Archive for December 21st, 2018

A Christmas lost-and-found story – courtesy a book-loving Victorian girl named Minnie Percy

Friday, December 21st, 2018
Share

The story of a gift that’s lost and then found seems to be a Christmas theme, and so we present this little Victorian Christmas story, from Bay Area high school English teacher Chris Bunje Lowenstein. Careful Book Haven readers will remember that Chris is a Dante-lover (we wrote about her Dante pack of cards at an antiquarian book fair a few years back here).

A Dante-lover, too.

From Chris:

At this year’s seasonal Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, I came across the quintessential “olde book shoppe,” which specializes in – of course – the works of Charles Dickens. The wooden bookcases in the shop bowed under the weight of a few thousand other beautiful books with decorative bindings, most of which were published from about 1880 to 1914. It takes the owner three days to create this replica of a 19th-century bookshop.

I spent a full hour in the shop, and, having decided to take some bits of history home with me, I purchased seven 19th-century books with beautiful decorative bindings. As I made my purchase, my eye happened to fall on a small group of papers, propped on a shelf and bound by thread and a fraying blue ribbon. The paper that formed the “cover” of this little booklet had a highly decorated, hand-colored drawing of Shakespeare. Underneath the drawing, in Gothic lettering, was the name “Minnie Percy”. I have no idea who Minnie Percy was or why she’d created this booklet, but I fell in love with the colorful cover and the fact that every word inside was handwritten. Here in this manuscript was a bit of Victorian history kept alive. I imagined the pleasant hours I would spend researching the piece, admiring it, and sharing it with my high school students and book collector friends. Impulsively, I purchased the little manuscript, but it didn’t fit in the bag with the seven other books I’d bought. To protect it, the owner of the shop placed the manuscript in between two pieces of cardboard, and, parcels and purse in hand, I wandered around the fair for two more hours before returning home only to notice …

I had lost it! Somehow, the manuscript had slid out of its protective cardboard and fallen to the ground unnoticed. I was ashamed at my own carelessness. I had allowed myself to be so caught up in the re-creation of history that is the Dickens Fair that I dropped and lost an actual piece of history, a piece of history whose caretaker I had implicitly agreed to become once I purchased it.

That evening, I emailed the fair’s producers, describing the manuscript and the vendor from whom I purchased it and asking them to please contact me on the chance that someone found it and turned it in. I heard nothing. The next day, on a break after one of my English classes, I checked my email. Nothing. And again after school. Nothing. After several days, I began to despair. Perhaps the manuscript had been swept up like the other trash at the end of the day and discarded. Or – best case scenario – perhaps someone saw the manuscript on the ground, recognized its beauty, and took it home. While I would have preferred to keep the manuscript for myself, I was at least consoled by this version of events, because in this version the manuscript would not be lost to history; it would live on in the care of someone else. By the end of the week, I had abandoned all hope. I would never know what became of that beautiful, one-of-a-kind, little gem.

Late Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my phone rang. The caller identified himself as the owner of the bookshop at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. “Someone turned in to the ticket office the manuscript you bought from me last weekend. The office had received the email with your contact information, so they brought the manuscript back to me and asked me to get in touch with you.”

I was so overjoyed that I swore I could hear Ebenezer Scrooge suggesting that I be boiled in my own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through my heart. A few hours later, I gave my name to the man working the will-call ticket booth, explaining why I was there. “Ah, madam” he said in his best Dickensian British accent, “we’ve been waiting for you. I have a parcel with your name on it. Just a moment.”

I thanked him and clutched the manuscript tightly, silently giving thanks to the kind soul – unknown to me – who also recognized that this manuscript was not a piece of trash but a treasure and who rescued it and, realizing that it belonged to someone else, turned it in. More than just a manuscript was returned to me on Saturday; my faith in humanity was also restored. God bless us, every one.

When I got home and finally had the chance to examine the manuscript booklet more closely, I saw that Minnie Percy had created a commonplace book she had titled “Gems from Shakespeare”. Inside the book were famous quotes from many of Shakespeare’s plays. The titles of the plays were written in large Gothic letters, and the bright blue ribbon that bound the book was also used for a bookmark. Written in Minnie Percy’s beautiful Spencerian script on the page the ribbon marks is the following quote from As You Like It:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.