When people ask me to name my favorite book in the collection, I never have a good answer on the tip of my tongue. “It’s like being asked to pick your favorite child” or “Whatever I’m working on right now” are just dodges to avoid saying I like one and only one wonderful thing best out of thousands of possibilities–some of which are yet to be seen.
If a heartless desperado were holding my cat for ransom and the conditions for her release were to admit to a favorite book, it might be possible if I could stick to one genre. Like the alphabet.
One of my favorite alphabets is L’alphabet personnife ou Les lettres rendues sensibles par les figures de 25 enfants in action et portant le nom des 25 lettres elles-memes [The Personified Alphabet or the Letters Animated by the Figures of 25 Children in Action Bearing the Names of the Letters]. Cotsen just purchased the first edition of 1801, where it joins a copy of the 1809 third edition.
L’Alphabet personnifie is incredibly rare in any edition, which probably accounts for lack of comments in the scholarly literature. The legendary Gumuchian catalogue of 1930 describing 6251 rare children’s books had a copy of the third edition, which was also listed in the bibliography of Segolene le Men’s Les abecedaires francais illustres du XIXe siecle (1984). Penny Brown may never have seen it either because there’s no mention in the discussion of Freville in her Critical History of French Children’s Literature (2008).
Its author Anne-Francois-Joachim de Freville is a rather interesting person, even if he is not among the immortals of French children’s book writers. Freville’s most famous works were two collections of anecdotes about extraordinary real children. Vies des enfans celebres (1798) included the story of Irish youngster Volney Becker, who fended off a shark attack on his father, only to be bitten in half while being lifted to safety on a boat. Vies circulated in English translation under the title The Juvenile Plutarch between 1801 and 1820. The second collection, Beaux traits du jeune age (1813), closes with an ambitious proposal for a pantheon to be built to honor the memory of notable children. He could be more more fanciful, as this delightful group in the frontispiece to the fourth edition of his Contes jaunes (1804) makes clear.
A teacher by profession, Freville was arrested for Jacobin sympathies but kept his head when the revolutionary tribunal acquitted him. After Robespierre’s fall, Freville’s politics veered to the far right. During the Directory, he continued to produce books that incorporated a range of educational games designed to turn children into active participants in the pleasure of learning.
L’Alphabet personnifie is perhaps the most ingenious and charming of them all, although dog owners would probably give the edge to his collection of stories about celebrated canines.
The design of L’Alphabet suggests that Freville was no ordinary teacher. Like many enlightened educators who came after John Locke, Freville tried to invent ways to reduce the drudgery associated with learning to read. Of course, he recommended using illustrated texts for that purpose, but on a different and more ambitious plan. While it was true that children enjoyed illustrated alphabets of animals in their primers, he observed, they usually retained more information about the animals’ appearance and characteristics than they did of the letters of the alphabet, the real object of the exercise.
A better approach, Freville argued, was to anthropomorphize the letters, because children would take greater interest in the symbols if they resembled children the same age as themselves engaged in enjoyable activities (the different costumes and hats were also supposed to be a source of amusement). The skillful use of alliteration increased the fun of learning, as well as an way of organizing the visual material so that it was more likely to impress associations on children’s minds. Verbs are the heart of Freville’s method, which is somewhat unusual, as alphabets are more likely to focus on substantives or nouns rather than actions.
Here is the letter “A,” impersonated by a boy watering [arrose]. When the children turn to the description of the plate, they will discover that it contains other objects beginning with the letter A: “Le petit Arlequin, arrose un Artichaut, fleuri dans son jardin” [Little Harlequin waters an artichoke blooming in his garden]. But if they look at the picture again, they will find even more objects whose names begin with “A” the description omits–“abeille” [bee] and “arraignee” [spider] to mention just two. The engraver signed his name below the greenery in the lower right and I think it says “J. Le Roy.”
And the noblest of the fruits also makes an appearance in “V” for “vendange” [grape harvest]. More French fruits can be seen in a previous post on a new acquisition.
The boy is also shown practicing his handwriting in “E” for “ecrit” and playing in “J” for “joue.”Did Cotsen really need both editions? A careful comparison showed that there are quite a few differences in the accompanying reading exercises, which are too complicated to describe here. The comparison also reveals that in the 1801 edition, “Z” pursued the zebra through the woods completely naked, whereas in the 3rd edition, he is draped for the hunt in a diaphanous robe, still with no shoes.
Perhaps the revised plate is poking a little fun at the merveilleuses, the fashion victims of their times, who appeared in dresses so sheer as to leave very little to the imagination….