Books Tell Stories… Perhaps More than One?

Books — especially children’s books — tell stories.  The “stories” they tell can be in a wide variety of formats: short stories, verse tales, moral tales, narratives in the form of dialogues, or novels, to name just a few. Books tell stories?  This statement may seem so obvious it doesn’t need saying.  But bear with me…

A children’s book, such as Cotsen Library’s 1745 third edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing… (Cotsen 26950), printed for Mary Cooper (“M. Cooper” on the title page), makes its multiple story-telling role explicit at the end of its (long!) title: “consisting of scripture-histories, fable, stories, moral and religious precepts, proverbs, song, riddles, dialogues.” 

The Child’s New Play-Thing: Title page and frontispiece portrait of “Prince George” from the 1745 third edition printed for Mary Cooper (Cotsen 26950).

The book’s full title, as printed on the title page, is:

The Child’s New Play-thing: being a Spelling-book Intended to Make the Learning to Read, a Diversion instead of a Task: Consisting of Scripture-Histories, Fables, Stories, Moral and Religious Precepts, Proverbs, Songs, Riddles, Dialogues, &c.: The Whole adapted to the Capacities of Children, and Divided into Lessons of One, Two, Three, and Four Syllables; with Entertaining Pictures to each Story and Fable, and a New-invented Alphabet for Children to Play with, and a Preface Shewing the Use of it.

The Child’s New Play-Thing: Detail of 1745 title page showing the full (long!) title and added detail in edition statement.

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But eighteenth-century booksellers, publishers, and printers had a very different idea of “catchy” titles than we do now. They liked to be complete and comprehensive, to the extent that a title page on a book like The Child’s New Play-Thing is virtually a table of contents and summary of what will be found in the book itself.  It’s a potential form of advertising too. A potential buyer — possibly looking at unbound copies with the title page on display at a bookseller’s store or stall — could see what the book contained without turning the pages.  (Some eighteenth-century books have extremely detailed, multi-page “Contents” listings at the front too, which provide precis of the following material, perhaps for the same reason.)

“The Child’s New Play-Thing”: Stories & Poems…

“The Story of Guy, Earl of Warwick,” from the 1745 edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing

The Child’s New Play-Thing does indeed deliver on its title-page promise, presenting quite a variety of stories: the heroic story of St. George and the Dragon, a children’s version of the old chapbook favorite about the noble knight Sir Guy of Warwick, a shortened version of story of the wily Reynard the Fox, moral stories and dialogues with moral lessons, as well as poems and songs that are generally narrative (“Sir Eglamore, &c.”, “The Old Woman and her Son”)  The Child’s New Play-Thing also presents alphabets, syllabaries, and short lessons about words at the beginning of the book — it’s meant to be something of a one-stop reader for children!

Other “Stories”

But Cotsen’s third edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing tells us other stories too if we look for them — the story about how the book was produced and distributed and also an interesting story about how the book was actually used, post-publication, by a child reader.  So “reading” a book bibliographically tells us a story about an aspect of the book that goes beyond the text on the page with content aimed at young readers.  The story of who “published” the book  — Mary Cooper, in this case — led me to wonder who Mary Cooper was and what her role was in publishing.  (“Publisher” is a somewhat anachronistic term in the eighteenth century, when the role of publisher as we now think of it — as opposed to printer and bookseller — hadn’t really emerged. People in the book trade with any sort of a “publishing” role in print production were commonly referred to as “booksellers.”  For the sake of consistency and clarity, I’ll use the term publisher” here, advisedly, to indicate someone whose role went beyond merely selling a book and involved some aspects of book production, sometimes also including copyright-related permissions and perhaps editorial control over what was produced.)  What can we learn about the back-story of how the book was made and distributed before it ever found the hands of a reader?

The “Story” of Reading and Using the Book: Physical Evidence

Cotsen’s copy of the 1745 third edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing has additional evidence in the physical artifact itself, which may tell us another “story”: about how the book was received, read, and used by a child-reader — the target audience of the intellectual content of the stories and tales.  Cotsen’s copy of this is full of metatextual writing, markings, doodling, and even some child-artwork.  What can these tell us about the “story” of how a child reader actually interacted with the book containing the various stories and poems that Cooper sold?  “Reading” a book using these unique, copy-specific aspects this may help is know a little about the general story of book use, reader reception, and perhaps readership in general by children.

Front free endpapers of Cotsen’s copy of the 1745 Play-Thing, with doodles, markings, and a traced copy of the Prince George frontispiece (which displays some “artistic license” on the part of the doodler, presumably a child reader).

So there are at least three different general “story lines” connected with Child’s New Play-Thing that I’m hoping to explore: the actual content and how it may have changed over time in different editions, the books’ creation, production, and sale, and, finally, their post-production use by a reader.  The “story” of Cotsen’s Child’s New Play-Thing is really multifaceted–several separate but related stories.  And this general story will, I hope, be fleshed out by looking at some other editions of this title, as well as a couple of other books with which Mary Cooper was involved: the 1743 History of Greece. (Cotsen 17219) and the 1752 Court of Queen Mab (Cotsen 33535).

Editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing” by the Coopers (1742, 1743, 1745, 1760)

The first edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing (Cotsen 34058) was issued in 1742, its title page stating that it was “Printed for T. Cooper,” (Thomas, Mary’s husband) “at the Globe in Pater-noster Row,” a location right in the middle of a significant aggregation of London trade publishers. 

The Child’s New Play-Thing: Title page and frontispiece from the 1742 first edition by Thomas Cooper — again displaying some doodles added by a child-reader (Cotsen 34058)

After Thomas died in 1742, Mary continued the family printing and publishing business under her own imprint, and she issued a second edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing very soon thereafter in 1743; the imprint reads “Printed for M. Cooper at the Globe in Pater Noster Row” (info from the English Short Title Catalogue for item T81481 since Cotsen doesn’t have this edition in its collection).  A third edition  followed in 1745, whose title page notes that it was “Printed for M. Cooper.”  The Cotsen Library holds copies of the 1742, 1745, and 1760 editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing, all of which list a Cooper on the title page, as well as the 1763 eighth edition, which post-dates Mary Cooper, but lists John Hinxman among the edition’s eight booksellers. Hinxman, a former Dodsley shopman, took over Cooper’s business after she died, so the Cooper connection continues even after Mary’s death.

Title page and frontispiece from the 1760 seventh edition of the Child’s New Play-Thing, the last edition with Mary Cooper’s name on the title page.  (Note the “1740” date added to the reworked portrait of Prince George, who became King George in 1760.) Cotsen 3372

Title page and frontispiece from the 1763 eighth edition of the Child’s New Play-Thing issued by Ware, Dodsley, Hinxman, and others (Cotsen 384)

Not only did were the 1743 and 1745 new editions issued under Mary Cooper’s sole imprint — no other bookseller is mentioned on the title pages — but not insignificant changes and additions were made to the content of these new editions, suggesting that her role may have been more significant than a caretaker merely keeping the family enterprise afloat after the death of her husband by reprinting identical editions and/or selling them.  (While the printing and publishing business was still largely a male preserve in the early- and mid-1700s,  there were also a number of husband-widow successions apart from the Coopers, including Richard and Ann Baldwin, John and Elizabth Nutt  [LTP 101-6], and, later in the 1700s, John and Elizabeth Newbery, whose books for children are probably the most widely known today.)

Lottery letters from Cotsen’s 1742 first edition.

In terms of resided content, while Thomas Cooper’s 1742 printing has 106 pages, Mary Cooper’s 1743 second edition has 120 pages, and her 1745 third edition has 144 pages (Cotsen 26950).  All the editions that I looked at begin with alphabet letters meant, meant to “be cut into single squares for children to play with,” as a later 1760 edition explicitly directs on its title page — an innovative toy-like feature for a book at this time. The lottery letters in Cotsen’s copy of the 1742 first edition, which have been partially cut but not fully cut into squares, removed from the book, and “played with,” as intended.

The initial content of alphabet letters, syllabaries, short reading “lessons,” and a table of Arabic and Roman numerals is essentially the same. But following that material, the 1745 third edition adds the three dialogues for boys: “How a little boy can make everybody love him,” “How a little boy shall grow wiser than the rest of his school-fellows,” and How a little boy shall become a great man.” (These additions are all touted on the title page as new additions to the third edition.)

Upper covers of Cotsen’s copies of the 1742, 1745, and 1760 editions of the Child’s New Play-Thing, all bound in relatively cheap dark brown full sheep which was commonly found on children’s books of the era.

Following the dialogues is “A Love Alphabet for Boys” (beginning “I love my love with an A because she’s amiable; I hate her because she’s Artful…”) and a corresponding “A Love Alphabet for Girls” (“I love my love with an A because he’s agreeable; I hate him because he’s Avaricious…”).  A series of seven riddles follows, for which a reader has inked two of the answers. At the end of the book, the selection of Songs has been rearranged and expanded in the 1745 third edition: from three and a half pages to seven. While these additions and changes may not be profound, they do suggest that that ongoing changes were made in the interests of adding content to attract new buyers and that Mary Cooper’s role may have been more significant, for at least some editions, than selling copies of  books whose content was otherwise determined.  Her name is the only one indicated on the title page of the 1743 and 1745 editions, but her name is the last of five printed on the title page of the 1760 seventh edition: “Printed for Messrs. Ware, Hitch, Corbett, Dodsley, and M. Cooper” (Cotsen 3372), suggesting that Cooper’s role in The Child’s New Play-Thing may have been broader and more significant at first but then diminished near the end of her active years as a bookseller. (She died in 1761.) 

