A Golden Treasury Courtship

“I am not like the moon. Neither is my dear old John.” Mary Nicholls’ marginal note to Shelley’s “To the Moon” in her copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.

When my grandmother came to live with us soon after my grandfather’s death in 1946 she brought with her two identical copies of the dark-blue covered 1891 edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The two books were shelved side by side in the living room throughout my childhood. They disappeared for several decades after my parents died and the house was sold, but re-emerged years later at the back of my brother’s garage when his house was for sale following his death in 2004.

Palgrave’s best-selling anthology is often credited with (or blamed for) shaping popular tastes in poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The young Edmund Gosse found everything in Palgrave’s collection “exquisite” in contrast to Southey’s “stony verse” given to him by his father and which he found “impossible to penetrate.” Thomas Hardy extensively annotated his own copy, evidently taking many of Palgrave’s selections as models for his own verse and cherishing the book as a “companion for life.” Though held in contempt by Modernist critics a generation or two later, The Golden Treasury accompanied soldiers to the trenches in World War I and, along with the Bible and Shakespeare, was one of the books most likely to be found in the homes of the newly-literate or of autodidacts.

During their courtship  my grandparents had acquired matching copies of The Golden Treasury which they exchanged each week. Every Sunday afternoon, John Bastion, the young cobbler, would call for Mary Nicholls at the family farm at Tretharrup near Lanner village in his pony and trap, known in Cornwall as a “jingle.” At the end of these decorous weekly meetings they would exchange their copies of Palgrave’s anthology. In the intervening week each had selected a poem for marginal annotation. Sentimental phrases were underlined in pencil and marked with such marginalia as, “You, sir,” or “You, my dear Mary.” One can only imagine the intense leafing through to find the most recent annotation, the pondering over the precise nuance of phrase and then the quest for the right verse, the right line, to annotate for the following week’s meeting. They were not the only couple to use The Golden Treasury as a vehicle for their courtship––Penelope Fitzgerald notes that her aunt Winifred Knox (later, Lady Peck) and uncle James, when engaged to be married in 1911, carried on a postcard correspondence based on page and line references to The Golden Treasury. The Knox family, one where, according to Fitzgerald, “everyone was publishing, or about to publish” were obviously much more sophisticated readers than my grandparents, but Palgrave might still have been startled by the use made by either couple of his collection.

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Mary Nicholls’ and John Bastion’s marginalia in The Golden Treasury offer some tantalizing clues both to the pattern of their courtship and to their reading practices. They seem to have worked through the collection systematically from the beginning, lighting upon suitable love poems and ignoring everything else. Their early comments tend to be quite tentative. They may also have been slightly in awe of the gulf between high flown poetic language and their own ability to articulate their feelings. Mary writes “True” beside the closing couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106 “For we . . . Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.” John underlines the first four lines of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and writes the single word, “Mary” beside the final couplet. Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love,” elicits no words, but only a single check mark. Though whether they shied away from the explicit sexual invitation or from the artifice of the pastoral convention is unknowable.

The earliest underlinings also tend to favour the bland Sunday Schoolish pieties that would earn public approval if exposed to general view. John underlines the single line “Honest labour bears a lovely face” in Thomas Dekker’s poem  which Palgrave titles, “The Happy Heart.” Similarly,“Happiness does not consist in wealth alone,” writes Mary beside the couplet “For thy sweet love remember’d, such wealth brings/

. . .then I scorn to change my state with kings,”  ending Shakespeare’s sonnet  and John concurs by adding some underlining with his usual purple indelible pencil. In Colley Cibber’s “The Blind Boy” Mary underlines, “Then let not what I cannot have/ My cheer of mind destroy,” and writes in the margin “Recipe for contentment.”

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.” In later pages, when the courtship had progressed further, these Sunday School pieties are transmuted into an anticipation of a shared old age in a modest “cot” “With a porch at my door, both for shelter and shade” and “a snug elbow-chair.” “Just what you like” notes Mary in the margin and “Good” adds John.

