Making connections through The Paston Letters

Last Wednesday I made time to partake of one of my favourite activities: I walked to my local second hand bookshop, The Bookseller, and spent an hour or so browsing unencumbered by companions or rush. As usual, the proprietor, Mr. Prins, had set aside a few hardcover Everyman’s Library Editions and an old blue hardcover Oxford World’s Classic for me to consider.  Unlike most visits, today I had time.  I left the four volumes on the counter, the seed of a number of large stacks I would build as I browsed.  Throughout my visit, Mr. Prins pottered about the store, flitting from the computer on his book-stacked desk, to the shelves and to “the back” where I imagine an infinity of yet-to-be- and never-to-be-catalogued books wait to be brought into the light.

The one volume I had come specifically seeking was H. G. Wells’ little war-time (WWII) anti-Catholic diatribe, Crux Ansata (“Why don’t we bomb Rome” it begins). I had been reading it online, but, as well as finding the digital a completely unsatisfying, indeed, unsettling manner of reading, I knew that I would someday require a real copy for the Wells collection I’ve been building since that day in about 1980 that I stumbled on a copy of Ann Veronica in that bookstore that used to be in Hub Mall on the University of Alberta Campus.  If I remember correctly, that bookstore, since shifted locations a number of times, is now The Edmonton Book Store on Whyte Avenue, in the location that one time was Bjarne’s Books, a shop and proprietor I sadly miss.  Edmonton’s loss — Victoria’s and Cyberspace’s gain.

I went straight to the Fiction section and was at first disappointed by the slimness of the Wells selection.  A few of the usual War of the Worldses and Time Machines. And, there in the middle, a slim little volume bound in dark leather. Crux Ansata! With a large smile on my face I strode back to the counter and plopped my find onto the Everyman Shelley and Langland and the little blue Paston Letters.  Now to some truly unencumbered browsing!

Oh, the treasures I found!

An early edition of the Tolkien/Gordon edition of Sir Gawain; Skeet’s two volume edition of Piers Plowman and Richard the Redeless (I already had one, but this was in better condition. The next day I traded the old one for a copy of  Bentham’s Fragment on Government); a lovely copy of the first edition of Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (in four volumes); Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century; a 1959 copy of Vinaver’s Malory; nice old hardcovers of Quirk & Wrenn’s Old English Grammar and Campbell’s venerable volume on the same subject; The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse; nice editions of Ancrene Wisse and The Parlement of Foules . . .

And a copy of Sisam’s edition of 14th Century Verse and Prose, a volume I find oddly common in Edmonton — I have three copies now myself. But this latest copy, unusual in that it still had a (rubbed) dust jacket, had a little surprise for me which made me take a second look at the other books in my stacks. There on the flyleaf was written in small letters in ball-point “Raymond J. S. Grant”.

During my days at the University of Alberta, Dr. Grant was the senior Anglo-Saxonist in the English Department, standing in a venerable line stretching back to R. K. Gordon, a professor at the University’s foundation and, by the way, translator of number 794, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, in Everyman’s Library.

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It was Dr. Grant who surprised me during an undergraduate directed reading of The Seafarer by saying “I think you might have a publication here.”  Because of Dr. Grant, I had my first scholarly publication accepted before I got my Bachelor’s degree.

I have gradually have fallen out of contact with the people of my University days. I regularly return to campus, but it’s a different world with different people now.  Not worse, not better, just different.  I had some sort of memory that Dr. Grant had retired and perhaps gone back to Scotland. As I gathered my thoughts for this piece I found on the University web page that Dr. Grant is, indeed, emeritus, as is my thesis supervisor, L. N. McKill, the man who first taught me Old English.  After I got home from the bookstore I discovered Dr. McKill’s name on the flyleaf of Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century.  I held in my hands volumes that had educated my educators. These books had been around me in those offices three decades ago as I puzzled my way through great poetry sadly experienced by only a few.

What I find of extreme interest in second hand books is the little bits of paper one finds tucked into them.  Dr. Grant’s copy of Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose (1959) is undoubtedly a text from his student days.  Tucked into book at the first page of the Introduction are two slips of paper, one laying out the geography of dialects of Middle English with representative authors (information repeated in the facing map) and the other a cryptic, multicoloured graph of English sound changes.

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These are meticulous thoughts-on-paper of a student of a different time, brief glimpses of the learning process in an age of paper, conversation and information hard-won from beautiful, tactile, fragrant objects with their own individual histories — books in a library.

Mr. Prins filled a banker’s box with my selected volumes and agreed to hold the heavy collection for me to pick up later when I’d be out with a vehicle. When I returned two stacks of brick-red hardcovers were on the counter.  “I told you I thought I had a lot of Wells back there!” Mr. Prins announced with a grin.  Indeed, he had brought from “the back” a twelve volume matched set of Wells’ novels ranging from The Time Machine to The Undying Fire.  A fine day’s discovery!

Later Wednesday evening I looked more carefully at the World’s Classics copy of The Paston Letters.  There was no name on the fly leaf.  It seemed an anonymous book with no story to tell outside of its text.  But, tucked in the back was a small blue slip of paper which indicated that this, like some others of the volumes in the box, was a review copy sent out by the publisher in the hope that professors would say nice things about it. On the back of the slip was a hand written note:

Raymond:

pp. 41-72 seem to be missing from this book as also 73 to 104. I suppose that is a whole gathering! Give him hell next time — you might get a real find from them.

Joan

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Sure enough, a gathering is misplaced in the book.  But of far more interest to me is the note. Considering the number of Dr. Grant’s books that had recently come into the Bookseller, I have no doubt that “Raymond” addressed in the book is Dr. Grant. And I am equally certain that “Joan” who wrote the note is Dr. Joan Crowther, a Chaucerian I never met during our shared time at the University.  But I did meet and get to know Dr. Crowther in her retirement as each weekday morning I got her clubs out of storage for her round of golf.  I lost touch with Dr. Crowther after leaving the world of golf just a few years before she left this world.

As I stood looking at that little blue note on Wednesday night I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs.  These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshhold:

“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”

Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.

“Oh, yes, John!”

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