Revealed – the secrets of abandoned Norfolk books
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Stories hidden for decades in two boxes of second-hand books have been given new life by a priest and a pub.
The books were three times unwanted, first each was donated to a church fete stall, then it failed to sell, and finally it was abandoned in a barn for half a century or more.
“They were the left-overs from generations of vicarage garden parties,” said the Rev Penelope Dent, “They were the books which no one wanted to buy.”
But the retired priest was intrigued when she came across the two boxes of books in Spixworth, near Norwich, ‘battered and ancient...huddled together unmourned and unwanted.’
“There were no Agatha Christies, people still read them, these were the leftovers.” she said.
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So, Penelope, who has been a teacher, a social worker, a lecturer and a nun (twice) before training as a priest, began reading.
Through the summer lockdown she looked at every book, from disintegrating hymn books to romantic fiction, researched the authors, and was intrigued by the bookmarks of newspaper cuttings, receipts, postcards and even a bank book (East Anglian Trustees Saving Bank) which fell from the faded pages. "I think they ranged from the 1930s to the 1970s,” said Penelope, of Old Catton, near Norwich. One postcard, printed for American soldiers as they were leaving Britain after the Second World War had a picture of Picadilly Circus and a poem which finished: “Goodbye, GI. Don't leave us quite alone. Somewhere in England we must write in stone: ‘Here Britain was invaded by the Yanks.’ And, under that, a big and brilliant ‘Thanks.’”
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Penelope said: “On the back some one had written: ‘Our Jack - he was such a nice lad.’”
As she read each book she researched its author, and discovered the USA’s first female detective writer, and the shy novelist who wrote racy books and was mercilessly teased by her cousins for the quivering passion of her prose. Some of the oldest books had been given as prizes by Aylsham Sunday School and Penelope said: “The dangers of demon drink, tear-jerking reunions and death-bed scenes provided sensation and improving moral values for the youth who moved in church circles.”
There was only one early book she thought might be worth something today. She took First Alphabet Book, published in the 1920s to an expert – who explained that it would need to be in pristine condition to be valuable. “I had to admit that the book in my hand had clearly endured many rounds of unarmed combat with the Spixworth under-fives, generation after generation!” said Penelope.
However he is planning to post some of the illustrations on Twitter. “In that way the ghost of the book would live on,” said Penelope.
She kept just one book, Blue Willow by Doris Gates, published in this country in 1942 and telling the story of a poor girl who longed to go to school.
And the rest?
They were already the books which no-one had wanted for decades. Some had reached the end of their useful lives but Penelope was delighted to find a home for many of them in a community library being set up at The Sir Alfred Munnings Hotel in Mendham, near Harleston, where more readers might get a glimpse into a world which was almost lost forever.
As she read and researched, the Rev Penelope Dent took notes. Here are some of her fascinating observations:
“The books that no one wanted to buy included hymn books, tattered dictionaries, Victorian fiction and verse, temperance stories and 1950s Mills and Boon in hard back. It was this escapist literature that revealed intriguing details about daily life, what people thought, what they took for granted. A young lady's reputation was lost for ever in one novel because she had spent a night in an Alpine hotel with a young man after the last train had chugged down the valley without them. Separate rooms meant nothing if you had forgotten to bring a chaperone.”
“My next discovery was how popular Ethel M Dell had been. Google introduced me to a full list of her bestsellers. Many of them had been banished for years to those boxes in the barn. Writing during the inter-war years Ethel provided a steady diet for her thousands of readers, a potent mixture of high-mindedness and trembling passion. In fact her irreverent cousins would seize each new novel and mark up with a pencil words like, 'passion', 'tremble', 'pant' and 'thrill', before totting up the score to see how it compared with previous novels. It is hardly surprising that with cousins like that, Ethel was shy and never gave interviews. Her fans in Spixworth read On Top Of The World, The Lamp In The Desert, Live Bait And Other Stories and The Electric Torch amongst many others. Some stories were set in sultry corners of the Empire but wherever it happened there was always a suffering heroine and a strong, silent man who softened and ended up coming to the rescue.”
“In a strange book, Before Adam, Jack London its American author had imagined the life and limited feelings of pre-historic, not quite human humans, still living in the trees before it was safe to exist at ground level. It was a bleak and brutal life.”
“Books which seemed too ancient and battered to merit a second glance turned out to be forerunners of their kind of fiction. The House of Whispering Pines by AK Green was the work of a woman whose earlier novel The Leavenworth Case was praised by Wilkie Collins when it was published in 1878. Hers were the first American detective novels. Ann Katherine Green may have been the first to leave a body in the library, she even dared to have female detectives. She was known for the accuracy of her medical and legal details, so much so that one of her novels was used by the Yale Law School to expose the dangers of relying only on circumstantial evidence.”