One consequence of the intensity with which my grandmother read the few books which were available to her was the way in which their content could become loosed from the printed page and continue a ghostly afterlife, as a species of near-gossip. Fragments from her childhood reading, such as the incident in James F. Cobb’s 1882 novel, The Watchers on the Longships, in which a lighthouse-keeper’s hair turns white overnight from terror at the eerie sounds made by waves in the cave below the rocks, were recounted as historical fact.
For years in my childhood I imagined that my grandmother had personally known a couple who lived in straitened circumstances and had contrived to buy each other Christmas presents, she, by selling her much-admired long hair to wig-makers to buy her husband a fob for his watch, while he, meanwhile, had pawned the watch to buy her a decorative comb for her hair. Only in adulthood when I recounted this story to a startled hearer did I learn that this was O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” which I had encountered only as “escaped literature” through my grandmother. This was only one of a number of anecdotes originating in popular literature which I heard my grandmother tell and retell in ways that took on the features sometimes of historical fact, sometimes of gossip. Susan Schibanoff uses the anthropological term “structural amnesia” in her discussion of the ways in which some medieval women readers “behave as if they exist in a totally oral culture, one devoid of written records” in readily detaching texts from their source and integrating them with an ever-changing pattern of oral composition. This phenomenon of seamlessly integrating textual narratives into oral transmissions seems to have persisted through centuries to the cultural realities of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cornwall.
O. Henry’s story first appeared in 1906, so my grandmother would presumably have read it as a young married woman and perhaps thought that she and her shoemaker husband were much like the couple in “The Gift of the Magi.” Certainly the narrative of poverty redeemed by love had already been identified as a romantic ideal in her marginalia celebrating “love in a cot” in The Golden Treasury during the years of their courtship. In reality, even though John Bastion plied the modest trade of cobbler, he was something of a “rising man.” Perhaps sensing that industrial shoemaking would soon limit his artisanal skills to mere shoe repair, he soon branched out into property ownership, buying a number of the small “two up, two down” terraced houses in the village and eventually becoming a municipal councilor and, in a small way, “a smiling public man.” The courtship marginalia extolling the joys of love in the midst of “honest poverty” were soon outshone by Mary’s pleasure in her status as “Mrs. John Bastion” and the local prominence conferred by her husband’s position as a town councilor and member of numerous local boards and committees.