Deborah Yaffe

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Not quite Antiques Roadshow

By Deborah Yaffe, May 2 2016 01:00PM

The story sounds irresistible: A treasured Jane Austen first edition, inscribed more than a century earlier to an unknown young woman, arrives unannounced at the English department of her old high school. A dedicated teacher takes it upon herself to track down the descendants of the mysterious owner and return the precious volume. The screenplay practically writes itself.


It’s no wonder this story captured the imagination of a newspaper reporter in northeastern Massachusetts, where the copy of Persuasion – apparently given in 1900 as a prize to student Lillian M. Flood -- arrived this spring at Ayer Shirley Regional High School. The book had been sent by a woman who found it among the possessions of her deceased mother, an inveterate buyer of used books.


As a Janeite lacking the budget for Austen first editions, I was captivated by the Antiques Roadshow aspect of the story. A Jane Austen first edition, potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars, just knocking around someone’s attic? What a find!


Well -- not so much. It’s patently obvious from a close-up inspection of the picture that ran with the original story that the copy in question is not John Murray’s original 1818 edition of Persuasion but rather an 1899 edition published by the British firm of J.M. Dent, which later launched the beloved Everyman’s Library of classic literature. It doesn’t take any special expertise in rare books to figure this out -- which is lucky, since I don’t have any such expertise. The name of the publisher and publication date are right there on the title page, across from a colored illustration signed “C.E. Brock 1898.”


It’s an interesting and lovely old book, yes, but it’s no first edition. And given the ready availability of that newfangled Internet that all the kids are talking about these days – not to mention a working set of eyes -- the original reporter should have known as much. (Given the reporter's bizarre take on Persuasion -- "Unlike earlier works such as Pride and Prejudice or Emma, which gently nudged the social conventions and romantic notions of her day, Persuasion was less subtle and has been called a 'biting satire' " -- it's probably safe to assume no Janeite expertise.)


The confusion seems to have arisen because an early page of the Dent edition displays a sort of heraldic shield containing Austen’s dates and the words “first edition of Persuasion published 1818.” But this is obviously a statement about the novel’s history, not an announcement that this volume is itself a first edition.


Alas, as is so often the case in this disappointing world of ours, the story isn’t quite as good as it sounded at first. But at least it’s got a happy ending – the Massachusetts English teacher located Flood’s grandsons and is sending them the book.


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