A high school in Ayer, Mass. is the sight of a literary mystery that has the head of the English Department — Eleanor Capasso — channeling her inner literary nerd.
One day in March, an old leather-bound book arrived at the school, addressed enigmatically to “anyone who cares,” The Boston Globe reported. The book ended up being a 200-year-old tome and a beloved one at that: Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
Even more remarkable, this book could be a first edition of Jane Austen’s final, posthumously published novel.
“This is what English teachers live for. This — and being published as novelists … Oh, my goodness. Myself and a colleague upstairs — literally, we cried. This just showed we are literary geeks.”
The 200-year-old book wasn’t a complete mystery, however. It came with a letter explaining its origins and some notes in the flyleaf that identified its original owner: an Ayer’s student who last walked the halls in 1900.
A small golden stag is embossed on the cover of the Jane Austen novel, with the initials “JA” written underneath. Persausion was published in 1817, and this book has a printing date of 1818. Publishers at the time post-dated books.
Local newspaper The Nashoba Valley Voice described the condition.
“The hand-held volume is in fragile condition, the pages thin as moth’s wings but intact; the text is readable and the pastel-colored illustrations look fresh. There are no dog-eared pages or notes scribbled in the margins.”
The 200-year-old book arrived in a padded envelope that read, “Ayer High School. ATTN: English Department.” An inscription on the flyleaf identified the owner as Lillian M. Flood. She won it on May 17, 1900 as a “Prize Speaker” award.
The letter accompanying it was from Alice B. Bantle of Pawleys Island, S.C.
Mrs. Bantle’s mother, who lived in Dudley, Mass., bought old books at garage sales often and usually paid less than a dollar for them. The 200-year-old Persuasion was evidently tucked away in one of these boxes.
The woman explained that she found it in a box of “junk” in her mother’s garage but thought it looked special. So she slipped Jane Austen’s novel into an envelope and mailed it to the owner’s alma mater.
“Even though Persuasion is in very bad shape. It might be of interest to someone in your English Department, or traced back to its original family.”
But it may not be a 200-year-old first edition after all and it still needs to be independently verified. A Jane Austen expert at Harvard University, Deidre Lynch, (who has only inspected it by looking at pictures) thinks it actually dates to 1900.
“Even a century ago, a first edition of (Jane) Austen would be awfully valuable,” she said. “And so, an unusual school prize.”
Capasso now wants to find the 200-year-old volume’s rightful owners, hopefully, someone in Lillian’s family. She intends to spend her spring vacation at the town hall, pouring through records.
“In my opinion, it’s an heirloom,” she said. “I want to see if I can find its family.”
Little information has been recovered of Lillian, whom the English teacher believes must have been extraordinary. Few girls in 1900 got an education and even fewer earned awards. The Voice dug up some details about her that show she was married in May, 1908 at age 25, when she was employed as a clerk. Her husband was Frederick T. Moses, 22, and a chemist. The record dries up after that.
Until an owner can be found, Capasso said the novel will be put on display. In the meantime, having a 200-year-old Jane Austen book in her possession — however briefly — is a milestone in her career.
“For an English teacher, this is like the Holy Grail. This makes my career to have in my possession a possible first edition.”
[Photo By Hulton Archive/Getty Images]