It’s also possible, of course, that Cooper’s name appears last simply because of syntax — the first four names are men (“Messrs.”).  Seldom, if ever, does the title “Miss” or “Mrs.” appear in a bookseller’s name on a title page, and the frequent use of initials, rather than first names, for booksellers tends to obscure the role of women booksellers and publishers.  (I only realized that “M. Cooper” was a woman when cataloging Cotsen’s copies of 1745 and 1760 editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing and looking for an “authorized” form of the name of “M. Cooper.”  Her gender was buried in the LC Name Authority Record, VIAF, and English Short Title Catalogue records for books she published or sold.)  But I tend to think that the placement of Cooper’s name at the end of the list indicates a lesser role for her in the 1760 edition — that seems to be the norm with eighteenth-century title pages and imprints.

The 1760 seventh edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing bulks up to 168 pages — due in large part to the addition of “forty eight new cuts, with moral and instructive verses to each,” as the title page announces  The last, unnumbered page is a publisher’s advertisement for “Book Printed by R. and J. Dodsley, suggesting that Dodsley was the “publisher” of this later version, with Mary Cooper’s role having diminished to that of a minor member of a risk-sharing consortium of booksellers led by Dodsley, or perhaps just a bookseller.)  These multiple editions with which Cooper was connected suggest a reasonably popular, good-selling title — publishers didn’t bring out successive editions of titles that didn’t sell well. Indeed, at least thirteen editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing were issued by 1800, the last bearing a Dublin imprint.

The title pages of the 1742, 1745, and 1760 editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing vary, reflecting new contents, additional details, and varying imprints, but all three editions include the engraved frontispiece portrait of the child Prince George, to whom the book is dedicated. The 1760 edition adds the date of “1740” to the caption, “His Highness, Prince George,” probably because George was no longer “Prince George,” but rather King George as of 1760.  Adding the date at the foot of the frontispiece engraving was probably the simplest and cheapest way to update the 1760 edition to indicate that George was no longer “Prince George,” while also preserving the original dedicatory material and connection to George, who had just become king.  With George’s accession to the 1760 crown, a twenty-year-old portrait of him as a child was topical again for its historical interest. (The 1760 printing of the portrait also appears to have been reworked a bit to add some detail.)

Mary Cooper’s Role

The Coopers had a role in the publishing, printing, or selling of at least four editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing, as we’ve seen.  Thomas Cooper is listed as the sole seller of the 1742 first edition, and Mary Cooper had some role in the 1743, 1745, and 1760 editions (the second, third, and seventh, respectively).  Four editions by a bookselling family  business suggests a fair level of involvement with a popular title.  But what was Mary Cooper’s role in the broader context of London publishing and bookselling of the era?

Thomas Cooper is often referred to as a “trade publisher,” a term indicating a book issuer whose “principal function was to publish on behalf of other members of the book trade.”1  A trade publisher might issue a book for a self-financing author or for a copyright-holding publisher who didn’t necessarily want to be associated with a controversial or cheap, pamphlet-style publication — or possibly a highly-regarded issuer of “serious literature” who might not want to be associated with potentially less highly-regarded publications, such as children’s publications in the early 1740s. A publisher who owned copyrights and sometimes exercised a measure of editorial control over what was issues is sometimes termed a “topping publisher.”  Trade publishers have sometimes been held in relatively low regard, compared with topping publishers, who were generally were generally wealthier and associated with higher-quality publications.

Thomas Cooper may well have functioned as a trade publisher in many cases, but the title page of his 1742 edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing states that the book is “printed for T. Cooper.”  The wording seems to matter.  Phrases like “printed for…” or “printed for, and sold by…” (which are often found on eighteenth-century title pages) can be taken to mean that the following name — in this case, Thomas Cooper — was the originating publisher, not a mere bookseller, as usually indicated by the phrase “sold by….”  Sometimes, the list of “sold by” booksellers can run five names, or more — one book that I cataloged recently listed no fewer than twelve booksellers on its title page.  So the wording of the title imprint of Thomas Cooper’s Child’s New Play-Thing seems to indicate that he was the effectively the publisher of the first edition of this ground-breaking children’s book. 

Likewise, the title page of Mary Cooper’s 1743 second edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing reads “printed for M. Cooper…”, as does the title page of her 1745 third edition.  This suggests that Mary Cooper was the originating publisher and owner of the intellectual content, not merely the seller of the books. 

Title page and frontispiece from Mary Cooper’s 1752 The Court of Queen Mab, a collection of fairy tales taken from Madame d’Aulnoy. (Cotsen 33535)  The frontispiece presents a distinctly upscale version of the traditional scene of an old woman telling tales to children in front of a fireplace.

