Used bookstores. Is there anything better than an afternoon spent hunting through the shelves and stacks in one? As delightful as a new bookstore is, visiting a used bookstore is a trip into unknown, mysterious waters: who knows what treasures might be found on the shelves?
One treasure I found in a used bookstore (and I can’t even remember which one, now) several years ago is Maud, edited by Richard Lee Strout and published in 1938. It’s the diary of a Miss Isabella Maud Rittenhouse (who generally used her middle name), a comfortably middle-class young lady from Cairo, Illinois, down at the very bottom of the state where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet (which made for a very watery city—it did, and still does, flood regularly.) She kept it between 1881, when she was sixteen and a junior in high school, to just before her marriage in 1895 at age thirty. And oh, what a diary!
Maud paints herself as small and ugly, but she was evidently extraordinarily charming, based on the number of friends and admirers she had. She was also quite energetic, and not only went to art school in St. Louis, but also maintained an art studio, acted and sang in local amateur theater, and became a frequent contributor of stories and articles to national magazines.
Her writing talent is clear in her amazing diary. Some entries run thousands of words long and describe outings to New Orleans and the Chicago Worlds’ Fair, or boating on the spring floods, or the dresses she makes and the china she paints, or the people who come to life from her pen. The prose has a remarkably fresh, modern, alive feel to it, even as the people and events it describes are very 19th century. What’s most remarkable, though, is that the story of her younger years actually has a plot: she has many beaus and suitors and falls in love several times, but keeps coming back to one young man to whom she doesn’t feel much connection but respects enormously for his integrity and honesty…until mere weeks before their wedding, it’s revealed that he has embezzled thousands of dollars from his former employer. Poor Maud is devastated but eventually meets a new sweetheart and becomes engaged…until her new fiancé breaks the engagement. Five year later, he proposes again…and this time Maud and her handsome doctor get to live happily ever after.
I see that used copies are available online (check Abebooks, for one, and eBay.) If you should ever run across a copy at your favorite used bookstore, I highly recommend it.