not sold may find new homes with the help of an online seller, Giggil. Giggil pays for books to be shipped to them, sells them online, and pays you monthly as your items sell.

All proceeds from the Calgary Book Sale will go to Raise a Reader and Servants Anonymous Society, and I’m thrilled to see that again, children’s books will be 50¢, and other books will cost no more than $3. Looking forward to it!