Antiquing with my mother and sister on Boxing Day 2003,
I noticed a book. Its green cloth cover, embossed and gilded with Easter lilies, attracted my eye. I picked up
the little book for a closer look. As sometimes happens with an antique object, usually a book, it felt at home in my
hand. I opened the volume at random and read:
Reader, think of some lovely picture of rustic life, with tender lights and pleasant shadows, with hard lines softened, and sharp angles
touched into gentle curves, with a background of picturesque, satisfying appropriateness,
with the magic touches that bring out the beauty and refinement and elegance of the scene, which are really there, and that subtly tone down all
the roughness and awkwardness and coarseness, which are also equally
there. [Laddie, opening sentence, chapter 3]
I was completely smitten. I read the sentence again, aloud this time, to my mother who was equally charmed.
The writing was well-crafted with a poetic beauty that is seldom seen. I turned to the title page to see who had written
these lovely words.
[no author]: Miss Toosey's Mission
Chicago: Montgomery Ward & Co.
5 p. + 82 p.,
inscribed by previous owner:
"Pauline from Auntie."
I judged the book to be late Victorian—the cover had a William Morris look to it—perhaps one of those ubiquitous
gift books for children. Or, it might be one of those little novels with religious themes, that were given as Sunday
School prizes, often attendance awards. I had seen many such volumes during
my years as a librarian and while indulging a habit of browsing through dusty, musty old books in corner shops and antique
stores. Somehow, this one touched me as few others have. Was it the art of the binding? The elegant
purity of the prose? The sweetness of the sentiments? Perhaps, it was merely the pleasure I took in the company
of my mother and my sister.
The fact that such writing was published anonymously piqued my interest. Who had written those words and eschewed
acclaim by publishing anonymously? I bought the book ($8.50), as much for its mystery as its content.
So began my collection although I hadn't then decided quite what I was collecting: books with ornate Victorian bindings,
books by a particular anonymous author, or information. Since that day I have found myself collecting all three. I
simply fell in love with "the author of Miss Toosey's Mission, Laddie, Tip Cat, etc. etc." * and I remain
intrigued by the mystery of the writer's life.
I began my search with the catalogs of the Library of Congress and of the British Library, followed by an OCLC search.
I quickly identified the anonymous author as Evelyn Whitaker (1857-1903) and
noted a number of additional titles, with publication dates between 1879 and 1915. The later dates, following 1903,
appeared to be mostly reissues of Miss Toosey's Mission and Laddie and were often part of series:
The Sunshine Library[, The Editha Series, The Golden Books, Young Folks Library, Every Boy's Library [H.M.
Caldwell]; Love and Friendship, Things Worthwhile.
and read more "Miss Toosey books" and continued searching for information about the author, Evelyn Whitaker.
realized that over the years I had held in my hand several copies of books by Evelyn Whitaker, usually attracted by
the bindings. I regret not having bought the copy of what was surely Miss Toosey's Mission with a
lovely cover color lithograph of an old woman in a rocker with a handsome young man kneeling at her feet. It was
undoubtedly a companion to the edition of Laddie published by Ward & Lock which I found for the collection.
I also regret passing on a copy of Rose and Lavender; it had a binding incongruously printed with violets or pansies.
Having bought that first
volume of Laddie, I spent two years browsing through ye olde shoppes and cruising eBay & on-line book sellers.
I acquired a copy of Belle, the final title to be added to the collection in January 2006. Of course,
no collection is ever complete and there is always one more book from a different publisher or with a pretty cover or by a
As I worked on this project and began to read the Evelyn Whitaker novels, I realized that I had rediscovered an old friend.
I first read books by Evelyn Whitaker in my childhood. Having just finished 3rd grade ,
I was given access to many old books from my grandparents' bookshelves and discovered Gay: a story. I had
just begun piano lessons and strongly identified with Mrs. Frampton. There was also a diphtheria epidemic among the
transient farm labor population in the area so the story seemed to me quite timely.
Some years later, probably
just after 6th grade, my grandparents asked me to clean out an old trunk filled with papers. There I found
crumbling copies of old periodicals dating from the turn of the century and earlier. A few held together long enough
for me to read them. Among them was For the Fourth Time of Asking.
remember at least an excerpt from My Honey—the end of the 7th and the 8th chapters
about the stray dog which Hetty adopts. It may have been in those crumbling periodicals from the old trunk but I rather
think it was in an anthology of dog stories. In the 4th grade I was a great reader of books about dogs; Albert
Payson Terhune was the first author whose name I learned.
I have become increasingly intrigued with Evelyn Whitaker, a writer whose appeal was not lost on a little West Texas farm
girl nor on the woman she grew up to be and definitely not on the large numbers of those who read her works when they were
I believe that these novels are a neglected resource which can be of use to students and teachers of literature, history,
sociology and other disciplines.
Evelyn Whitaker observes, describes, and comments upon advances in transportation, education, literacy, public health, nursing, and
the increasing opportunities available to children of the lower and middle classes—all in very readable prose that is
touched with humor and poetic beauty.
For the scholar, Evelyn Whitaker's novels are a rich mine of information. For the lover of well-written prose, they are as they were more than a century ago "a study
in English for its conciseness, simplicity, and elegance." As they did more than a century ago, each
book will entertain the casual reader with "a charming story, well told," "a simple and wholesomely delightful tale,
one which" may be "indeed a love story, but is at the same time a picture of life that is far more."
Quotes in the final
paragraph are from publishers' blurbs.