Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Do Not Finger the Ornaments"

I have never actually dived into a dumpster, but I have leaned.

 This week I reached waaaay into the enormous reinforced cardboard box at the town dump that is the last stop for books before they hit the print equivalent of the glue factory. Admittedly, my motives were less Panda rescue and more "hmmm maybe-something-for-ebay." (My first fishing expedition in that box resulted in a a first edition hippie lit classic that I sold for $250).
No valuables this time but I did come up with a couple of things that made my life this week better. One was The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining "adapted by" Autumn Stephens (Bluewood Books 2005). It had tea cups on its ironic (practically new) cover so, I thought that ought to be good.

The other called to me, "I'm Old! And I think you know me!" I had a thing for Edna St. Vincent Millay as a teenager.  When I was a high school senior, my good Dad and I took a mini road trip to Austerlitz, NY in search of her home, which had been converted into a writer's colony. (That was the kind of fun 18-year-old that I was). I had plenty of Edna's poetry on my particle board bookshelves all through college and still have it somewhere. This dumpster copy was unmarked, having lost the label on its spine, but sure enough it was 1921's Second April. More on that in a minute.

 Etiquette books of the past are always fun. In college I picked up an Emily Post from the 1930s from another box of discards. I wish I had kept it. I laughed myself hoarse at the time. Victorian times guaranteed charmingly obsolete advice. Here are few of my favorites from my dumpster find:

  Never sit gazing curiously around the room during a visit as if taking a mental inventory of the furniture. 

Do not finger the ornaments.

  To be especially avoided by gentleman callers: Do not use a classical quotation in front of the ladies without apologizing for, or translating it. Do not leave your hat and riding whip in the hall, but take both into the drawing room. To do otherwise would be to make yourself too much at home.

  Young ladies seldom drink more than three glasses of wine at dinner: but married ladies who are engaged in a profession, such as authors and teachers, and those accustomed to society and the habits of affluence, will habitually take five or even six...

 I was taken aback by how much good common sense and, actual excellent manners were commended. "If you have more than one guest in your house, those of the humblest condition are to receive as much attention as the rest." "Do not parade the fact that you traveled in foreign countries." "Do not boast that you are acquainted with distinguished or wealthy people."  Of course, not fingering the ornaments is also sound advice today.

 After all this I'm embarrassed to admit that I have found this book to be perfect bathroom reading.

 Moving onto Edna St. V. M.: I got around to reading a few of the poems this afternoon (home with a cold, seeking a nap) and found a lot to (still) love. How has history judged Edna Millay? A minor major poet? Vice versa? Say what you will, she is from the poetic school of poetry and I like that one. Anyone who could compose:

 Red with heat was every wall,
 Rough with heat was every wire.

 Is going to get my admiration. (from "The Blue Flag in the Bog"). And, girls, how about this:


 I know what my heart is like 
Since your love died: 
It is like a hollow ledge 
Holding a little pool 
Left there by the tide, 
A little tepid pool, 
Drying inward from the edge.

 The book smells like someone dropped it under a shed and covered it with a plank sometime around Pearl Harbor Day - but that sort of adds to its charm for me. It's old and old fashioned. It's printed so that you can see the impression of the type on the thick deckle-edged paper. As per the bookplate, it came out of the library (at some point) of  Sylvia who once attended Colby Junior College for Women. Doesn't it seem criminal for Edna and Sylvia to let this be pulped?  Hmmm. Maybe Panda rescue after all.