When it was suggested to Lydia Wevers that she write something about a collection of old books gifted to Victoria University 40 years ago, she thought there might be an essay in it, or a topic for a speech.
Then she opened the books – and felt what she calls the “most extraordinary sense of connection”. Suddenly, she says, “I felt as if I was talking to people in the 19th century.”
The books, all published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came from the lending library of the Brancepeth sheep station in eastern Wairarapa. Yes, dear reader, sheep stations had their own lending libraries then. Big ones like Brancepeth, anyway – and the station at its height covered 30,000ha and employed up to 300 people.
These books, then, are very much used books, handled over and over again, mostly by male farm workers. Many of them still bear the imprint – or, more literally, the thumbprint – of their readers. “When you open them,” says Wevers, “you see the mud and the grass stains and the spilt cups of tea: I mean, you can see that person spilling their cup of tea, virtually, while they’re reading. It’s so enchantingly present.”
Captivated by what Australian historian Greg Dening calls the “romance of the archive”, getting shivery feelings from not just the flowers pressed between some pages but the extensive marginalia – the annotations, the scribbled remarks, the doodles and sums – Wevers wanted to know more.
She wrote to Ed Beetham, current owner of Brancepeth (it was his father who donated the books), and asked if she could visit. It turned out that although the old library is now a storeroom, the clerk’s office has been left almost exactly as it was more than 100 years ago, before the estate was broken up by the land reforms of the Seddon Government.
And it was here, among the pigeonholes stuffed with old invoices and receipt books, that Wevers found the station diaries and ledgers for 1893 to 1908.
They had all been kept by one man, estate clerk John Vaughan Miller, in a firm, discursive but not always clear hand – the same hand that had annotated so many of the books.
Miller had not just kept the accounts, though; threaded through every page is a running record of station life interspersed with opinions, observations, caustic comments, Latin tags, diary notes and memoranda.
From this mass of marginalia, and from articles and letters he wrote for the local newspaper, emerges a highly educated, judgmental and mordantly witty man.
Wevers became so fascinated by Miller, who was also the librarian, that he threatens at times to take over the book that she wound up writing, Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World.
“John Vaughan Miller is such a powerful personality,” she says. “All these years later, he brings the whole of the station world to life, reporting what people say and what they eat and how they smell and where they sleep and who they’re having sex with.
“It’s the most astonishingly detailed but also opinionated view of this world. It’s like reading a novel, really, reading the station diaries.”
And she did indeed read all 13 years of them – “but I really looked forward to it! I would go up there and just spend four days trying to read through two or three years.
“In fact, it took me a whole day to read six months of the diaries. And it was like being in this wonderful serial, because he tells you everything that happens. It’s completely gripping.”
Alas, while Miller’s diaries and 2000 library books have survived, the Lending Book has been lost. It would have told us so much. “I have absolutely ransacked Brancepeth for it,” says Wevers. “I have turned that place upside down.”
Still, by closely examining, Sherlock Holmes-like, the books as physical objects, she was able to reconstruct an “impressionistic map of what readers liked and didn’t like”. Going through them, she says, “I began to realise that the books showed very different levels of wear and tear, and that the conclusion you had to draw from that was that some were very popular and others not so.” Elementary, dear reader. So what was popular? Romances (“Marjorie Bartrand had proved herself a very woman after all”) and ripping yarns (“She uttered a shrill cry of horror, and clutched wildly at her companion’s cloak”). Nearly 90% of the Brancepeth books are fiction.
The astonishing thing is just how many have been forgotten. Think Victorian novelists and most of us would come up with names like William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy – the canon, in short; the pantheon.
Well, they made the cut at Brancepeth all right, but the wear-and-tear meter really goes off the scale for (among others) F Marion Crawford, Grant Allen, Marie Corelli, ME Braddon, Sarah Grand, Walter Besant and the redoubtable Mrs Henry Wood.
What’s more, Wevers, whose day job is director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University, has read many of them. And loved them, by jingo. “They’re wonderful reads,” she says. “I just love Mary Braddon: she is marvellous, you can’t put her down. I love Mrs Henry Wood – you can completely see why Mrs Henry Wood and Mary Braddon were so adored in the 19th century.”
She also read lashings of Marie Corelli, and thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Grand (The Heavenly Twins) and Lucas Malet (Colonel Enderby’s Wife). Terrific plots; thrilling revelations; derring and also do. “They take you by the scruff of the neck,” says Wevers happily, “and rip you to the end.” So why didn’t they survive as well as, say, Thackeray and Trollope? “Because they’re not as accomplished in the literary sense as someone like Trollope.” But they’re still around: publishers like Virago reprint them from time to time and the Wellington public library still has a couple of Mrs Henry Woods.
What Wevers endeavours to show is that the seemingly far-fetched plots were not pure escapism. “One of the things that surprised me,” she says, “was that the world of the farm is not as different from the world of the Victorian novel as you might expect. It has all these things going on in it – the scandals and the deaths and the financial difficulties and reversals and the wills and the legacies and the missing people.”
Readers are always harder to find in history than books, she acknowledges, but her book brings us as close as we may hope to get to that time. “If, like me, you have been a compulsive reader and literary scholar all your life,” she writes, “there is deep historical magic in uncovering the evidence of past readers who have loved reading, and sometimes the same books as you have yourself.”
The Brancepeth library, still in its original glass-fronted totara bookcases, now lines an otherwise undistinguished corridor on the ground floor of the Victoria University library. You can even take the books out if you’re a member – out of the shelves, that is, but not out of the building – and hold them in your hands. As others have before you.