Title page of Dodsley’s 1743 edition of The History of Greece, “sold by Mary Cooper” (Cotsen 17219)

And the title page of the 1752 edition of The Court of Queen Mab (Cotsen 33535) reads, “printed and sold by M. Cooper,” again suggesting Cooper’s role as publisher. But the title page of the 1760 seventh edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing  reads, “printed for Messrs. Ware, Hitch, Clark, Corbett, Dodsley, and M. Cooper” (Cotsen 3372), indicating a revised, less significant role for Cooper with a signature publication not long before her death.  And the title page of the 1743 History of Greece by Way of Question and Answer (Cotsen 17219) reads “printed for R. Dodsley… and sold by M. Cooper… .”  So Mary Cooper seems to have operated as a trade publisher, an originating publisher and a “mere” bookseller, her role varying from publication to publication.  Her name frequently appears with Dodsley’s on title pages — collaborating on 167 of his publications2 — suggesting an ongoing collaboration with one of the most prominent eighteenth-century London publishing houses. Among publications bearing Cooper’s name were the first editions of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (1743) and Thomas Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759)

Overall, Mary Cooper’s role in London publisher and bookselling is significant.  She seems to have played a major role in several early editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing, a book apparently of great popularity, as indicated by repeated editions.  She is the sole name listed on the title page of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, vol. II (Cotsen 63736) — “Sold by M. Cooper, according to Act of Parliament” — and may have been the owner, and perhaps the actual compiler, of this landmark children’s book.3

Cover of facsimile reprint of Mary Cooper’s [1744] Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, vol II. from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book … a Facsimile Edition with a History and Annotations (Cotsen 6573272q)

Publisher’s advertisement on the last page of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book for Mary Cooper’s edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing. Presumably, this [1744] advertisement is for Cooper’s 1745 third edition.

Further evidence of Cooper’s important role appears on the last page of the 1744 Pretty Song-Book is a publisher’s advertisement for The Childs Plaything [sic], “Sold by M. Cooper, Price one Shilling.”  The advertisement features a woodcut closely resembling the Prince George frontispiece repeatedly used in the various editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing issued by the Coopers and others from 1742 to at least 1763. This woodcut shows (a here unnamed) Prince George holding an open book with the text “The Child’s Plaything, 1744” visible.  The similarities between this advertisement illustration and the frontispieces are suggestive. Mary Cooper was the publisher of several editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing, as we’ve seen.  This advertisement and the clear similarities in the illustrations provide further support for the idea that Mary Cooper was also the publisher of The Pretty Song-Book. She may well have owned the content, just as she seems to have owned the content of The Child’s Plaything.

She stands as one of the more significant issuers of London children’s books during the first flourishing of this new genre in the early 1740s. Publications bearing Mary Cooper’s name help define the “miscellany” format of children’s books that Newbery would perfect.  In addition, she published or sold books ranging across a remarkable range of subjects, including children’s books, history, politics, religion, pamphlets, and newspapers. Mary Cooper’s name appears as publisher or bookseller on over 2,000 works, indicating that she “may have been the most prolific female publisher in British history.”5

To be continued… The “Story” of Reading and Using the Book: Physical Evidence

Having gone into such detail about the “stories” of the changing content of Cooper editions of The Child’s New Play-Thing and Mary Cooper’s role as bookseller and publisher of several editions, I’ll discus the story of the physical evidence of book use and readership — “marks in books” — in the various editions next week and try to draw some conclusions about how the books were used by child readers.


Notes:

  1. Michael Treadwell, “London Trade Publishers, 1675-1750,” The Library, Vol. IV, No. 2 (1982), p. 100.
  2. Isobel Goodman, “Rogue or respected businesswoman?  Mary Cooper and the role of 18th-century trade publishers,” (March 18, 2020), https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/history-of-the-book/rogue-or-respected-businesswoman-mary-cooper-and-the-role-of-18th-century-trade-publishers/ .
  3. Andrea Immel & Brian Alderson, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book: the First Collection of English Nursery Rhymes: a Facsimile Edition with a History and Annotations, Cotsen Occasional Press, 2013, pp. 13-15.
  4. Laura Sue Fuderer, Eighteenth-Century British Women in Print: Catalog of An Exhibition, University of Notre Dame, 1995, p. 12.

 

Just a Few Cat Tales…

Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat (1970)

The news being what it is these days, we all have a lot on our minds, no matter where we live. Many of us (the lucky ones in many ways) find ourselves working from home, trying to do our jobs as best we can and keep up some semblance of “normalacy” to our colleagues, often in makeshift work-from-home arrangements. But real life intrudes in surprising and, thankfully, not always bad ways.

Just the other day, a coat-and-tie-wearing professor being interviewed live on the BBC from what looked like a professional-looking setting — a world wall map and glass-fronted library bookcase behind him – was astonished when his two little children crashed the interview by bursting into the room (thereby unmasked as a home office) and temporarily disrupted the proceedings; the kids just wanted to see the person who, to them, was “Daddy,” not a world expert. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the video clip of this escapade went viral – and I really wish I could use another term – on CNN, BBC, and YouTube and was widely reported and commented on in news broadcasts and TV or cable talk shows.

“Library Cat” offering  assistance to her working-from-home (WFH) erstwhile servant — or wondering “What are you doing here?”