Although the marginalia grow somewhat bolder with the passage of time, Mary remains apt to hedge her bets with ambiguity. John inquires in the margin of Burns’ “John Anderson, My Jo,” “I think this is your favourite is it not?” Mary’s response, is the equivocal, “I like this piece, though I do not think it exactly suits you. But you know I mean just the reverse of what I say sometimes,” dodges commitment and even provides insurance against overly-confident readings of her inscriptions. John Anderson my jo_0001Despite this self-protective equivocation, Mary’s marginalia run counter to the usual stereotype of the Victorian female as the passive recipient of male gestures of courtship. She comments on her lover’s hair writing “You sir” beside the reference to “golden hair” in William Drummond’s “Summons to Love.” Later on, references to hair take on a teasing tone — she foresees that John’s “brow” will, like Burns’ John Anderson’s, be bald and that he will need a knitted cap. To which John gallantly replies, “You must make it. No one else shall.” Nor is she particularly shy about admitting her love. Beside Sedley’s lines “So love as unperceived did fly/And centr’d in my breast,” she writes, “So it was.” Mary is also the more energetic annotator of the two. Her marginalia outnumber John’s as well as being more extensive. She even indulges in some light repartee. When John approvingly underlines:

A springy motion in her gait,

A rising step, did indicate

Of pride and joy no common rate

  That flushed her spirit

in Charles Lamb’s “Hester,” Mary responds, “Call it high action dear.”  Jokily self-deprecating, she’s referring to “high action”–the term used to describe the preferred gait of a harness pony, perhaps also thinking of  the smart pony and trap in which John travels to her home each Sunday.

Mary and John in the early years of marriage

Mary and John in the early years of marriage

Mary’s greater readiness to make annotations directly relating to the text may reflect more comfort with the written word arising from the supplementation of her Board School education by her training as a pupil-teacher. She is listed in the 1891 census as “Board School teacher.” She was fifteen.

John’s comments, written in a more awkward hand, using an indelible or a blunt coloured pencil, and frequently mis-spelled,  tend to be briefer. The thick pencils, probably the same ones he used in marking out shoe patterns in his cobbler’s shop,  were poorly suited to writing in the cramped marginal space of a small volume. At times, though, he rises to a burst of gallantry. Beside the last stanzas of Coleridge’s  “Love” he writes in blue pencil, “The better a Girl is, the more goodness she see [sic] in her lover,” a sentiment not apparently expressed in the poem itself.

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Elsewhere, Mary slips readily into the convention of the young woman rebuffing the too-ardent declarations of her lover. John heavily underlines “That heart I’ll give to thee, “ in Herrick’s “To Anthea” and, with the same indelible pencil writes in the margin “I have found the heart in you Mary.” Opposite this, Mary has penciled the cautious, “ I shall not answer for it.”

Some of the lovers’ interchanges, despite the week-long gap between entries, have much of the immediacy we now associate with instant messaging. Beside the underlined “Nay! Not so much as out of bed” in Herrick’s “Corrinna’s Maying” Mary writes, “No it’s 8:30 a.m.” Despite these glimpses of daily life,  the running commentary on the courtship provided by the annotations and underlinings is frustratingly incomplete. Some tantalizing clues remain. The Treasury’s fourth section includes Thomas Campbell’s ballad, “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” which recounts the tale of a doomed pair of lovers drowned in a storm while trying to escape “the winsome lady’s” father who has vowed that the would-be-bridegroom’s “blood would stain the heather.” Mary writes in the margin, “An elopement. The cause of which was an unreasonable, ungenerous father.” In the opposite margin, alongside the stanza in which the Lord Ullin’ daughter urges on the boatman,

‘Oh haste the, haste!’ the lady cries,

‘Though tempests round us gather

I’ll meet the raging of the skies,

But not an angry father.’

John has written, “ True Girl.” With the same thick blue pencil, alongside the stanza in which the grief-sticken Lord Ullin shrieks his forgiveness of the drowned lovers, John has written, “Forgiveness often comes too late.”

