When I open an illustrated novel—a treat from time gone by—I do as I have always done: I scan the illustrations from front to back to see what characters await me. When I roamed the stacks of the Cornelia Young Public Library as a young reader in Daytona Beach, the drawings whet my appetite for the tale. Through them I found my way into The Count of Monte Cristo, The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, David Copperfield, and other favorites of those years.
I retain some fondness for David Copperfield, for it was the first big book I loved. When I read it at 11 or 12, I was so caught up in the long arc of the story and so taken with its characters that, when their story ended, unwilling to leave them, I turned from the last page to the first and read it through all over again.
The Dickens enchantment lingered, and in the mid-70s during a visit with my parents, who by then had relocated to Pittsburgh, I asked the owner of a used-book store in Squirrel Hill to keep an eye out for a complete Dickens set. Toba, who loved her trade, soon found a set in good condition and called my parents, who bought it as a 30th birthday present for me.
The set was published in 1900 by Peter Fenelon Collier & Son. Its 30 volumes are bound in faded red cloth, and the bindings are lettered in gold. The pages of many were uncut when I got them, and some volumes are uncut still. Copious pen and ink-wash drawings by unnamed artists capture the eccentricities of Dickens’s characters and the drama (or melodrama) of his tales.
A few weeks ago I was reading a play set in contemporary Pittsburgh when a passing mention of an old, closed bookstore brought the Squirrel Hill bookstore—now closed—to mind. My thoughts turned to my Dickens set—some years had passed since I’d last dipped into it—and to a mystery within it that haunts me from time to time. Old books can hold surprises, not all of which were placed there by authors, illustrators, or publishers.
In one volume, for example, a bookmark nicely decorated with a raised, overflowing basket of violets urged me in violet print to “Use Mennen’s Violet Talcum Toilet Powder, Admitted To Be The Best.” On the back, alongside a drawing of a well-groomed gent whose handlebar mustache drooped toward his stiff upraised collar, Mennen’s touted its talcum as “entirely different from all toilet, infant and complexion powders in principle and purpose. It is free from starch, rice or other irritants so common in ordinary powders and so dangerous to the beauty and health of the skin.” The powder could be had from any druggist or by mail for 25 cents.
Elsewhere, a yellowed scrap torn from a daily paper featured a full set of false uppers, gums and all, and guaranteed a 22k gold crown to anyone who brought $1.00 and the ad to Davis Dental Parlors the next week. An adjoining advertiser assured men suffering loss of sexual power, “I care not who has treated you for this condition and failed, as I have taken hopeless cases whose very life had been drained out of them and restored to them all manly vigor and strength.”
My mystery bookmark, however, was not these but rather a proof strip of four photographs. Two young women sit together photographed from the waist up, both with dark hair swept into pompadours of the “Gibson Girl,” turn-of-the-century style. Both wear summer dresses of loose-cut, white fabric; one has a ruffled collar, the other a stiff, straight, pinned collar and a watch pin on her shoulder. In three photos, the women look directly at the camera, and in one of these, the woman with the watch holds a parasol behind their shoulders. In the fourth they are turned slightly toward each other and smile into each other’s eyes. I think of the women as sisters though a family resemblance is not strong. No writing tells their names.
I first came upon these mystery sisters in Bleak House some years back (a book lawyers should read). I no longer remember if I found the photo strip as I reached the page it marked or if it slipped out as I thumbed through illustrations at the start. In either case, it startled me. There they were as once they were but who? I could imagine them preparing for the photographer, selecting their dresses, pinning up their hair, pinning on the watch, laughing over the parasol as they undertook to capture that moment of their time.
What of it? Why dwell on it? Their photos may preserve a moment of past time, but not a moment of my time. And I have ample personal reminders how much of my time lies behind me. My parents are gone now. Within our family, almost all of their generation is gone. The task of organizing my own family albums extends before me, the photos moving and painful to contemplate, and I face it only a little at a time. Little by little, people and places I remember succumb to time’s eraser. (On a recent trip to Daytona, I discovered that the Cornelia Young Public Library is gone now, though the old building that housed it is historic and the town must find some use for it.) Times change. The two women captured in a photo strip more than 100 years ago are nothing to me.
I suppose, though, that their very anonymity gives the photographs their power. (They are also easier to contemplate than the youthful photos of my own departed.) They once were something to someone and their photos belong in someone’s album, but whose? With no way to trace them—my Dickens bears no bookplate—I return them to the bleak house of a book where they have reposed for more than a century and may rest for decades more before another reader in another time turns a page and finds them and muses over the blankness of their page. There they are as once they were but who?
When we’ve wandered all our ways, said Raleigh, Time shuts up
The story of our days—Raleigh beheaded, his life like a book.
From the poem Book by Robert Pinsky, Selected Poems (Farrar Straus Giroux 2011)