We all need a break from grim tidings and we could also all relate to the incident.  As the Cotsen Library and the Princeton Library has been largely closed in the last week because of health precautions, those of us in Special Collections have been working from home and holding daily video conference meetings via Zoom as part of our work. At one point, somebody’s cat sauntered across the desk. Those of us in the conference all had more or less the same spontaneous reaction as those seeing the BBC video clip – we could all relate. Several of us hijacked our own cats from their early afternoon naps, held them up, and shared the view with our colleagues. Thus, the cats all, unwittingly, got their “fifteen seconds of fame”… (There was one dog too, and a puppet, but mostly cats – cats must be a librarian thing.) Lasting literally seconds, this non-agenda event eased the rest of our (otherwise serious) discussion in the same the way that a meeting-opening “ice-breaker” often does.  It helped us get on with our work.

With all that in mind, I thought perhaps we could use more cats on the Cotsen blog this week. Several weeks ago in a posting about Judith Kerr – Tigers Who Came to Tea, and other Cat Tales – I’d mentioned that I hoped to do a follow-up about some of Kerr’s cat books too. That’s my excuse, anyway.  So without more prologue…

Mog was nice but not very clever… She was a very forgetful cat.

While The Tiger Who Came to Tea is Judith Kerr’s best–known book, she authored some thirty-six others, including a series about Mog the cat — beginning with Mog the Forgetful Cat in 1970 and ending with Goodbye Mog in 2002 — that were also best-sellers, loved by children and cat aficionados, and a testament to Kerr’s interest in exploring aspects of the life of a cat in her books for children.  The Mog series was apparently based on the Kerr family cat, who seemed to have quite a propensity for getting into trouble, causing comical mayhem, and yet somehow remaining endearing to her family (and readers alike), if the books are any indication. And doesn’t that sound like classic cat behavior?  Has anyone ever had a cat that was completely quiet and obedient all the time and never, ever got into trouble?

Having forgotten about her cat-flap door, Mog meowed until someone let her in.

Kerr introduces her feline heroine to readers for the first time in Mog the Forgetful Cat by telling us about her:

Mog was nice but not very clever.
She didn’t understand a lot of things.
A lot of other things she forgot.
She was a very forgetful cat.

Cat-owners will probably be attuned to the sorts of things that cats “forget”– trouble’s coming… One of the things that Mog seems apt to forget is how to use her cat-flap door to the garden to get back into the house after a trip outside to explore or use her “lavatory.”  Mog’s solution to the problem of forgetting is to jump up onto the kitchen-window flower box and meow “very loud” “until someone let her in.”  In the process, she trashes the flowers and causes a surprised Mrs. Thomas to drop part of the dinner she has been cooking on two separate occasions. “Bother that cat” becomes the parents’ refrain.

Then one night after having had a “bad day,” Mog races out of her cat-flap and finds herself alone out in the garden at night.  Nobody is in the kitchen to let her back in.  But then, she sees a faint light in the kitchen and a man moving around inside, and Mog thinks: “Perhaps the man will let me in.  Perhaps he will give me my supper.”  (Cats have their priorities!)  Kerr’s illustration makes clear to the reader what Mog doesn’t understand: the man is a burglar robbing the house.

Perhaps the man will let me in. Perhaps he will give me my supper.

Mog jumps up on the window-box, as is her usual wont, and meows “her biggest meow, very sudden and very, very loud,” surprising the burglar, who drops his bag of loot, thereby making a “big noise” of his own that wakes up everyone in the house. The police are called, and a friendly Bobbie terms Mog: “a remarkable cat. I’ve seen watch-dogs but never a watch-cat. She will get a medal.” And that’s just what happens — along with the added treat of an egg for breakfast every day, which Mog had previously been stealing from the family breakfast table.

She meowed her biggest meow, very sudden and very, very loud. The man was surprised. He dropped his bag. It made a big noise.

Mog had a medal.  She also had an egg every day for breakfast… They said, “Mog is really remarkable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation: One day Mog woke up and nothing was like it used to be.

Mog feiert Weihnachten (Mog Celebrates Christmas) Cotsen 96507

Kerr’s other Mog books generally provide variations on this pattern of misbehavior, mildly comic pandemonium, and redemption. In Mog’s Christmas (1976), which Cotsen Library has in a German-language edition, Mog is put out of sorts by all the Christmas preparations noises, smells, and worst of all the arrival of a terrifying Christmas tree — cats generally don’t like commotion or changes from their familiar routine, as most cat-owners can attest.  Since the story is told from Mog’s point-of-view — as are all the Mog stories — we discover that Mog thinks the tree is some kind of horror with legs of its own.  Kerr’s illustration clearly depicts the happy father, Mr. Thomas, carrying the tree for her readers, but Mog doesn’t see him — or simply can’t understand what’s going on.  This ironic split between what Mog sees or seems to understand and what the reader sees and knows is one of the narrative charms of Kerr’s work, I think, and a source of much of the gentle humor in her books.

Suddenly she was startled when she saw something it. It was a tree that was running.

Terrified, the Mog flees up to the roof of the house, refuses to come down, even when offered her favorite food. Hungry, but too scared to come down, Mog later curls up for a nap on top of the nice warm chimney, only to come crashing down into the (fortunately fireless) fireplace, all covered in soot — a parody of sorts of Santa, or Father Christmas, making the same (utterly improbably) descent.  After a bath — an indignity for which Mog’s face shows the general feeling that cats have about baths — Mog gets some nice cat toys as Christmas presents, and all’s well that ends well.

Mrs. Thomas held the food bowl out but Mog never came down.

And Mog got three boiled eggs and another present (i.e. a cat toy).

Mog’s Bad Thing (2000)

Kerr’s other Mog stories follow the same basic pattern, but each tale somehow seems fresh and new in its particulars, at least to me.  In Mog’s Bad Thing (2000), Mog heads out into the garden for a nighttime trip to her lavatory, following a day spent happily playing in the garden.  But she gets a shock.  Instead of the familiar garden, she sees “a big white flappy-floppy thing,” flapping ominously in her direction and making a loud noise as the wind blows shifts.  It’s a tent, as Kerr’s artwork makes clear, set up for a cat show the next day, but Mog thinks it’s alive, just like the walking Christmas tree was. Terrified, she races back into the house and then is so scared that she “does a bag thing.  She did not mean to do it but she did it.  And she did it in Mr Thomas’s chair.”  Mog knows that she’s going to be in the dog-house, so to speak, so she hides in the attic the next day.

At one point, when she thinks the coast is clear, Mog tries to jump out the window, onto the tent, and hop down into her beloved garden.  But there’s a hole in the tent, and Mog comes flying through it into the middle of the cat show.  But the judge is so taken with Mog’s flying “through the air like a circus cat…an acrobat” that he awards her a special prize as the “most unusual cat.”  Her family is so “very proud” proud of Mog that’s all’s forgiven.  Best of all for Mog, the tent comes down, and “her garden reappeared.  It was all there as before. The grass… the flowers… the tree… and her lavatory behind the tree.  She was very happy.”

Mog takes a flyer into the cat-show tent:  Something more than rain came through. It was something furry. It was something stripy.  Nicky shouted, “It’s Mog!”

As endearing — and in many ways unique — as Judith Kerr’s Mog stories are, they also suggest what I think are some common elements found in children’s stories and folklore concerning cats. Cats are unpredictable, and their motivations mystifying to human beings, even the cats’ owners.  Cats are prone to do anything — or nothing — at the drop of a hat, or the sight of a Christmas tree being carried into a home.  They’re self-centered — Mog is always thinking of her food and her comfort — in a manner unlike dogs, who generally embody loyalty and devotion to people in many children’s stories and tales.  Mog rescues her family from the burglar, but not by crying out at the intruder like a watch-cat, but rather by trying to get him to let her in to escape a dark, scary night. Cats tend to be disruptive: look at all the chaos Mog causes in the stories outlined above.  Or at the very least, cats don’t follow “the rules” that people expect in the same way that dogs do.

In some stories dogs do cause confusion, to be sure.  In the classic picture book Harry the Dirty Dog, Harry doesn’t want a bath so he runs away from home; while he’s out and about, he gets so dirty that even his family doesn’t recognize him when he finally comes back home.  But most of the consequences of Harry’s misadventures affect him, not his family or his home, the symbol of everyday stability that he eventually seeks to return to.

The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss (1957), first edition — Cotsen 16735

Cats seem to be associated with disruption of everyday mundanity or even comic disorder and misrule.  Perhaps that’s why they’re such good comical characters in children’s stories?  Disruption of everyday order is the essence of a much traditional comedy — just think of Shakespeare’s “festive comedies,” where order and decorum consistently get overturned, only to be eventually restored at the end with a happy resolution.  “Everyday” becomes “holiday” license and then reverts back to everyday, but with an increased awareness by the participants.

What character could be more disruptive of everyday order than Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat (1957)?  On a boring, rainy day, he bursts into the home of two children (whose mother is conveniently away) and — grinning all the while — he introduces mayhem and anarchy while demonstrating all sorts of entertaining tricks, upending the everyday order of the house, and wrecking it in the process.  Fortunately — alerted by the children’s goldfish to the mother’s impending arrival! — the cat restores order and cleans up the house via a a wonderful contraption, just before the children’s mother comes through the front door.  In Cat in the Hat, children experience the comic chaos, but the usually order-symbolizing mother has absolutely no idea: “Did you have any fun? Tell me, what did you do?”  The children remain silent, and Dr Seuss asks his readers, “What would YOU do if your mother asked you”?  at the very end of the story.

The grinning Cat in the Hat intends to introduce comical disruption of the everyday life of two bored children, while Mog had no such intentions.  She’s unaware, and the chaos she causes is unwitting and unintended.  And the Cat in the Hat can, of course, both understand and talk to people, unlike poor Mog, whose lack of understanding of things is often a prime cause of her confusion and the mayhem she causes.  Yet both cats are the cause, intentional or unwitting, of confusion and disorder.  Kerr’s stories are very different from Dr Seuss’s in this way, as well as in many others, but it’s hard for me to imagine that she didn’t have some aspects of the chaos-causing Cat in the Hat in the back of her mind while later writing a series of some ten books about the various comical misadventures of Mog the cat.

