First edition Jane Austen novel mailed to Ayer Shirley is a literary mystery

First edition Jane Austen novel mailed to Ayer Shirley is a literary mystery

AYER — On May 17, 1900, Lillian M. Flood, an Ayer High School student, won a first edition of the novel “Persuasion” by Jane Austen as a “Prize Speaker” award, according to the inscription on the flyleaf of that book, which has now made its way back home — or close to it — and is in the custody of someone who appreciates it, as an artifact and as literature.

Eleanore “Lolly” Capasso, who heads the Ayer Shirley Regional High School English Department has the book, which was routed to her when it arrived in the mail. But it’s temporary custody, she said, as she hopes to find it’s “rightful owner.”

Lillian Flood must have been an extraordinary young woman, Capasso said, noting that far fewer girls than boys received a high school education a century ago — and to be honored with a prize speaker’s award as well would have been quite an achievement.

It would be interesting to know what the prize-winning topic was. Persuasion, perhaps?

“Persuasion,” was Jane Austen’s last completed novel and it was a departure. 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.”

Completed in 1816, when the status of women was even more constrained than in Lillian Flood’s day, “Persuasion” was published posthumously in 1818.

Today, amid a resurgence in the popularity of Austen’s books, several of which have been made into movies, plays and TV mini-series, modern readers can easily access her novels, in bookstores, on line or at the local library. And “Persuasion” has been reprinted countless times since its publication.

But the book Capasso has in her possession is a first edition, meaning it was among the first copies printed in 1818 and is now nearly 200 years old. The book’s age awed some of her students, she said, even if they haven’t read it or anything else by its author.

Acknowledging that formal language and antiquated references in 19th century novels tend to tax the patience of most teen readers, Capasso said Austen still has a place in the high school curriculum.

“We do Austen with Ms. Wittmier’s AP English class,” she said.

As a self-described “literary nerd,” she’s thrilled to have the small, leather-bound book, Capasso said, but she hopes to pass it on to a descendant of its original owner, if she can find one. Meantime, it will be in good hands and eventually on display at the high school

The book was sent to “Ayer High School” with a letter addressed “to anyone who cares.” The sender, Mrs. Alice B. Bantle, of Pawley’s Island, SC., explained that she found the book while sorting through boxes of her mother’s things. Her mother, who lived in Dudley, MA, often bought old books at yard sales, usually for less than a dollar.

This one was special. So Mrs. Bantle packaged it in a padded postal envelope and mailed it to the original owner’s alma mater. “After all these years, it needs a new home,” she wrote.

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, but Capasso thinks the book’s well-worn condition shows it was read often.

“Someone loved this book,” she said.

Pointing to the letter and its enigmatic greeting “To Anyone who Cares…” Capasso said she cares, very much, as do the other teachers in her department.

“The men were excited but some of the ladies cried” when they saw the book, she said.

As an avid reader of Austen can attest, it did stir the imagination to see the vintage volume up close, even touch it, gingerly. Hopefully, someone from Flood’s family, or her husband’s, will come forward to claim it.

To that end, the following information was obtained, with assistance, from records at the Ayer Town Clerk’s office.

A marriage certificate dated May 7, 1908, states that on that day, Lillian M. Flood, age 25, (she’d have been 17 years old in 1900) and employed as a clerk, married Frederick T. Moses, 22, a chemist. The bride was born in Boston. Her father was P.H. Flood. The groom was born in Ayer. His father was F.W. Moses.

Recorded deaths in Ayer since 1908 showed two men with the surname Moses: Edward Moses died in Feb., 1937. John Walter Moses died in Jan. 1997.