Mary in the Margins (Marginalia 4)

Anthony Panner’s Annotated Bible drew much of its power from the uneasy relationship it had with its mother text. The Bible, as you may have grasped by now, is more than just a book. Panner’s responses to it, therefore, were always bound to draw somewhat extreme reactions.

The same could not be said for Mary Mistict, who may have spent a merry lifetime defacing all kinds of books with superior marginal scrawlings, but  failed throughout to select a text that brought along quite as much baggage. Was this deliberate? It is fair to presume that she owned a bible herself – and that she chose to overlook it when picking her next victim. Whether this was for spiritual reasons we cannot tell. In the final reckoning, it may have had a practical foundation: Bible paper is, after all, famously slight, and as such unsuited to Mistict’s inky additions. She required paper of a sturdier sort – best found, as it happens, amongst children’s literature.

I hesitate when it comes to selecting Mistict’s most significant work. I hesitate because – truth be told – there are so few dud works in her oeuvre. Pearls of precious profundity abound throughout. Silliness soars to increasingly great heights, without ever hitting the sun. Mistict was a life-wire: a literary chimp: the gargoyle giggling in the cathedral eaves. She worked the margins for all they were worth. And yet she had great control of herself. She never over-stepped the line. She remained, for all she was, a writer of the margins.

If pressed, however, I would put forward the following as prime examples of her most powerful work. First, her debut: The Ladybook Guide to Fishing. The title refers, of course, to the mother text – a guide to fishing aimed at a juvenile audience. Not an entertaining read, not on its own. But with Mistict’s marginal additions: oh what a text it becomes!

Second, in a similar vein, Flora and Fungi in British Ponds. Now this is truly a classic work: one of the best of its genre. Here is Mistict at her most masterful. The additions directly following the introduction are both hard-hitting and hysterical; witty and wise: pragmatic and pointless. One has to read them to believe them – and even then one feels as though one should doubt their existence. Such words, tucked into a margin: it seems unfair, does it not, that they should be skulking there?

Last, but not least: Rory and Rachel at the Zoo. Written shortly before her death in 1992, this is certainly one of Mistict’s more moving marginal interventions. But it is not without its humourous moments also. Consider the lines on p.12, just below the incident with the zebra. Or on p.34, opposite the illustration of Rachel astride the lion. Choice lines indeed. Never have margins been so blessed as those belonging to Mary Mistict. God bless that woman’s will to deface.


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