Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reading my grandmother's books

I come from a family of teachers. Both of my father's parents were English teachers and great readers; they met at teacher training college in Glasgow in the early 1930s, and though I have in my possession only a very small fraction of the books they collected over the years, they occupy a place of high honor in my office.

I sometimes tell a story to my students - it so perfectly seems to recapitulate crucial elements of the history of women's writing - in which my grandmother, during WWII, used the parchment pages of the sole copy of her undergraduate senior thesis to boil a Christmas pudding....

My grandfather was an omnivorous reader, possessing a serious interest in Scottish history, a wide range of literary tastes and an addiction to detective novels and "teach-yourself-X" language books, of which he owned dozens (he also religiously watched the Gaelic-language-instruction programs on public television, though really he and my grandmother grew up speaking Scots, not Gaelic, and lapsed into the familiar tongue of childhood more and more often in their old age as they retreated from the public world). I was tickled recently, while reading Pierre LeMaitre, to see that one of the literary crime scenes staged in his first book is from William McIlvanny's Laidlaw, a particular favorite of my grandfather's; the book he gave me to read the last time I saw him was this.

My grandmother suffered badly from dementia in her last years, but she remained a passionate reader: she had always been partial to the North American female short-story writers (Eudora Welty in particular), and Alice Munro was a favorite, not least because she wrote about rural Ontario scenes that resonated strongly with my grandmother's memories of an Ontario childhood (her mother was also a schoolteacher, though they moved back to Scotland after my grandmother's elementary-school years). The last book I remember her giving to me, not long before she died, was William Dalrymple's City of Djinns. I've never met Dalrymple, but he had grown up in North Berwick, the small seaside town outside Edinburgh where my grandparents lived for many years (my grandfather was headmaster of the North Berwick High School before he retired), and they had a proprietary interest in his budding success.

After my grandparents were dead, it was impossible to transfer more than a small selection of books from their house ("Old School House, 4 School Lane" - a quaint address I enjoyed writing on envelopes as a child!) to my graduate student quarters on the other side of the Atlantic. The ones I especially cherished - many of them my grandfather had already shipped to me in brown-paper-wrapped boxes from the local post office by the "book rate" - were the books they had as undergraduates, Everyman editions and a host of other small student-oriented hardcovers that dated mostly from their undergraduate years at Jordanhill. I used some of them while I was studying for my grad school orals: I remember that on my last visit to my grandmother, we had a rather wonderful circular conversation about my upcoming exams - a topic of interest and concern to both of us - she couldn't remember we'd already just talked it all through, so she'd pick up again as we left off by asking me to tell her about them - possibly in that sense she was the ideal auditor for an anxious third-year PhD student with an obsessive fondness for British literature and the ins and outs of academic study!

When I cleaned up my office in December, I came across this volume, which I remembered being there somewhere but which seemed especially lovely to lay hands on now given that it is something I'm currently writing about. I'm especially interested in the ways the page format of the scholarly edition is used by Johnson, so this little book isn't of exclusive utility, or indeed of notable monetary value, but what a precious memento....

From the outside.
Bookseller's stamp.
"Elizabeth C. W. H. Sillars. 1930." (She was born in 1911.)
You see from the list of cities on the title page that this is still the high imperial era of colonial education....
Diligent markup to the "Preface": a strong suspicion of an attentive student marking as the lecturer suggests!
The sheets of notes folded and tucked between the pages:

1 comment:

  1. Amazing memories, Jenny! And a beautiful post. There really is so much to treasure about the books we inherit from our parents and grandparents. I've found notes and postcards, even report cards, in the books I got from my father. I keep going back to them.