What is it that draws a reader¨or a scout¨to a secondhand book? Usually the look of the book, the illlustrations, the cover design, its condition. And sometimes just the title.
Wilfrid de Freitas, one of the most knowledgeable and likeable of Montreal's antiquarian dealers, often uses the expression "being turned on" by a book. A selective buyer, Wilfrid can spend hundreds of dollars or more for a book that "turns him on" and which he guesses will equally "turn on" a prospective customer. It's always mating season in the book trade. But one doesn't have to be a high-end dealer to be "turned on" by a particular volume. The feeling can be right with a five or ten buck book.
In the case of A Bachelor in Search of a Wife, it was especially the title that jumped out. Simple, amusing: You're curious, you want to find out more.Who is the bachelor? Why is he in search of a wife? Does he find one? It's always easy to sell a book with such an eye-catching title, especially if it's displayed cover up on your book fair table or outside on a trottoir:
The browsers. She and he are holding hands; they stop in front of your table, one of them spots the book. Nudge nudge, points, snicker snicker; the other picks it up, smiles, flips through. She tells her boyfriend she will buy it for him, or he tells her that he'll buy it as a present for himself, or for her. They both laugh. Pleased with the purchase, they walk off with the bachelor book; they're in love; they'll read the book in bed, they'll cuddle, they'll joke about it, they'll make love.
You're an altruistic bookseller, n'est-ce pas?
I've had other books where, likewise, it's the novelty title that works as a come-on. One was an old thick 19th century volume called What Does A Woman Want? I've had it twice. Each time as soon as it was placed on the table, it was snapped up. "I'm buying this for my husband," sez she cheekily, clutching the winsome volume.
So it was the Bachelor title in gilded lettering that turned me on when I spotted this small topaz-blue book by a turn-of-the-century author named Annie S. Swan at Joe Block's Bibliomania bookshop on Ste. Catherine Street near St. Mark. Joe was having a 50 percent-off sale just before moving to larger fourth floor premises at 460 Ste. Catherine West near Bleury.
It was on a shelf behind the cash, crammed in with 19th century literature, poetry, religion. Just the spine was showing. Scouts know that you can often hit on a treasure by pulling out such slim half-hidden books which everyone else has missed.
The fact that it was published by William Briggs, Toronto in 1892 and contained a chapter called "With the French Canadians" was an added inducement. It was in excellent condition, the only flaw being some crinkling on the head and tail of the spine. On the flyleaf was a neat handwritten inscription: "Tom. Wishing you many happy returns of the day. Winnifred." Perhaps the story of Tom and Winnifred would be as enthralling as that of the bachelor in Annie S. Swan's tale, if only we knew the details.
"Twelve bucks, Joe, less 50 percent?"
"We've got a deal. The title turns me on."
I brought Bachelor and a half a dozen other purchases to a nearby deli and after reading the first sentence, got immediately into the book. How can one help but be smitten?¨
"Between eight and nine o'clock on a raw November morning in London, a young man was breakfasting alone in his lodging-house parlor."
It may also have been a dark and stormy night, Those old English authors had the art of story telling down pat, creating painterly scenes with their simple Zennish brushstrokes.
Who was Annie S. Swan? Though long forgotten, she had her moment of glory a century ago. There's some background on her in the Discover Scottish Writers series published by the Scottish Library Association.
Born in Edinburgh in 1859, she married a schoolmaster studying medicine and supported him through her writings, popular "idealized romances." Her first commercial success came with Aidersyde in 1883 and which still shows up occasionally in 19th century romance collections. Her recurrent themes, according to the essay, are "sisterly and motherly love, the virtues of a good woman and a happy resolution of marriage problems."
She was extremely prolific and apparently led a busy and unencumbered life of writing, speaking and traveling. In later years she claimed to have lost count of her books published, but it's believed there were more than 150. She died at Gullane, Scotland in 1943.
In her 1934 autobiography, My Life, Annie S. Swan deplored "the complete overthrow of dignity and reticence in modern fiction." Such dignity and reticence are the bedrock of A Bachelor in Search of a Wife.
The bachelor Richard Heath works as a bookkeeper in a mercantile establishment in Holborn. The author tells us¨"He was a happy young fellow, who took the world as he found it, and managed, in spite of poor circumstances, and the dearth of what to all human beings are the precious things of life, to look upon existence with a kindly eye." His only friend is a music teacher, Mary Powell, a lodger in the same house. But just a friend, hey, no sex between them. This is Victorian England.
His life abruptly changes when he receives a letter from a legal firm with the Dickensian name Wynyard, Glazebrook & Bilton informing him that he has come into a very large inheritance¨"$60,000 and real estate in the Dominion amounting to double that sum" left to him by an uncle who emigrated to Quebec 40 years ago, an uncle whom Heath, an orphan, never knew existed.
But there is a condition that must be met before he can lay his hands on the fortune, which is the book's premise. (Filmmakers take note, it would make a wonderful Merchant and Ivory-style old-fashioned movie). The catch: "That you take a wife within twelve months from this date."
"It's a queer business altogether," Richard Heath tells the music teacher. I won't describe all that happens or why the uncle attaches this condition. Let's just say that Richard quits his job and becomes A Bachelor in Search of a Wife, starting his quest on the ocean-liner bringing him to America where he will visit his uncle's estate near Quebec City. On board, he falls head-over-heels for a fickle young lady escorting her invalid grandfather to America. She is "a lovely creature, tall, slender, patrician-looking, with a sweet proud mouth, a bewitching eye, and a waving mass of bronze-gold hair which the wind was tossing under her seal cap in lovely disorder."
After sightseeing in Montreal, Richard continues on his way to Quebec, which he finds "bleak and bare, and hungry-looking, its homesteads poor, and to outward appearance unprosperous." This of course was before Bernard Landry. He lives for a while "with the French Canadians." There is a lady there of whom his uncle spoke in his will whom he tries to woo, but there are obstacles, the main one being she is in love with someone else. Alas, poor Richard!
He eventually sails back to England, cleverly arranging to be on the same ship as the fickle young lady he met on the way over whom he hopes to marry. Richard is ever the "dignified and reticent" young English bachelor in search of a wife. But she¨"an accomplished coquette"¨ultimately rejects his awkward proposal. He is crushed, time is running out. "The love which had burned so bright and fierce in mid-ocean had evidently cooled in the more sober air of London."
How does it end? I won't tell you, not wishing to spoil it for any reader lucky enough to find a copy of this little slushy book. But I'll give you a hint. Remember the music teacher?
Certainly it isn't Henry Miller. It isn't D.H. Lawrence. It isn't the Marquis de Sade. But there is a touch of J.D. Salinger in the mood. Well, to each his or her own "turn-on." You never know what you can find cruising the bawdy aisles of bookshops, ogling the happy hookers on the shelves.
Next month: Traveler Tales of China by Hezekiah Butterworth.
Don Bell is a writer and book scout who bounds between Montreal, Paris and Sutton, Quebec.