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it has very long claws and a great many teeth…
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1866) — Cotsen 657

And where have readers of children’s books seen confusion-causing, grinning cats before?  Alice in Wonderland, of course!  The Cheshire Cat is one of the funniest and best-known creations of both Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel in both language and visual representation.  While it’s hard to say that he causes mayhem in the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland, he certainly adds to it and seems to delight in doing so, if we can possibly ascribe anything to his motivations.

Alice is “startled” to see him sitting on the bough of a tree, and at first he only grins at her.  The Cheshire Cat then proceeds in his hilarious dialogue with Alice when she asks him which way she ought to go. “That depends a great deal on where you want to go.”  When she says she’s not sure, but only wants to “get  somewhere,” he replies: “Oh, you’re sure to do that… if you only walk long enough.” Strictly speaking, that’s a totally logical response, but one that’s also comically illogical at the same time.

A grin without a cat…

The Cheshire Cat then proceeds to disappear and reappear several times, the final time beginning with his tail and ending with his grin, which lingers for some time after the rest of him is gone.  Alice responds: “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin … but never a grin without a cat.”  Somehow the grin seems to be the essence of the comical cat in a mad, mad world.  And as the Cat comments before his final fade to nothingness, “We’ll all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”  He proceeds to contrast his behavior in the mad world of Wonderland with that of a dog, presumably one in the normal world, which “growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased.”  He and Alice then debate the difference between growling dogs and purring cats for a few lines.  Thus, the Cheshire Cat himself invites a comparison between cats and dogs!

Mocking the proceedings: The Cheshire Cat’s grin implicitly comments on the absurd proceedings and discussions.

The Cheshire Cat makes another appearance, later on — at least his floating, disembodied head does — during the Queen of Hearts’ Croquet Game — the one played with flamingos and hedgehogs, as you may remember.  As comical absurdities pile on top of each other, we really know that we’re not in Kansas anymore, if we didn’t before.  And the Cat adds to the absurdity with his comments mocking the proceedings and the participants, particularly the King and Queen of Hearts. The angered King and the characteristically-enraged Queen want to lop off the Cat’s head for his impertinence, and the executioner is summoned.  But a comical debate between them follows about if and how the executioner can cut off a head if there’s no body attached to it.  In response, the Cat’s head fades away, making mockery of the harridan Queen and her imperious commandments.  Carroll’s language of nonsense and illogic and Tenniel’s depiction of the grinning cat perfectly complement each other in scenes with the Cat; it’s hard to imagine one without the other, as so often is the case with Alice.

The Cheshire Cat is clever, at least rhetorically, and a master of tricky language.  The cleverness of cats is another frequently-mentioned aspect in children’s books.  Cats are identified as predators, full of guile and deception, at least when it comes to mousing, one of their traditional roles in human society.  Guile and trickiness can be double-edged swords, admirable in proper service but a source of suspicion in other contexts. There’s a long European folklore tradition expressing suspicion of cats as being somehow tricky, untrustworthy, and connected with magic, sometimes even witchcraft.

Walter Crane’s vivid depiction of Puss in Boots ingratiating his poor master with the king and his daughter; note all the detail Crane includes, both decorative and background context to the story (Puss in Boots, Routledge & Sons, [1874]) — Cotsen 2394

One of the most famous clever cats in literature is Puss in Boots, whose story was famously adapted by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697) and first published in an English translation by Robert Samber in a 1729 edition.  The Cotsen Library has a 1737 second edition, with parallel text in both French and English, issued by Richard Montague and Joseph Pote: Histories, or Tales of Passed Times, which also contains: Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, along with others. As most of us remember, the story or Puss in Boots concerns a poor miller’s third and youngest son, whose only inheritance is his father’s cat. But this cat can not only talk, he’s very very clever!  Through a series of cunning ploys, Puss makes various gifts to the king, convinces him that his penniless master is really the Marquis of Carabas who has been robbed of his clothing (thereby getting rich clothing from the sympathetic king), tricks an ogre with a large castle into turning into a mouse, which Puss then eats, and helps pass off the castle as belonging to his master. Suitably impressed, the king allows his daughter to marry the miller’s son, allowing Puss to obtain a fine estate too. Many artists and children’s books adapters have tried their hand at Puss in Boots.  One of my favorites is Walter Crane’s “toy book” version of Puss in Boots — featuring vivid color wood-block (chromoxylograph) illustrations by Edmund Evans, which are full of rich detail and visual allusions to fairy tales and the lives of cats in the background (mousing, encountering dogs, etc.).

As Robert Darton points out, Puss is basically a cunning, fox-like trickster, who succeeds with his deceptions, but his success raises a certain level of suspicion about the merits of Puss — who succeeds by deception not virtue — and the merit of his master, whose good fortune stems largely from following his trickster cat’s cagey directions. Darton adds that this suspicion and a general fear of tricksters — especially ones with apparently supernatural powers like Puss — is not unrelated to the horrible treatment that cats often suffered in early modern Europe.¹  Folk tales and superstitious beliefs can cut both ways.

