History often comes down to the written word. Most of what we know of Jane Austen is derived from her letters to her sister, diary accounts of those close to her, her own written word, and the public and private written opinion of those who knew her or knew of her.
Allow me to amend: history often comes down to the discovered written word. A fact never so obvious as when new discoveries occur.
My family suffered an unfortunate tragedy this weekend – the kind that every family suffers, and in the aftermath we were inevitably led to root through the house left behind.
We discovered the usual things: clothes, bills, teacups, old magazines. Digging deeper still there were seasonal holiday decorations, tax documents. But deeper still we found something unexpected. A locked chest and within, dozens of old ledgers.
At first glance, the items appeared ordinary. Each page allowed for a list of entries with a column style ledger. Each page was numbered in the upper corner. A study of the items, first appearing in the year 1919, revealed the sort of purchases one might expect. The ledger itself. Fruit. Materials. Clothing. (Do feel free to gasp at the reasonable prices!)
There are a few mystery items. Defined mainly by their vague nature. For example, “For Hannah” or “For Jacob” and a slightly less mysterious but incredibly high value “For My Teeth.”
The first half of this ledger is filled with the minutiae of year-by-year purchases one might expect only to be followed by blank page after blank page after blank page…until the pages were no longer blank. Towards the end of the book are lines upon lines of script, diary entries. Most in a foreign language that I’ve been told is likely Scandinavian, but also one in English.
The text of which goes:
My Dear, Good Billie:
Please do believe me when I tell you that I do care a whole lot for you, and that you have been just the dearest pal a girl ever had! I can never forget our good times together; but Bill, dear, where a girl gives herself to a man utterly, she has so many things to consider. Life is not all golf, you know, nor every meal a picnic! I have eloped with P- H-. He is mad about me, and of course I love him, too, or I should not be writing this. If only you had been a little more serious, Billie! But somehow I cannot help feeling that when a man of your age never has settled down, but still plays tennis, and the ukelele, and fox-trots and does coin tricks, and never thinks about anything but play even if he is the dearest, jolliest pal in the whole world, I’m afraid to give my poor silly little self into his keeping! I need someone just my opposite. P- H- says so. You and I are too much alike. But promise me that we can always be friends or I shall be heartbroken.
Your foolish little summer playmate,
C- is not my family member in question, but her Aunt. No one alive has ever heard of Billie. All we know of C- is she had a son and died thereafter. We are unsure if P- H- was already dead at this point or merely absent, as C-‘s son came to live with the family.
A short life, even for the times, which I hope was still filled with joy and love despite its brevity and the sensibility of her choices.
C- has always been a footnote in our family musings, a distant something-or-other, but with this discovery, it is clear she always has been, and has now to us, become, so much more.