Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mary Godolphin's 19th century children's book "Evenings at Home, in Words of One Syllable"

Like most other men, when it comes to giving gifts to my significant other I frequently find myself giving her something that is perhaps more indicative of my interests than hers. Because her interests are towards early childhood education, particularly literacy education and music (a conjunction neatly encapsulated in the material conditions of this week's you will see below), I’ve noticed recently that the gifts I give her are often antiquarian or rare children’s books. A happy medium, I hope, between her interests and mine.

This is one of those books (I suppose technically it does not come from one of my bookshelves--as the intention statement of this blog professes--but I’m sure she won’t mind). The title is Evenings at Home, In Words of One Syllable written by “Mary Godolphin” and published by George Routledge & Sons of 9 Lafayette Place, New York. No date is given, but there is an early owner’s inscription dated 1883. The first edition of the book appeared in 1869 but the book from which it derives dates back to the previous century. That first edition had a blue cloth binding, color illustrations, and 161 pages (plus 4 pages of publisher’s advertisements), which tells me that this isn’t a copy of that first edition.

Given the popularity of this book, it isn’t surprising Routledge re-published it between 1869 and 1883, but I haven’t been able to find any precise data as to the date of the subsequent edition. This book adapts a previous collection of stories, Evenings at Home, written by John Aikin and his sister Anna Laetitia Barbauld between 1792 and 1796; Anna belonged to a movement of early evangelical Christian English women at the end of the 18th century who wrote children’s books designed to instill morals and to improve the character of their readers.

The book was part of a number of monosyllabic adaptations designed for early literacy learners (similar adaptations from Routledge included Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Sandford and Merton, and Aesop’s Fables). A preface at the start states that, “The great success which has attended the writer’s former efforts has induced her to translate another popular work into words of one syllable. It is hoped that, no less than her other books of the same character, the present volume may be of some assistance to those who are interested in the education of the young.”

The premise of the collection is that Mr. and Mrs. Howe, who dwell in the country, keep a box in their parlor, into which guests are asked to leave short stories and tales in verse; periodically, the Howe’s children would be allowed to select one at random and it would be read aloud to the entire family. “This was a source of so much fun, that to please those who were not there, the tales have been set forth in this book.” The ensuing 31 tales are all in prose (though some are written in a dramatic format) and are each headed--like a juvenescent Arabian Nights--“Night 1”, “Night 2”, etc. The book contains black and white print illustrations throughout. It is clearly designed for children’s use as evidenced by certain format features (frequent illustrations, very large font, safely rounded corners of both the paper and the cover boards, and a sturdy paper stock for the pages).

It is worth noting that the title and preface claim of using only single-syllable words in the book is not wholly true; the abbreviations “Mr.” and “Mrs.” are used, but if one were to read the book out loud (as it most certainly was), these would both be two syllables. A similar problem crops up with, of course, the title: “Evenings” is trisyllabic (or, in some cases, disyllabic) and “Syllable” is also trisyllabic. Other multisyllabic words in the book include "dollars" and "Alfred".

Whether or not single-syllable reading is still a viable or accepted means of teaching children or non-English speakers to read I leave open to those more qualified to speak on the subject. I can’t help but wonder, however, if there is an affinity between this segmentizing approach to literacy education and the modern emphasis upon phonemic awareness and pronunciation. Author, children’s literature specialist, and academic librarian, Peter Sieurta has an excellent blog on the subject of children’s literature, which includes a great, detailed post about some other single-syllable adaptations by “Godolphin” and others of the time (Sieurta also points out some that fail to live up to their monosyllable-only goal).

The pages of this book measure 14cm x 18.5cm. Oddly, the running titles are inconsistently laid out; occasionally the book’s title, “Evenings at Home.”, appears on the recto and the story’s title appears on the verso, but in other places this reverses. There’s no consistency to these changes, but I imagine they were a byproduct of the printing process (being post-1850, I presume the book was printed on a machine press--something I confess to know little about). There are no signatures, but the split binding (more on this below) shows 11 gatherings of 8 leaves apiece, suggesting the full sheets were folded in octavo when it was assembled. The cover has a color image of three children reading from a book; the back shows a young girl lifting a toddler up to grab a book from a shelf. The colors in both illustrations have faded considerably.

While there is no marginalia in the content of the book (with the exception of some meaningless pencil squiggles on the last page), there are three interesting features of note. The first is the inscription noted above. It appears on the recto of the first blank flyleaf and reads (in very elegant cursive): “Presented to Andrew Ritter, / by his Aunt, Kate Wright. / Dec. 25th 1883.” I’ve found numerous Andrew Ritters who would have been young boys at the time Aunt Kate gave this book as a Christmas gift, but there’s no way to know who (if any of them) might have owned this book. Regardless of which Andrew Ritter it was, he took fairly good care of it.

This is the second interesting feature, in fact: antiquarian children’s books are not hard to find--they were mass-produced in cheap formats on cheap paper; however, this very cheapness, combined with the often brutal (though loving) treatment they received from their intended owners, means most are in heavily marked-up and damaged condition. The only reader’s marks in this copy, however, are grubby fingerprints on almost every page. Also, the spine has split away, resulting in some looseness in the pages and a previous owner’s decision to use tape to hold the two boards on. 

But this splitting of the spine has resulted in the third interesting feature of the book’s physical character: when the book was bound, scrap paper from other publications was used (as was customary) to provide a core in the spine to which the book’s gatherings could be pasted. In this case, Routledge’s printer used two different stocks of scrap paper to bind “Godolphin’s” Evenings at Home, in Words of One Syllable. The outer layer is a discarded page from a hymnal (how would the pious Anna Barbauld feel about that?), the inner layer contains a scrap from a publisher’s advertisement, listing two books (one apparently an antebellum guide to the south and the other a travel guide to Manhatten Island).

No doubt by now the more astute reader of this blog (that is, both of the readers of this blog...) will have noticed that I have twice set the author’s name in quotation marks: “Mary Godolphin”. This is because the name is actually a pseudonym. The true author of not only this book but also the other single-syllable works published by Routledge noted above was Lucy Aikin (1781-1864), the daughter of John Aikin and niece of Anna Barbauld. Lucy obtained fame at the turn of the century as an author and an historian, her works spanning genres from children’s literature to English monarchical history and from French translations to contemporary biography (including biographies of her father and her aunt). She began writing for magazines and assisting her father on his magazine editing work when she was 17. Under the guidance of her father and her aunt (who was herself an outspoken education activist), Lucy read widely and deeply, becoming fluent in French, Italian, and Latin at an early age.

Between 1801 and 1870 she published 23 works, including 7 under the name of “Mary Godolphin” (all of these were her single-syllable adaptions). While she professed that her principle interest was in early education, the works for which she gained fame were her biographical studies of English monarchs Elizabeth I (1818), James I (1822), and Charles I (1833). She lived her entire life in Hampstead, England, where she was known as a highly proficient essayist, letter-writer, and debater; like the rest of her family, she was a devout Christian, worshipped in the Unitarian congregation, and was a great bibliophile, collecting a substantial library of her own. I can’t help but wonder, though, how Lucy Aikin would feel about seeing her Evenings at Home, in Words of One Syllable sitting idly behind a glass door on the shelf of a collector, rather than in the hands of a child.

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