by Rachel Mesch
The book arrived from eBay or Priceminister.fr, I can’t remember which. Both sites are cherished resources for bric-a-brac-o-maniacs like myself: places where you can find old magazines, post cards, and out of print books. As they (should) say, one man’s trash is a nineteenth-century scholar’s treasure. If you know what you are looking for, you can save yourself trips to inconvenient libraries and struggles with microfilm readers–no fun for reading entire novels. If you are lucky, for the price of a few Euros, you can avoid the rules of the rare book room and read in the comfort of your own easy chair.
And so it was for the obscure nineteenth-century French novel I was hunting down this time around, Jane Dieulafoy’s Frère Pélage, a work of historical fiction published in Paris in 1894, never to be reprinted. The compelling narrative that I ultimately found within the yellow volume would inspire a lengthy academic article to be published in the coming months, and nourish the seeds of a book project now in progress. Driven by these interests and by my literary training, I dug into that book over two summers, returning to its enigmatic yet promising paragraphs, rereading and taking notes. I might have noted the library binding on the fat volume’s spine and the evidence of its sad ejection from the University of Keele that permitted its sale to me: “withdrawn from stock” stamped over the empty white slats of the check-out slip. One man’s trash…
Somehow, I had missed the author’s own inscription.
It seems that the Jane Dieulafoy novel that I had purchased for seven Euros through a massive online auction house had once been owned by the nineteenth-century author herself. And so the object that I had treated as “just” a book—a means to an end—a way to read a novel came to bring me closer to my own subject in ways I had not anticipated. It turns out that Jane had offered my copy to “Claire,” with her “fond remembrances” (Claire Meslier her sister? Claire Dieulafoy her sister-in-law? Claire from the convent that had partly inspired this fictional exploration of Catholic tradition?) before it made its way to the University of Keele and then an online French vendor and eventually me. And I know it is indeed that Jane, Jane the author, because her signature is familiar to me after countless hours of poring over her letters in Parisian archives—libraries that require special permissions and protective gloves.
As with any historian, the literary scholar thrives on contact with the past, relishes any evidence that her human subjects lived and breathed, treasures the way in which those proofs collapse time and space. There is a reason that autographed copies by celebrated authors command huge fees on the same auction sites where I found Jane’s novel. I love her tender dedication all the more knowing that she and her novel are no longer famous and that I am one of the few who know not just of her writing but of her breathtaking accomplishments (she and her husband traveled to Baghdad and Persia in the 1880s, bringing back treasures still on display in the Louvre). I do hope that when I publish my research—much of it biographical—others will come to appreciate her extraordinary life (no spoilers in this post, but stay tuned!). But for now I keep Jane’s message to the unknown Claire as a personal reminder of the life connected to the stories that she told, and of my duty to take special care in my own writing of that fierce yet delicate legacy, filled as it was with fond remembrances.
Rachel Mesch’s article on Jane Dieulafoy’s fictions will appear in an upcoming issue of PMLA, the publication of the Modern Language Association.