Thursday, May 25, 2017

Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm: Or, the Mysterious Journey of a Book.

I will admit to a passion for Trollope. During a recent trip to Ireland, I had the author’s complete works downloaded on my Kindle (along with Thackeray and Tolstoy – I seem to have gotten stuck in the “T’s”). Sipping afternoon tea by a peat fire and nibbling a scone, I indulged myself in yet another Trollope wonder, The Claverings, while the sun turned red, then lavender and then was gone. As the hotel library in Clifden, Connemara darkened, I began exploring the books stacked haphazardly on the shelves. Always curious about other travelers’ cast-off reading, I picked up one volume after another and soon found a friend: Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope. Vol 1. Inside was a surprise: a Library Company bookplate, and the words “Duplicate sold”. Spidery letters spelled F.L.P. indicating the Free Library of Pennsylvania had rebound the 1908 Dodd, Mead edition. August 14, 1959, was the novel’s due date when last borrowed. 

Cordelia Biddle
I turned the book over and over, imagining that some truth of its wanderings would seep through my fingers. How had the novel come to the Abbeyglen Hotel? In a suitcase full of books to be enjoyed on vacation? Was it carried here by a family on holiday, or a single person intent on fly-fishing during the day and reveling in Trollope at night? And what had happened to the other volumes? I searched each shelf. They weren’t to be found. As everyone knows, no sane person stops reading Orley Farm (or any Trollope) after Vol 1. The mystery deepened.

Of course, I carried my treasure back to the Library Company, thinking of Fanny Trollope and her American adventures, and of her son with his unhappy childhood and prodigious gifts of invention and language. Finally, my mind’s eye saw him settled in his official post in Clonmel, a spot where I’d vacationed as a child long before I’d been introduced to his extraordinary universe. The novel’s peregrinations remained elusive, however, even with the aid of Connie King and her able staff.

My electronic device may permit me to carry a steamer trunk full of books within a single tablet, but it can never replace the human heft of paper and ink and buckram. Nor can it replicate the magic of printed words winging through time and space, or the tactile marvel of faded gilt edges and a worn bookplate reminding a reader on Ireland’s far western peninsula that an American institution was founded in 1731.

Cordelia Frances Biddle is an author and a long-time shareholder of the Library Company. Her most recent book is Saint Katharine: the Life of Katharine Drexel. Currently, she’s writing a biography of Nicholas Biddle and haunting the Library Company’s reading room. 

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