An Early 19th Century Story about Man’s Best Friend: James Manners, Little John and their Dog Bluff

“Dogs are honest creatures,/ Ne’er betray their masters,/ Nor fawn on those they love not.” Cotsen 83689.

This unsigned wood engraving of a Newfoundland dog greeting his favorite person was used on page 25 of Elizabeth’s Sommerville’s James Manners, Little John, and their Dog Bluff. 2nd ed. (London: Printed for the proprietors and sold by Darton and Harvey and E. Newbery, 1801).

At the beginning there was no love lost between Bluff, the story’s dog-hero, and his boy James. When the dog walked past him, James hurled a stick at it, which caused the angry animal to grab him by the calf.  James might have been badly hurt if his foster brother John, a local farmer’s son, had not recognized the dog as  Farmer Giles’s Bluff. Confident that the dog was not dangerous, John pried open its jaws and freed James.  This was not the first time that John proved a good friend to James, but James could not treat him as such because of his acute consciousness of their difference in social class. Bluff’s fidelity, on the other hand,was always welcome.

Used to always having his way, James never took his lessons seriously, developed a taste for spirits, and the habit of gambling quite young because he was heir to a fortune and therefore entitled to indulge himself. His father died when James was twenty and within months he was defrauded of his inheritance by professional London card sharks.  With no money in his pockets, he was obliged to return home on foot.  Nearly at his destination,  James loses his way in the dark, not realizing the danger he is in. His old friend Bluff catches his scent and fetches foster brother John to his rescue. This time, James does not waste the opportunity to remake his life.

James Manners, Little John, and their Dog Bluff was the first children’s book written by Elizabeth Somerville, the daughter of author and translator Elizabeth Helme.  She tried to capitalize on her mother’s reputation by publishing her early works under the pseudonym “Elizabeth Helme, jun.”  Her father negotiated the sale of this manuscript and its copyright in 1797 to Darton & Harvey for six pounds six shillings and one hundred and twenty five bound copies. While Somerville’s moral tale never achieved the popularity of Edward Augustus Kendall’s Keeper’s Travels (1799), it is still an interesting for its depiction of a loyal, sagacious dog.

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