Teacher solves mystery of Jane Austen book
The tattered book with the small golden stag embossed on its cover, bearing the initials “JA” underneath, arrived in March in an envelope that read, “Ayer High School. ATTN: English Department.”
Along with the musty leatherbound book there was a letter. It had a picture of a rose in the bottom right-hand corner and was addressed to “anyone who cares.”
Eleanor Capasso, intrigued by the book’s origins and whether it was a rare edition of Jane Austen’s novel “Persuasion,” cared deeply.
And when she cracked open the cover to find that in 1900 it belonged to a woman named Lillian Flood, who at the time was an Ayer High School student, Capasso’s interest intensified, setting off a search for Flood’s living relatives so she could return it to them.
“In my opinion, it’s an heirloom.” said Capasso, a rare book enthusiast and head of the English department at Ayer-Shirley Regional High School.
The novel, which was Austen’s last and published posthumously in 1817, was sent to the school by Alice B. Bantle of Pawleys Island, S.C., according to the letter.
Bantle explained that she had found the book in a box of “junk” in her mother’s garage. She said her mother had lived in Dudley, Mass., and used to go to auctions to bid on “boxes of various items” for 50 cents or $1.
“Even though ‘Persuasion’ is in very bad shape,” Bantle wrote, “It might be of interest to someone in your English Department, or traced back to its original family.”
According to an inscription on the inside, Flood had won the novel during a competition at what was then called Ayer High School, in 1900.
When Capasso first looked at the book, she believed it was a first edition of “Persuasion.” The English teacher was beside herself with emotion.
But Deidre Lynch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University and an Austen expert, said, based on photos sent to her by the Globe, that the novel was likely printed in 1899, which would still make it more than 100 years-old.
Finding out that her version of “Persuasion” likely wasn’t a first edition didn’t diminish Capasso’s enthusiasm. Finding Flood’s family had become her top priority.
“The story [was] really about Lillian,” Capasso said.
Once several stories were published online about Capasso receiving the book, people from all over the country began to contact her to help her locate Flood’s relatives.
“Every single person had the same information, but each one seemed to have a little bit more — there were no dead ends. It’s amazing, the power of the Internet,” she said.
Capasso’s quest finally led her to two brothers — Peter and John Moses, who were raised in Rhode Island — living in New York.
The Moseses it turned out, were the grandchildren of Flood, who had taken her husband’s last name, Moses.
John Moses said when he received a call from Capasso about the book, he was at first suspicious. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But as Capasso explained how an edition of “Persuasion” mailed to her from a woman in South Carolina had quickly brought her to John and his brother, John became emotional.
“This came out of thin air,” said John, 72. “It was so off the wall.”
John said his grandfather, Frederick, and grandmother had divorced sometime in the 1940s. His grandfather later passed away in 1959, and Lillian — or “Lilly” as the boys called their grandmother — passed away in the 1980s, at the age of 99.
He said his family knew little about their grandmother’s past, but knew that she had lived in Massachusetts at some point in her life. John said the book, which Capasso mailed to them this week, has sparked the brothers’ interest in learning more about their heritage.
“It’s very touching, through and through,” said John. “In a way, it was all very romantic. It was wonderfully romantic about this emerging from a very distant past.”
Peter Moses, an avid Austen fan, said the book would likely be passed onto his daughter, who is a published author.
“This has opened up a wonderful delightful window on [my grandmother],” he said. “The book couldn’t have a more grateful home.”
As for Capasso, she plans to write about her experience.
“This is definitely going to be the fodder of my novel. The fuel of my novel. What an amazing story — and it’s all about a book,” she said.