Jane Austen, Merry Hall and a Traveling Book
Updated: Jan 16
Close to five thousand miles—across an ocean and the third largest continent—that's how far the book in my hands had traveled.
On a rainy spring day, I'd just started browsing in a used bookstore, looking as always for an unexpected treasure. I saw a familiar author and reached for the book. What I discovered, however, was more than I imagined.
When I opened the cover, I found an inscription left by, almost certainly, the first owner of the book: G. A. Ives. And, I found that G. A. Ives had lived on Eastville in Bath, England (I obscured to specific address to protect the privacy of the current residents).
Here is the journey the book, Merry Hall, took to reach the United States and make its way across country to a used bookstore in the Pacific Northwest:
Map courtesy of DistanceFromTo.net
Of course, I bought Merry Hall for $2.99 and took it home with me. I then started off to do my version of Book Detectives (I think that would make a terrific television show).
There were so many intriguing avenues to explore as I studied the book, but first, I decided to look up the place where Merry Hall originally called home.
I found that Eastville in Bath still exists. It is made up of terraced homes built during the Victorian age. They are part of a district named Larkhall in Bath.
I found one of the terraced Victorian houses currently for sale. Seeing the pictures, I wanted to buy the home myself! It has three bedrooms, a private rear garden and a sitting room with a bay window. Another feature of the sitting room is particularly striking—a cozy, attractive fireplace flanked by large built-in bookcases.
I like to think of G.A. Ives selecting Merry Hall from those shelves and then settling down in a comfortable armchair to read. Glancing up through the bay window, there'd be a view of little Solsbury Hill where an Iron Age hill fort stood.
For a constitutional walk between reading books, G. A. Ives could have taken a twenty-minute stroll to the city center to see places made famous by Jane Austen.
Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra, 1804
Miss Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806. She wrote two novels with scenes set in Bath: Northanger Abbey (she revised the book while still living in Bath) and Persuasion (completed ten years after she left). According to this very interesting article, Miss Austen, upon first seeing Bath, may have felt very much like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:
Later, Miss Austen came to have more complex feelings about her stay in Bath and tire of the city's high society of the era. Nevertheless, her time there allowed her to write vivid scenes and added more to her arsenal of keen, discerning observations about life and relationships.
The Royal Crescent in Bath
After strolling by sites made famous by Jane Austen, I can well imagine G.A. Ives returning from the walk and settling down again with Merry Hall. The author, Beverley Nichols, wrote with great charm and wit (occasionally biting) about restoring a Georgian manor house and redesigning the garden.
Threaded through the story are his views about his neighbors and humorous, touching stories about his great companions—One and Four—his cats. Mr. Nichols had decided he would have 100 cats in his lifetime, and so named them as they came into his life. One was a Siamese and Four was a black cat.
Merry Hall is the first in a trilogy—I had the second and third books in the newer and beautiful Timber Press editions: Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn. Before browsing at the used bookstore, I'd somehow missed having Merry Hall in my own collection. Now, I do:
Merry Hall is the book to the right on my bookshelf
This edition was published by The Companion Book Club of London in January 1953, with drawings by William McLaren. This edition is not very valuable in terms of money, but has its own value in charm and history.
The book in my hand cannot tell me the mysterious story of how it made its way 4,676.75 miles from Bath to the Pacific Northwest. What circumstances set it loose from that cozy bookshelf by the fireplace in the Victorian home? Yet, opening the book's pages, I can still find a wealth of stories about the loveliness and value of a book.
Now, I'm reading Merry Hall in my own armchair in front of this cozy fire contained in my Morsø "squirrel" wood stove, like this one:
The motto inside Merry Hall for The Companion Book Club is true: