Wednesday 31 January 2024

Review: A Little Pretty Pocket Book

 The Little Pretty Pocket Book (intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer) is often regarded as the first children’s book. Certainly, it was one of the first marketed at children (or at least, at their parents).

Although no masterpiece of literature, it is a masterpiece of marketing. The book is tremendously small, no larger than 8cm. Even the fairly diddy modern reprint has the actual text of the book make up a rather small amount of paper. This sets it aside from the ‘adult’ books, as well as being a good way saving paper. What’s more, the original book was bound in an attractive, colourful cover, meaning that it was both pretty and little.

Another attraction of the book, are the illustrations on almost every page. These are fairly crude little woodblocks but they do completely match the text, suggesting they were created specifically for it. 

Finally, for an extra tuppence, the book came with a free gift in a bag. A ball for a boy and a pincushion for a girl. (I feel the girls were a little shortchanged in this regard). Not only does it bring a ‘happy meal’ free toy quality to the book, it was actually sold to the parent as a behaviour management tool. Both ball and pincushion were red on one side and black on the other, and both had a set of pins. The ball wasn’t actually for throwing, but for hanging up, as was the pincushion. When the child did a good act, the pin was stuck in the red side, and when they did a bad, a pin was stuck in the black. Ten pins in the good side deserves a reward (the suggestion is a penny) and ten in the black a punishment (a cane is suggested here).

What Newbery realised, and Samuel Johnson picked up on, was that the book, though marketed to appeal to children, was actually sold to the parents. The book actually begins with a little address to the parents, outlining the latest research in child development from Locke and encouraging parents to correct a child’s behaviour, “in such a manner, as to forward his Enquiries, and pave his Grand Pursuit (of learning) with Pleasure.” There then follows a letter from ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ to the child, detailing the use of ball or pincushion. 

Then the book goes broadly alphabetically, with each letter represented by a game. The game is pictured, a little rhyme describes it, then another points out the ‘moral of the game’. For example, the moral of flying a kite is to associate the joy of the flying kite, with thankfulness to God… the morals are often a little tenuous. 

The games are varied. There are some like kite-flying, swimming, leap-frog and hopscotch, which are still played today. Some activities, like bird nesting are very much not encouraged anymore. Some like thread-the-needle and I-sent-a-letter-to-my-love, are variations of skipping games that aren’t as well known. Newbery even includes squares, a ‘well invented game’, which he invented himself and sold in his shop. Americans are often excited by the first reference to the game baseball, though the game portrayed is closer to rounders.

The book then goes through another alphabet, and then some retellings of Aesop’s fables, with the morals again explained by ‘Jack the Giant Killer’. Then there’s an aimless few pages, which represents good children displaying good behaviours like reading ‘in a pretty manner’ and shows how everyone loves them. This is followed by some poems personifying the four seasons, and some proverbs such as ‘the eye is bigger than the belly’. Finally, and most importantly, there’s a list of other children’s works and games available from Newbery’s shop.

It’s easy to see the attraction of a book of one’s own, especially in a time poorer in books than now. It’s also possible to see that the contents could have been enjoyable to the children it was written for, although there is always a moral just around the corner, the subject of the book is largely play, featuring many different games. The modern children I showed the book to were certainly not impressed but The Pretty Little Pocket Book was loved by those it was written for. Not only did it go into many editions and was quite obscenely pirated, especially in the American Colonies, not one single copy of the first few editions survive - they were presumably loved to death. 

Johnson was adamant that, ”babies do not want to hear about babies” but many modern children’s books prove that they do. Everyone likes a little representation in their media and children are no different. I’m sure The Little Pretty Pocket Book did excite recognition in its original audience, something other than chapbook versions of A Pilgrim’s Progress and tales of Arthurian knights. Children then and now, like everyone else, enjoy variety in their reading experiences and this book offered something different.

Next week, I’ll be writing about something very different.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

John Newbery, as represented by Samuel Johnson

 Back in November I wrote a piece that dealt very dismissively with the Collins Red Lion series of phonics readers for children. 

I started the piece by quoting Johnson’s opinion that children would far prefer grand stories that ‘stretch their tiny minds’ and simply ‘don’t want to hear about babies.’ This was largely an opinion drawn from his own childhood, where he could browse the shelves of his father’s bookshop at leisure and took particular pleasure in courtly tales of knights and dragons - a taste he never fully grew out of.

The 5 and 6 year olds at school are learning about the changes in toys and children’s entertainment over time and tomorrow they are looking at books. From the school collection, we have collected examples of books throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, from Beatrix Potter to Oliver Jeffers. I’m bringing along a sample of much earlier children’s books, including a facsimile of A Little Pretty Pocket Book, published by John Newbery in 1744. Next week I plan to talk about that book and report the modern children’s reactions to it.

This week, I want to talk a little about John Newbery himself. He’s an interesting figure, living in the house next to Canonbury Tower, where he’d keep writers and look after their money. Both Christopher Smart (son-in-law to his stepdaughter) and Oliver Goldsmith looked back on their time at Canonbury fondly. Smart remembers the happy domestic times with his wife in Jubilate Agno, even as his relationship to her grew more bitter. Goldsmith reflects on the absurdity of him walking around the grounds with a grim face, trying to think of lines that’ll make other people laugh. 

Newbery is presented as ‘a friend to the author’ in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, yet some biographies of Smart present him as a devious man, wishing to convince the world that Smart was mad and lock him up to make his own life easier. As well as a busy publishing career, 

Newbery also sold over 30 patent medicines in his bookshop, the most famous being the fever powders of Dr James. Indeed, it was Newbery’s smart idea to package them in dosage size packets for convenient sale. Both Smart and Goldsmith were keen endorses of the powders, though they probably killed Goldsmith. 

On the 19th August 1758, Samuel Johnson used Newbery as the basis of one of Idler number 19. The Idlers were actually printed by Newbery, so Johnson had plenty of opportunity to see him in action. It’s not the most flattering depiction of his publisher, “business keeps him in perpetual motion, and whose motion always eludes his business.” He never gets anything done, because he’s always so busy doing things.

“Jack’s trade is extensive, and he has many dealers; his conversation is sprightly, and he has many companions; his disposition is kind, and he has many friends.” Anyone who looks for him at home is told he’s at a club, anyone who looks for him at a club is told he is at home. He’s so busy being everywhere, that he ends up being nowhere, he’s so busy doing everything that he ends up doing nothing.

He’s great company and always a pleasure to be with but he’s always so busy going to the next place that no-one actually gets a chance to enjoy his company. “He seldom appears to have come for any other reason, but to say, He must go.” This is such an early edition of his essay series, I can imagine Johnson knocking it off with amusement and irritation after one of his visits. 

 I picture Newbery knocking quickly on the door of Gough Square, bursting in as soon as it is opened in a twirl of coat, heading towards the parlour, gabbling what he came to say and then going back through the open door to Johnson’s amusement and little Frank’s astonishment.

He is described as eating much the same way, sitting down to many meals and only taking a bite before whirling off to another meal and taking a bite of that. He treats ideas and projects similarly, pelting around the city and taking enthusiastic interest in one project, doing a little bit of it before being attracted to another.. never finishing any of them.

His biggest complaints are the lack of time and tiredness. I’ve met many people like him, feeling constantly fatigued and busy, without much to show for it. Teachers often fall into this type, but I’ve met office workers, clergy and a whole heap of other people like it also.

It doesn’t seem that Newbery calmed down very much, he died aged 55, all whirled out. Johnson was wrong about what he achieved though. Having risen from farmer’s son, to regional newspaperman to a solid London concern. He also brought works of Smart, Goldsmith and Johnson into the world, as well as creating some of the first works specifically written for children. As a result, he is remembered in the Newbery Medal, one of children’s literatures most prestigious awards. So he didn’t achieve nothing exactly. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Top Ten Books of 2022 (5-1)

 I read fewer eighteenth century (and eighteenth century adjacent) books this year than others and that is probably reflected in my top ten list. This top five does include one eighteenth century book, three from very recent and one total wildcard. 

Number Five

Shark Alley by Stephen Carver

A fascinating novel about ‘penny-a-liners’ written by a biographer of William Harrison Ainsworth - with shark attacks.

Shark Alley by Stephen Carver purports to be the missing papers of forgotten writer, Jack Vincent. In his heyday one of the set of writers that included Dickens, Thackery and William Harrison Ainsworth, but now writing penny-a-line for newspapers. He has been sent on the troopship, HMS Birkenhead, which suffered a real tragedy when it sank in shark-infested waters. The book cuts between flashbacks to his life leading up to boarding the ship, and his experiences of the ship and with the tragedy.

I love how Shark Alley commits to its bit. The blending of real and fictional characters and incidents is balanced really well and the book even includes endnotes by ‘editor’ Carver that explain how and why Vincent has been lost to history. There’s also an endnote, where Carver explains how he finds the papers, stealing them from a hiding place behind a copies of ancient Daily Mails in a dead hoarder’s house. 

The cover is also gorgeous with a real ‘boy’s own’ style. Originally the book was written in instalments on a website, with each containing an illustration, as a triple-decker novel, those illustrations aren’t included.

There’s some exciting shark action from the beginning, with a horse falling off the side and being yummed right up by a Great White. There’s also some premonition, when Vincent falls in a pond and has his toes bitten off by a pike as a boy - he’s not fond of water or carnivorous fish.

The first book is split into two sections, initially setting up the Birkenhead and the people on it and then going into the flashbacks. The second book alternates between flashback and ship-board action and the last book takes place on the ship and the later tribunal. I found the stuff on the Birkenhead to be a little less interesting than the flashback stuff, until the ship struck the rock and things went full throttle.

Jack Vincent is the son of a tailor who was put into the Marshalsea by the oily Mr Grimstone. There his literacy sets him apart and he reads to the other inmates, later creating his own stories. Not only are there Little Dorrit parallels, but the other inmates include the real Bill Sikes and Nancy. One visitor, David (Copperfield) even ends up being Dickens and the two talk narrative and social conscience. One day the prison is visited by Bob Logic, Jerry and Corinthian Tom, the main characters of Life in London, a popular book in the Regency - who are also real life artists the Cruickshank brothers and Pierce Egan.

Shark Alley is full of references, both historical and literary. Publishers, both mainstream and radical are important side characters. Vincent is represented as a keen Chartist, who was present at the mega-meeting in Kennington. He, Dickens and Harrison Ainsworth have a friendly rivalry until the moral panic about Newgate sends Dickens into more respectable territory and Harrison Ainsworth as a less stellar career as a historical novelist. (Carver is William Harrison Ainsworth’s most recent biographer, and a clear fondness enters the text). However, Shark Alley uses all this research to power the story along and there’s never an info-dump quality to it, all research is well digested. Particularly well handled is flash-slang (which I have seen sink other novels) and research into underworld London.

As Vincent is a novelist (he prefers the ‘ebb and flow’ of prose, me too) there are discussions of his novels. Though this is labelled ‘Vol I’, if Carver wants to branch out and write some actual Jack Vincent novels, I am all for them. The Shaking of the Timbers, is a crazy story about time-travelling on a demonically possessed boat that grows limbs. It makes a noble hero out of Captain Kidd and they fight a demonic Blackbeard. I’d love to read that. His gothic novellas include zombie babies born from necrophiliac sex and ghosts coming back to retrieve their gold teeth. There’s also the gonzo take on Sweeney Todd in The Death Hunter - I’m down for all those. There’s even mention of an experimental tale, Jack Sheppard in Space… yes please.

Carver doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. Both his parents meet horrid endings, one by cesarean and the other being eaten by rats. His sister is taken away by a strange dopplegänger and the book suggests a sequel where she is found (yes please). This goriness is brought to full force when the HMS Birkenhead sinks (as it did in real life) in an area of the sea known as Shark Alley. The book is not afraid to make the shark attacks as vicious and violent as possible, even including the literary equivalent of jump-scares. One man has his head bitten off when he looks down into the sea from a lifeboat - it’s great.

Shark Alley develops a very likeable hero in Vincent. He’s had a rough life and has responded likewise, he makes many stupid decisions but he has a young wife and son and it’s clear to the reader how much he has changed for them. It also creates a brilliant villain in Mr Grimstone, who always manages to pop in the book to ruin things. He’s everything wrong with the world, a rich capitalist politician who masks his cowardice under a pretended military service and his perversions under a pretend happy family life. Very hateable.

I’m just waiting on volume 2.

Number Four

The Misadventures of Margaret Finch by Claire McGlasson

The return of Claire McGlasson with yet another gripping novel about a strange little corner of history.

Margaret Finch is in Blackpool as part of Mass Observation (something else that interests me, the book on ‘the pub’ is very interesting). As such, she is introduced like a secret agent, aloof from the people around her, listening in and recording. She’s a spy in the herd, not part of the things around her, hiding in a changing cubicle and taking her clothes off so she doesn’t stand out. When her spying goes wrong, she’s saved by a kindly older gent with gapped teeth who assumes she knows who he is.

He is Harold Davidson, a genuine historical figure with a fascinating story - I read it in Troublesome Priest by Jonathan Tucker. At this point in his life, he’s become a rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk but discovered a passion for working in Soho in London. There’ he’s gained the name ‘the prostitute’s padre’ and claims to have ‘saved’ 500 people. One of them took him to court though and the scandal has led to him being defrocked. In Blackpool, he plans to make a spectacle of himself, sitting in a barrel, to rise awareness of his unfair dismissal and funds for his appeal. Margaret finds herself drawn to the man and the puzzle over whether he was a naughty priest or something else.

Meanwhile, she has her own demons to face. From the outset, she is clearly the victim of much childhood repression, and this is spooled out throughout the book. It’s led to her feeling that a cold, outsider approach is the best in life and this leads to her being a very good spy for Mass Observation. However, this position of being outside everything also strengthens and emphasises this feeling of being empty. She finds herself filling this with alcohol, and later prescription opiates. At one low point in her drinking, she wets herself, stuffs her knickers in her bag and wakes up the next morning to find them still in there, clammy and cold - it’s quite the realistic comedown.

There is also hope though, in her blossoming relationship with her immediate superior in Mass Observation. James is a puppydoggish figure, his interest in people being as gleeful and involved as hers is detached. There’s is a really lovely relationship that develops. 

Set in the 30s, there’s a growing unease of the war; the last gasp of end-of-the-pier shows, with a flea circus operator feeding the fleas with his own arm, and a general feeling of immediate crisis and change. Mass Observation itself seems to come from a really unpleasant place. The founder is presented as a terrible snob, who sees the working class as an alien race who need to be studied but never understood or accepted.

The characters are all believable and interesting. I particularly liked the presentation of Davidson, a victim of his own ego, no sex-pest but definitely a pest, whose strange ending is a result of his self-absorption and love of drama. 

The Rapture was one of my favourite books when it came out but I enjoyed The Misadventures of Margaret Finch even more. What historical curlicue is she going to write a novel about next?

Number Three

Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert

Another returner, in which Zoe Gilbert weaves a thousand years of myths and legends surrounding Croydon.

Mischief Acts is the story of Herne the Hunter. A mythological man of the forest with a crown of stag antlers, he was first mentioned by Shakespeare but later written about by arrange of other authors including one of my favourites, William Harrison Ainsworth, who did his thing and rejuvenated the myth for a few more years. Gilbert creates an origin story, Herne is the king’s favoured hunter but that causes envy among the other courtiers. They wish harm on him and he is killed when a stag rushes for the king and he steps in the way. The wizard Bearman brings him back to life by placing the antlers on his head but also taking away his hunting skill. Ostracised from his peers, he hangs himself but returns as the spirit of The Great North Wood.

The book then tracks the fate of this wood and it’s guardian spirit through the course of history and into the future. Often there is a form of Bearman, existing as his antagonist. Herne’s form, name and presence changes as the forest does but whenever he does appear, some form of mischief will follow. As such, the mischief is tied into the unpredictability of nature and is compared to the desire for order and control inherent in man (in these stories a variation of Bearman). 

One of the best elements of this book is how the tone, genre and structure of the book completely fit the theme. Each story is set in a specific time period and the species of writing matches it. The origin story is told as a ballad/prose poem, there’s a renaissance set story which takes advantage of the eras dabbling in dryads, nymphs and other Arcadian visions, there’s a gardener’s almanac, a scientist’s notebook, a modern relationship drama. The stories set in the future try and evoke futuristic slang, probably the closest element to a misfire, but I loved the intent.

As nature is understood and the wood is built on, Herne himself becomes implied rather then seen. He becomes a concussion vision, an acid trip vision and the last thoughts of a dying (and decomposing) man. I loved how, as the enchantment of nature diminished in popular understanding, so the enchantment of the book is diminished - I also loved the positive notions of the ending, where a re-wilding and re-enchantment can take place. The book argues how a connection with the mischief of mother nature is also a connection with magic and our natural, animalistic selves. This magic is also threaded through the books by the songs between each story and the charms immediately before them.

What’s more, these are good stories. I loved the sweetness and strangeness of the lesbian acid-trip story where the word nymph plays two roles. I enjoyed the farce of the scientist’s story, balloon-trip accident and all. As a child who grew up among trees downed by the 1987 hurricane, I loved how it was described as Herne’s howl of pain and anger. I also enjoyed the use of historical personages and events, from Edward Alleyn to the scandalous eighteenth century actress Ann Catley. Did you know it was Herne who burnt down the Crystal Palace? I’m glad he left the dinosaurs though.

While I loved Folk, Mischief Acts is a definite improvement, tying the myths into the landscape and more importantly into how the landscape changed over time (and the guess at what might happen to it next). Herne himself is never particularly knowable as a character, he exists as a force but the characters he does affect are well developed. The threads that link the stories stop the book feeling fractured but the different tones and genres re-engage each time. I really loved this book and am eager to see what Zoe Gilbert writes next.

Number Two

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Already one of my favourite books. I could have left it off the list but honesty impelled me to include it and put it high up.

A look at my most recent read here.

Number One

Ducks: Art, Legend, History by Anna Giorgetti

A complete outlier on my reading list, but there was no way that this charming, delightful and informative book would not be the top of my 2023 list.

I don’t think anyone could see a book called Ducks: Art, Legend, History and not at least pick it up. After reading a little of it, I don’t see how anyone could not take it and read it straightaway.

A thoroughly charming little book written in Italian by Anna Giorgetti and translated by Helena Ramsay, Ducks: Art, Legend, History is exactly that, a pleasant little muse over the role of ducks in stories and history, all illustrated by pictures of collectable ducks. 

The tone is the most wonderful thing. Giorgetti clearly loves ducks (and to a lesser extent geese). There’s nothing about ducks gang-raping in this book, they are a symbol of marital fidelity in China and nothing negative about ‘our friends’ (as they are frequently referred to) is allowed in this book.

We learn about the hansa, the mystical duck-goose that turns up in hindu legends. We learn about magical ducks in Russian folktales and there’s even a thoughtful retelling of The Ugly Duckling. This story proves to be a little difficult for Giogetti, because while she is firmly pro-duck, she is pretty anti-swan. She concludes that while people may admire the swan, in their heart of hearts they actually prefer the duck.

She talks about ‘duck’s superiority over other birds’ because they are able to traverse earth water and air and goes on fanciful discussions of them as embodiment of the elements. She wonders what a psychiatrist would make of her dreaming of ducks, something that I imagine happens to her quite often and concludes that ‘even the tiredest’ businessperson staying at a Ramada Hotel must be ‘laughing and relaxed’ because of the toy duck in every bathroom.

Impeccably pleasing, slightly quackers and well worth pecking up. 

If you want to look at all the books I read last year, they can be found on my list here.