After finding the Christmas gift and the book dedication, I start rummaging through the rest of the old books from home, wondering who originally owned them. Every one of them has either a bookplate or an inscription inside — good fortune for me and an indication of the value they had for the owner and the giver.
One of the novels was presented to Harold by a teacher as a prize for ‘perseverance’. Perseverance can mean many things, but maybe it meant that he valued learning and was able and willing to keep attending school when surrender to family duty and hard work on the land was a more common choice.
I find more books with Harold’s name in the front — presents from his brothers, presents from his friend, Walter. I’m surprised to find that even Rilla of Ingleside has Harold’s name on it — the year1919, is written underneath. I leaf through L.M. Montgomery’s story of the the home front during the Great War. When I was young, I hadn’t recognized the historical accuracy of it; back then it was just the romantic end to the Anne series.
I open up my copies of Ishmael and Self-Raised by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Great Heart by Ethel M. Dell , John Halifax, Gentleman and Lazarre by Mrs. Craik; Harold’s name is in nearly every old book that’s been passed on to me.
His stories were my stories.
These books are the old romantic stories I read, loved and reread when I was a teen, but skimming through them now, I see they are not merely romantic novels. They all have protagonists with shining moral standards who maintain their integrity throughout their trials because of their strong Christian values.
I begin to wonder – was that what Victorian/Edwardian novels were like or were they just the type of book Harold preferred to read?
To find out what people were reading at the time, I used two sources.
First, I found two databases of American Best-sellers of the 20th Century. One was compiled as a joint project involving students from several American universities. The other from Publisher’s Weekly (made available on Wikipedia). The lists cross-checked and two of the books from the lists, The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902 #1 best-seller, 1903 #5 best-seller) and The Rosary by Florence Barclay (1910 #1 best-seller, 1911 #9 best-seller) are in my collection of grandfather’s books. (I didn’t looked into Canadian publishing only because none of his books were published in Canada. They were from Britain and America).
The second source was the good old Methodist survey of the Swan River Valley. It provided a local focus. The surveyors not only recorded the reading habits of the people, they recorded the most borrowed titles from the Bowman Public Library that year. They were:
Popular books at that time turned out to be a range of melodramatic romance, action/adventure, mystery and biographical stories. But what was popular is only part of the answer. I also have to consider, what might have been available to Harold? I don’t know what else Grandfather may have owned or had access to. And I don’t know how hard it may have been to even acquire books.
Religion seems to play a significant part in the Gillespie’s lives even influencing Harold’s choice of literature. But I wonder what the norm was back then, perhaps my family was just very religious. I want to better understand what part religion played in the history of this time for these people. I have a couple of solid clues I want to follow — one is the Methodist survey and the other has to do with Harold’s friend, Walter.