I’m generally quite a generous person - I like to think so anyway - but if I really love a book then I’m not very keen to lend it out. But then I own two particular books which are so rare and precious, and so impossible to replace that I even thought twice before allowing my daughter to borrow them to read in our house.
They are two novels by an author called Mara Kay, and they are called Masha and The Youngest Lady in Waiting. I discovered them at the Welwyn Garden City library when I was nine, and I took them out so often that my parents bought me Masha for my tenth birthday. I still remember the thrill of owning a proper big hard-cover book, and the thrill of knowing that I could read it whenever I wanted to. The Youngest Lady in Waiting I tracked down about ten years ago on a second hand book site on the internet. The label inside says Haverford Township Free Library, Havertown Pa. Poor people of Havertown and lucky me – copies now go for more than £300. A copy of Masha is only slightly cheaper. Together my books are probably worth more than £500. But that’s not why they’re so valuable to me.
Masha tells the story of a girl growing up in Russia in the early nineteenth century. Her father is dead, and her mother has no money to keep up the family estate and shy, awkward Masha is sent to the Smolni Institute for Girls in St Petersburg, an enlightenment institution set up by Catherine the Great. Masha will have to stay at school with no holidays for nine years. While she is there, her mother dies and the family estate is sold to cover debts. So poor Masha has no family and no future.
Re-reading it as an adult I’m surprised that my nine-year-old self fell in love so whole-heartedly with this melancholy tale. It’s not that I don’t love it now - I do, of course - but it’s slower and sadder than I remember. The period detail is fantastic - the fashions, the fabrics, the rotting manor house with its ghostly domovoy creaking in the attic. There are the usual joys of school stories – fighting and friendships, strict and silly teachers. Overall it offers the depiction of a complete world to enter and experience
The Youngest Lady in Waiting is the sequel to Masha and equally good. It’s set against the background of the 1825 Decembrists rebellion, and again the detail is wonderfully done. There are descriptions of the shabby country house of the poet Pushkin, of palaces and riots, and a visit to the failed revolutionaries in far off Siberia. Years later I read a book about the Decemberists - The Princess of Siberia by Christine Sutherland - and realised how much of Mara Kay’s books were based on real people and places. Masha’s great friend Sophie is clearly identifiable in Sutherland’s book as a real person.
So I would love to know more about this author, and how she researched her books, how she knew the world of nineteenth-century Russia so well, but there is nothing in either book to tell me much except that Mara Kay was born and educated in Europe but now (1971) lives on Long Island. There's little on the internet, just a few sites of fans like me, bemoaning the fact that these books are out of print and so hard to find.
It’s a complete mystery to me that these books aren’t modern classics. The reason they are so expensive is, I think, because many people remember them and loved them, but they do not seem to have ever been printed in paperback. I wish a publisher would reissue them.
I’m thinking about these books now because I’m about to break a habit of a lifetime and lend them to someone. Daphne is 11 years old and I’ve been lending her one by one my collection of Antonia Forest books - another great author inexplicably out of print. Daphne’s enjoyed Antonia Forest so much, and is so completely careful and trustworthy with my books that I was debating about whether I could go one step further and lend the Mara Kay books, because I am sure that she would love them. And then her mum told me where they are going on holiday this summer. St Petersburg! I’m so jealous - I've wanted to go since I was nine, but have never made it.
So Daphne is getting to borrow my precious books. And in return I’m going to want to hear all about the places that I’ve dreamt of for so long.