The bookplate was ornate in the nineteenth-century manner, a rich cream-colored rectangle with a wide border of morning glories and tangled vines. In Gothic lettering it read Ex Libris Mrs. Serena Northbury.
I closed the book and turned it over to look at the title. Mrs. Northbury's bookplate was affixed to the inside front cover of a well-preserved, half-morocco-bound copy of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
"Wow," I said to Jill, "where'd you get this?"
Jill Greenberg slid her tray across the Faculty Dining Commons table, pushed the unruly red hair back from her forehead, and sat down next to me. "You know that antiquarian bookstore in Pittsfield, the one on North Street?"
I nodded, fanning lightly through the pages in search of any possible Northbury artifacts; you never know what you'll find preserved between the pages of an old book.
"Well, I was browsing there with . . . well, I was browsing, and the cover caught my eye. Then I saw Serena Northbury's bookplate and knew you'd be interested. It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yeah, they really knew how to make books in those days." The title was stamped in gold on the leather-bound spine of this one, and the dark blue covers were spackled in green. "A lot of the time it didn't much matter what was inside, but the book itself had to be a work of art." Finding no treasures between the ragged-edged pages, I handed the volume to Jill.
She pushed it back toward me with both hands. "Keep it, Karen." She picked up her ham and Swiss on rye and nibbled. "You're probably the only person left in the entire universe who cares about Northbury."
"Jill, I can't take this." I wanted the book. It had been owned--been touched, been read--
by a nineteenth-century American novelist with whom I was becoming increasingly fascinated. But I couldn't afford to indulge myself in luxuries. On the scale of professional salaries, English professors rank just slightly above church mice, and the average church mouse isn't paying tuition for a daughter studying premed at Georgetown. "This must have cost a fortune."
"Nah." Money was never an object with Jill. It had never had to be; she was the daughter of a Park Avenue psychiatrist. A psychopharmacologist, yet. The streets of the Upper East Side are paved almost entirely in Prozac, and Papa had a great deal of money in his pocket. At the age of twenty-five, Jill had no education debts, and no one but herself to lavish her salary on. "It wasn't that much. The book dealer said the book wasn't a first edition or a particularly valuable one, so basically he was just charging for the binding."
"Well," I said. "If you're sure . . ." I turned the handsome volume around and ran my forefinger over the gilt lettering of the title. "I'm a little surprised to find that Northbury read Jane Eyre.
Her own novels are nothing like it. They're really quite--well--sentimental. But they're so interesting. . . ."
"'Interesting,' my foot. Why don't you just admit you like trash?"
"It's not trash." I felt defensive; the grip Serena Northbury had on my imagination wasn't easily explained by any of the usual literary or feminist rationales. Northbury wasn't a great prose stylist, and she certainly wasn't a flamboyant feminist rebel. Her forty best-selling novels were conventional tales of young girls who face hardship and moral danger, but through unassailable virtue and mind-boggling diligence win out in the end.
I could relate to that; it sounded like my own life. Well . . . maybe not unassailable
"I know she's no Brontë," I admitted, "but there's something quirky in her stories. I don't know how to describe it, but I think I'm addicted."
Jill laughed and took a second bite of her sandwich. "A Ph.D. in lit, huh? A professor at Enfield, one of New England's most respected colleges? Karen Pelletier, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
"Come on, Jill. You of all people should know popular literature is a perfectly legitimate field of study." Jill is a sociologist, and literary studies are becoming more like a branch of the social sciences every day. "I'm simply reconstructing cultural conditions of literary reception." Yeah. Right. I had read every one of Serena Northbury's books I could get my hands on. Her popular novels enthralled me in the same way they must have captivated her multitudes of nineteenth-century readers.
"Lighten up, Karen. Face it; you're reading garbage!" Jill was joking; with a tattoo just above her left ankle and a gold ring where she didn't talk about it, Jill was a pop culture nut.
I lightened up. "Yeah, Jill, you're right. I'm a lowbrow." I stroked the copy of Jane Eyre
as if it were still warm from Mrs. Northbury's hand, and set it down next to my plate. "Thanks for this. I owe you."
Jill made a dismissive motion with a hand that wore a half dozen silver rings and took another nibble of the sandwich. I picked up my mug of black coffee--I needed a jump start before I went into the classroom--and glanced at Jill over the rim.
My young colleague wasn't looking her best. I was used to the untamable red hair and the funky clothes--today a short, sleeveless cotton shift in a turquoise-and-lime flying-toasters print worn with black Converse basketball sneakers and one dangling garnet earring--but the mouselike appetite and the listless expression were something new. Jill Greenberg usually had the appetite--and the brute energy--of an adolescent hockey player.
"You okay, Jill?" I buttered my crusty whole-wheat roll and took a bite.
"I'm fine." Her tone was abrupt. "I'm just a little tired is all." She put the nibbled half sandwich back on her plate, aligned it with its untouched mate, and pushed the plate away. "And the food here gets worse every day."
The food in the Enfield College faculty dining room is okay. It's more
than okay. It's downright good.
