I stumbled upon a copy of The Newcomes by William Thackeray while I was ‘spring cleaning’. As a sucker for used and old books, I obviously had to revisit it, flip through it for inscriptions or bookmarks or other memorabilia that might have been left in it by previous owners. I wanted to find out how old the book is, who owned it, who gifted it, where it had travelled...is it even possible to describe the fascination evoked by the whole, real lives that used books bring home, juxtaposed against the printed stories their pages tell?

The book came without a jacket, in just its gold-printed maroon cloth binding. There were no marks and no writing in it; the pages were pristine, almost as if the book had never been read, but had adorned the shelves of a massive library, lost among similar spines in a room smelling of leather and polished wood.

When I opened the book at random, the pages fell open on these pressed leaves, fungus-green with age, spotted and wrinkled like the face of an elderly person, their brown imprint visible on the otherwise spotless pages.

As I flipped further, another similar set of leaves appeared. Further searching yielded this card.

I think it reads, ‘For Pet Lamb with Auntie’s Love — Christmas 1903’. My heart skipped a beat when I first deciphered it: could this book actually be so old, and have fallen into my hands at a simple library sale?

I assume the card above is the kind that ladies in Jane Austen always left behind when the person they were calling on wasn’t home. I looked up Mrs Daniel Davis Wheeler, the name on the card, and came up with two results. The Mrs Wheeler buried in Fredricksburg is Nannie Douglas Phillips Wheeler. However, a Google Books result says that Mr Wheeler was married to Sophie S Deming from Indiana. He had a daughter called Sophie, so this sounds quite plausible. More searching reveals that Mr Wheeler married Nannie 30 years after the war, so she must have been his second wife. Since the war ended in 1865 and this edition of the book is probably from the early 20th century, it is likely that the handwriting on the card is Nannie’s.

(Mr Wheeler’s history is quite clear. Born in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1841, he was a Union solider and a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his contribution to the US Civil War. When he died in 1916, he was buried in the Phillips plot at the Fredericksburg Cemetery in Virginia, not far from a number of Confederate soldiers who also rest nearby.)

Now for the age of the book; it carries the publisher’s name — A L Burt Company — but no date. The publisher released a series of books in The Home Library series (see spine in first photo) in the early 20th century, and the catalogue from a 1903 copy of Robinson Crusoe mentions The Newcomes, which was first published in 1854–1855. So while my book is by no means a first edition, it is possible that this is one of the 1903 prints, going strictly by the card and the knowledge that this edition existed then.

Therefore, while there is no conclusive answer to the question of who owned the book and how old it is, I’ve enjoyed a good evening of sleuthing, and I feel absurdly nearer to a family with some roots in Virginia — where I found the book one afternoon. I plan to continue sleuthing and see if I can find descendants of the family. I have a lead and an email to write now. How I’d love a sequel to this post!

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