The special attention to Campbell’s poem, as well as the comments, strongly suggests that Mary’s father was obstructing their courtship  and that there might even have been some wistful contemplation of an elopement. Another hint that Mary’s home life was difficult, beside the last lines of Barnefeld’s “the Nightingale” which ends “None alive will pity me,”Mary has written, “ I do not want pity but sympathy.”

Presumably James Nicholls eventually relented from whatever objections he had had to the match, since public records show their marriage taking place in 1900 with the bride’s father (shown below in a benign mood) as one of the witnesses.

John Nicholls  2


Despite living in an era when recitation and learning poetry “by heart” was widely practiced, many of their emendations to the text suggest that they read more by eye rather than by ear. Both John and Mary frequently cross out proper names, substituting “my Mary” or “Johnnie” without regard for rhyme or scansion. Their annotations often suggest a very cursory reading of the poem and a sudden seizing on an individual line that can be adapted for courtship.

They are both quite cavalier in crossing out names and pronouns to alter the gender referred to in the poem, even when much of the poem’s language is highly gender-specific. Both of them tend to gravitate eagerly towards any poem containing either of their names without any particular regard for context. Sometimes they make emendations tying the verse even more firmly to the beloved. John crosses out “Highland” before “Mary” in Burns’ poem, substituting the name of her village, “Lanner.” Burns is clearly a firm favorite, both because of the frequency of Johns and Marys in his poems and because of the rural milieu they invoke.

Their willingness to make emendations or interpretations at odds with the original poems must have sprung in part from the contrivance of using the matching anthologies to convey their love messages. It also sprang from the deficiencies of the only schooling available to them. Matthew Arnold ‘s reports on elementary education deplored the wretched quality of the poetry included in schoolbooks, but it’s unlikely that either John or Mary in their impoverished rural schools had much exposure to poetry of any kind

The young couple’s selection of Palgrave’s anthology as a vehicle for their love-messages might seem an odd one, given their social and educational background. In some ways, though, it was an inspired choice. The exchange of actual love letters would have presented some difficulties, particularly for a courtship that seems to have been met with some parental opposition. In any case, actual letters might have been too taxing for their powers of composition as well as making overly explicit their romantic intentions. Love letters too, as opposed to brief marginalia, would have obviated the disparity in their levels of literacy and put John at a disadvantage. Extolling his “girl’s” virtues with some selective underlining to show that the lines apply to “You, my dear Mary” might be well within his powers, but composing an entire letter to further the courtship was almost certainly well out of the young cobbler’s range. Besides, even if both lovers’ epistolary skills had been adequate for the production of a series of letters, it would have been difficult to keep such missives away from the prying eyes of ten siblings. nicolls family group Sharing a bedroom with three of her sisters gave Mary little opportunity for secreting a private store of letters from her lover. Although the matching Golden Treasuries were unlikely to remain entirely private,  the brevity of the annotations and the precise relevance of particular underlinings still afforded a degree of privacy.

No doubt some of Palgrave’s appeal came from the enforced limitation on the scope of their orthographic expression. But part of its charm must also have been in the way that the dark blue matching volumes, bearing visible marks of their attention, acted as signifiers of their aspiration to identify themselves with a newly-literate social caste, quite distinct from the previous generation. Mary’s father may have thought her cobbler suitor unacceptable as a son-in-law. He himself presumably enjoyed a certain amount of status attaching to his position as owner of a few dozen acres of land. But he, like many of his class and generation, was a life-long illiterate. He signed his marriage register with “his mark”—the ubiquitous “X” and, half a century later, made the same mark to sign his will. IMG_0004His wife was able to write her name in the marriage register, but her father, acting as a witness, made the same “X” in place of a signature as her husband. It’s unlikely that her literacy extended beyond the ability to write her own name. The marriage registers of the time indicate that Cornwall, especially in the mining districts like Tretharrup, had higher rates of illiteracy than the national average. So it’s improbable that, even if there had been leisure for idle curiosity, either of Mary’s parents would have thought to peruse the copies of The Golden Treasury or have been able to make much of the marginalia they contained.

golden treasury frontispiece