And most days Jill proved that by putting away a full dinner entree at noon and then topping it off with a sundae from the self-service ice-cream bar. For a college professor--even for the child prodigy she was--Jill usually ate, well, prodigiously. I narrowed my eyes at her. Something was definitely wrong. Could Jill be having boyfriend trouble? As far as I knew, she hadn't been seeing anyone lately. Come to think of it, though, with Jill, that in itself was worth notice.
"Jill?" I ventured.
But she was gazing past me. "Karen, don't look now, but something weird is going on over at the Round Table."
I immediately swiveled around and stared.
The large round table in the far corner of the Faculty Commons is reserved for group luncheon meetings. On Thursdays, for instance, it's the women's studies table; once or twice a month, black studies has dibs on it. Today it was crowded with college administrators and department heads. From where I sat I couldn't see everyone, but it would have been impossible to miss Miles Jewell, English Department chair. Miles was holding forth in a voice that had begun to rise beyond a decorous decibel level. He was ignoring President Avery Mitchell's attempts to quiet him. His round face was even more flushed than usual, and a cowlick of thick white hair had flopped down boyishly over the ragged white eyebrows. Halfway across the large dining room I could hear the outraged tones of Miles's protest--something about insupportable assault on traditional standards.
"Karen, don't gape."
Jill was right; I was gawking with prurient curiosity as my department head made a public spectacle of himself. I turned back to my tablemate. "That's a pretty high-powered bunch there, and they don't look like happy campers."
"Sure don't. I wonder what's going on. Look--I mean, don't you
look, for God's sake; you're too obvious. I'll tell
you what's happening. Now Avery's got the floor. The voice of sweet reason, as usual. God, he's a beautiful man. Those hands--like a concert pianist. Oh, baby--he can play me
anytime. Now Miles is sulking. You know how pink his face is? Well, now it looks like a humongous strawberry.
Jeez, I hope he doesn't have a coronary. Sally Chenille is jabbering on now, probably "interrogating the erotic subtext' of something or other." Jill laughed. "You should see Sally's hair--no, Karen, don't turn around. I'll tell
you. Today, Professor Chenille's hair is a lovely Day-Glo orange, a very, very
nice visual contrast to Miles's strawberry--no--raspberry
complexion. Okay, now your pal Greg Samoorian is talking--why do only bearded men seem to have that deep authoritative voice? I can't hear exactly what he's saying, but it looks like he's on Avery's side. At least Avery's nodding, and--"
"Okay, okay, I don't need a blow by blow. If Greg's involved, I know what it's about. He told me Avery was getting together an exploratory committee to investigate collegewide curriculum reform. As the new chair of Anthropology, Greg's part of that. This is probably the planning group."
Jill whistled softly between her teeth. "Whew, no wonder Miles is so upset. The college might actually stop requiring his course in the Literature of the Dark Ages."
"Yeah." I laughed, but it wasn't funny. In the current culture wars, the English Department faculty was factionalized between the old-guard professors who taught Literature (with a capital L) as high art, and the avant-garde who taught almost anything that had ever appeared in print--and had completely discredited the very idea of art. And now it looked as if the contest for the hearts and minds of Enfield students was about to draw blood. Miles Jewell was representative of the older contingent, utterly conventional in his approach to literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton were his gods. Henry James deserved serious consideration--maybe. Jane Austen--well, okay, she wrote nice little stories. But beyond that, no woman had produced anything worth consideration. And minority
literature? A contradiction in terms.
Since I'm in the opposing camp--I'd been hired to teach American women's literature--I was at frequent odds with my department chair. As an untenured professor, I could be made pretty uncomfortable at times. Miles, and the other old boys, seemed to think that the department got more than it bargained for when they hired me. My work on Emily Dickinson was acceptable, of course; after all, the woman had somehow wormed her way into the canon of American literature, that body of texts professors had taught since time immemorial. But now, two years into my position at Enfield College, I--young upstart that I was--was exposing my students to all sorts of noncanonical
stuff: slave narratives, sentimental novels, working-class literature--the books people actually read
in the nineteenth century. Garbage.
And now, God help me, I was also thinking about writing the biography of an obscure woman novelist named Serena Northbury. I hadn't told the department yet, but Miles would freak out when--and if--I mentioned it in my annual faculty activity report.
I sighed and nudged my empty plate away. Time to get back to work. There were papers to grade, classes to teach. And I needed to make time to write a good long letter to my daughter. Even though Amanda had been away at college for two years, I missed her. We talked on the phone all the time, but letters were better: You got to slit the envelope, pull the missive out, smooth it open--and read it over and over again.
Jill picked up her sandwich, examined it with a curl of her lip, dropped it back on the plate. "I guess I'm not hungry. Are you finished?"
I slid the canvas strap of my book bag over my shoulder and picked up the copy of Jane Eyre.
"Yeah," I said. "But I actually ate something. Are you sure
you're okay?" Jill had the milk white skin of the authentic redhead, but today she was paler than usual, and her mouth had an uncharacteristic pinched look. She drained her water glass, then rose from the chair.
"I'm fine. It's just that--Karen, watch out!"