Dogs, however, typically seem presented with less distrust and suspicion than cats in children’s stories and other writings.  Dogs are demonstrated to be exemplars of loyalty, reliability, and obedient fidelity to their human masters.  This goes way way back in time.  In the Odyssey (termed the “basis of all Western literature” by one critic) Odysseus returns home after twenty years, and nobody recognizes him after such a long time, even his son Telemachus. But as Odysseus approaches his old dog, Argos does recognize him: Argos “lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears” and “he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch.”²  (The language of Robert Fagles’ peerless translation of the Odyssey is so moving that I just had to quote it directly.)  Odysseus cannot acknowledge his dog for fear of discovery by the hoard of predatory suitors who have descended on his hall over the years, but the sight of his ancient dog’s loyalty brings tears to his eyes, which Odysseus must also conceal for fear of revealing himself too soon.

Chromolithographed upper wrapper of Hector the Dog (McLoughlin Bros., ©1889)

It’s hard to do justice to all the stories and nonfiction about dogs, and there are certainly many nuances of presentation.  But perhaps one children’s book can at least suggest the way that dogs are characteristically portrayed: Hector the Dog, a “toybook,” first issued by Frederick Warne & Company (London) in about 1870 and then later reissued by New York’s McLoughlin Brothers (©1889).  The book is prefaced by an epigrammatic paean to “the noble dog,” which begins:

Man loves the dog, the dog loves man:
The dog is trusty, strong, and brave,
And God has on the dog bestowed
The power and will man’s life to save.

Leaving aside this book’s over-the-top sentimentality, religious tone, and “man”-only world, its general view of dogs is clear: they’re loving, trustworthy, brave, and both willing and able to save people’s lives.

In Hector the Dog, a traveler decides to go hiking in the Swiss Alps on Christmas Eve, despite the warnings from his inn-keeper about an impending storm.  Of course, there is a storm, and the exhausted hiker collapses unconscious on a mountain.  But he is rescued by a group of “kindly” monks from a mountain-top monastery, led by their four St. Bernard dogs, who are made “restless” by the storm and seem to sense that someone needs help. Off they go, braving the “storm-blasts’ rage,” led by the “noble hounds [who] will do till death what their life-saving law commands.”

The Dogs Discover the Traveler in the Snow.

The monks and their St. Bernards manage to find and rescue the stranded hiker, but not before catastrophe strikes. “Brave Hector… the bravest of the brave” is lost, buried by an avalanche.  The other dogs seek frantically for Hector; “with whine and cries, they scratch the appalling mound of snow” left by the avalanche.  But their efforts are all in vain: “Thousands of tons of ice and snow, / Heaped up in one vast funeral pile / Poor Hector hold entombed below.  Heavily anthropomorphized terms, like “mighty courage” and “noble hounds,” abound in this illustrated story to describe the dogs and their efforts.

The language, chromolithographed visual presentation, and sentiments in Hector the Dog might be products of nineteenth-century sensibility and book technology.  Nevertheless, I think the book encapsulates some attitudes towards dogs that seem to characterize children’s books generally from early printed books onward to the contemporary works.  Maybe that’s something to look at more closely in another blog posting some day?3

Heraldic cat bookplate of Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899) found in all copies of a 3-volume set, The Natural History of Birds (1791) Cotsen 14097

But cats do get their due too, at least from some book collectors.  One of my favorite bookplates among all those I’ve encountered so far in Cotsen Library books includes a stern-looking cat as part of the heraldic crest of former, nineteenth-century owner, Sir John Dawson (1820-1899), on the front paste-down of all three volumes of a 1791 set of The Natural History of Birds, originally sold by Joseph Johnson, a London bookseller of the previous century.  As you can see if you look closely, the bookplate features a cat with a mouse in its mouth.  That cat looks pretty “noble” too and apparently excels at its job.  While I don’t know much about Sir John Dawson, I’d be willing to bet that he was a cat-lover!

 

 

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  1. Robert Darnton, “Peasants Tell Tales” and “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre & Other Episodes in French History (Basic Books, 1984) pp. 29-33 & 90-101.
  2. Robert Fagles, trans., The Odyssey (Penguin Books, 1996) pp.363-364.
  3. As an aside to the depiction of dogs in Hector the Dog, it’s interesting to see that the illustrations of the heroic monks in the book seem to have been adapted from McLoughlin Brothers’ earlier toy book-version of a Winter’s Tale — collected together with three other fictionalized versions of Shakespearian [sic] Tales in Verse, ©1892 — which includes several depictions of cloaked and hooded, distinctly monk-like figures, including a group of men seated in front of a roaring fire, one of whom, an “old shepherd,” tells “his Winter’s Tale.”  McLoughlin was not above repurposing artwork, or even entire stories themselves, in later — sometimes slightly differently-titled — stories for children; they were real forerunners in terms of reusing and recycling material to keep publication costs low and commercial profits as high as possible.  Why pay for new, when you can recycle?