But it was too late. As I moved from the table, intent on Jill's response, Miles Jewell stormed away from the curriculum meeting and barreled into me. He hit me broadside and, in a blind fury, kept on going. I staggered, fell back, and caught my balance by grabbing hold of the table. My book bag slipped from my shoulder, my arm jerked painfully, and the old book in my hand plummeted to the floor.
Miles continued his retreat. As he exited the wide French doors of the Commons, I stared after him in astonishment. Miles may be conservative, even retrograde, but he was never
rude. What could possibly have been said at the Round Table to cause this gentleman of the old school to forget his manners so shockingly?
"Karen." Avery Mitchell, Enfield's president, was at my side, his hand on my elbow. His tone was solicitous. "Are you all right?"
I wasn't sure. I didn't know whether Miles had knocked the bejesus out of me, or if my current inability to breathe was due to the close presence of Avery Mitchell. Our distinguished president tends to have that effect on me. Tall, lean, and elegant, Avery is the consummate American aristocrat, the type of man my working-class origins had taught me to think of as effete and dangerous. A member of the power elite. A parasite on society. I get palpitations of the heart every time he comes within six feet of me, but I doubt it has anything to do with my politics.
"I want to apologize for Miles," Avery continued. "He's extremely upset."
"I could tell." I had worn my long hair loose today, for a change, and now, pushing strands away from my face, I struggled to control my ragged breathing. That was particularly difficult because Avery still had hold of my arm.
"Yes, well . . . You know he would never behave like that if, ah, well . . . under normal circumstances. Please don't take offense." Avery reached for the copy of Jane Eyre
sprawled open on the parquet floor. "You dropped this." As he handed me the volume, something fell from between the pages. He stooped again, retrieved a photograph, gave it a cursory glance, and held it out to me. I took the picture by its corner without really looking at it.
"I've got to get back." Avery waved his hand in the general direction of the Round Table, smiled at me ruefully, then strolled over to reconvene the disrupted meeting.
"Always the old smoothie, isn't he?" Jill was at my elbow. "God, that man has all
the moves." Without responding, I took the book bag she held out to me. I had no intention of being sucked into any gossip about our exalted president.
"What's that?" Jill asked, motioning toward the sepia photograph in my hand. I glanced at it, suddenly curious. A picture of a baby, the old photo must have been pushed deep into the center of the book, or I would have come across it earlier when I'd rifled through the pages. The infant was about six months old, propped against a plump pillow with intricate lace edging, and dressed in smothering layers of white mid-Victorian ruffles.
"Poor thing. She looks uncomfortable." I assumed the child was a girl--a waterspout curl on the top of her head was tied with a white bow, and on a chain around her neck she wore a heart-shaped locket of what looked like gold filigree.
"Who do you think it is?" Jill asked. "One of Mrs. Northbury's kids?"
I turned the stiff photo over. On the back was written Carrie, August 1861.
"No," I said. "Serena Northbury had her children in the 1840's, when she was in her early twenties. They were named Lavinia, Josephine, and Hortense. There was no Carrie."
"Too early. Her daughters weren't married yet. Must be the child of a friend. Or maybe she just liked the picture, used it as a bookmark."
Jill took the photo from me. "This looks like a studio shot."
"Yeah," I said. "The table with the paisley cloth, the ornate book, the vase of flowers: they're all photographic conventions. Cameras weren't easily portable, then. This isn't a casual snapshot. Somebody really wanted a picture of this baby."
"I don't blame them; she's a beautiful child," Jill said. "Those dark eyes, the curls."
I retrieved the photo and looked at it more closely. "Huh. That's
"What?" Jill seemed enthralled with this long-vanished baby.
"Look." I took the picture over to the window, where the light was better. "Yes," I said, "Jill, I think this is a black child. What do you think?"
She gazed intently at the sepia print. "It's hard to tell, the image is so dim. She's light-skinned, but her features do have an African-American look. I wouldn't be surprised; there were a great many biracial children coming off those plantations."
"Yeah. Right." I shook my head sadly. The rape of slave women by their masters was well documented by nineteenth-century slave narratives. "I wonder what Serena Northbury was doing with a photograph of an African-American baby?"
"Was she an abolitionist?"
"Well, yes--she seems to have been. But she was never outspoken in the way that women like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Child were. She was--genteel, you might say."
"Sounds deadly. I'm surprised you're interested in her."
"Yeah, well . . . There's something there. . . ."
I shrugged, tucked the photograph back into the pages of Jane Eyre,
where it had reposed for at least a century, and slipped the book into my big canvas bag for safekeeping.
Crossing the quad on my way back to the office, I sipped carefully at a second cup of coffee and recalled the farcical scene with Miles Jewell. Then I thought about the chaos certain to descend on the English Department when we began to reassess our course offerings and curriculum requirements. If Miles and I hadn't been at loggerheads before, we certainly would be now.
It wasn't until I slipped my key into the lock of my office door that I realized Jill had never told me what was bothering her.
Excerpted from The Northbury Papers by Joanne Dobson. Copyright © 1998 by Joanne Dobson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.