The Voice of the School Boy

A boy whipping a gig. Christopher Comical, Lectures upon Games and Toys (London: F. Power, 1789). Cotsen 2039

The adult gets the privilege of impersonating the child, throwing its voice as if it were a ventriloquist’s puppet.  How often was the child allowed to speak in authentic tones before the mid-nineteenth century?   More frequently than we might expect.  Old public school boys, with vivid memories of how dreadful it was to be educated branded on their brains, sometimes invented a miserable schoolboy character and let him rip.

One such sympathetic work was the prologue written by Thomas Sheridan, Jonathan Swift’s good friend, for an amateur theatrical staged at Westminster School in 1720.  It is in English and introduced the performance of a tragedy by Euripedes in Greek.  A six- or seven-year-old was supposed to be able to declaim it and Sheridan gave him an opportunity to tell the audience just how ghastly this whole exercise had been.  So ghastly that he wished he could throw away his book and get back to whipping gigs and playing marbles.

Cotsen 5744.

A steady-selling school book like Newbery’s The Pretty Book for Children, a primer, a speller, and elementary reader in one volume, does not seem like an appropriate venue for an “I hate school” speech.  Its presence in an otherwise earnest text undercuts the message that children who love their books become “great” men and women.  But perhaps the compiler thought letting an imaginary school boy sound off would not  topple the educational system…

So here is Sheridan’s prologue to the school play, with the boy’s extended negative comparison of his book to his toys.

So there…

Marks in Books 10: Sibling Stand-off in a Copybook?

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Cotsen in process 701453.

Don’t judge this copybook by its spotted vellum boards.  It looks anything but promising, but it is noteworthy on several counts.   Elizabeth Harris, who may have lived in South Molton, Devonshire, filled it full of exercises for learning commercial arithmetic, not for practicising handwriting.  Her signature with the date 1750 can barely be read on the front board.  It is actually a little easier to spot in the photograph than on the book.Elizabeth did not sign and date the pages in her copybook like David Kingsley, but  the fish headpiece on the lesson above has the year 1749 written in its stomach  She must have been studying arithmetic between 1749 and 1750, but there is no telling how many months in each year she was copying out lessons..  She worked through the basic operations of arithmetic, troy and apothecaries wrights, dry, liquid, and cloth measures, the rule of three, etc.  Someone must have felt it was important for Elizabeth to be well versed in arithmetic, probably so she would be capable of managing the family accounts when a married womaThe title page, the only leaf oriented landscape-wise, is the only other one decorated with figures of pen flourishes.  The text inside the bird is not laid out perfectly.  You can see that she had a little trouble squeezing in her name, the completion date, and the ownership rhyme which children frequently copied into their books, “Learning is better than House and Land, / For when House and Land are gone and spent, / Then Learning is most excellent.”

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Elizabeth didn’t fill up all the pages, leaving a short section of blanks at the end of the book.  At some point, someone–perhaps a brother–claimed possession of it.  Was she there to defend her property? Did she let him have it because she had no further use for it?  Was he much younger than she and simply helped himself?  There is no evidence that establishes when exactly this amusing page was written and who could resist imagining a scenario in which one child takes another child’s book?  The object then becomes a silent witness of  childhood experiences in the past. Assuming that the second owner was a boy is not, on the other hand, pure supposition.  Owner number two did not fill up the pages with lessons, but with transcriptions of a love song and a ballad and the latter is the same tale type about a cross-dressing heroine as the one in David Kingsley’s copybook.  The ballad copied out here stars a noble-born damsel from the Isle of Wight who traveled to France dressed as a man to find the lover her father sent away.

Cotsen 7146.

Cotsen 7146.

One child apparently appropriating a book from another owner (often with the same surname) is hardly unusual, so interpreting the scribbles as a manifestation of sibling rivalry rings true to one’s own childhood experience, with stories in children’s books, and constructs of gender.  But children may also mark up books to establish territory by calling attention to their presence in a world which doesn’t pay them enough attention. The boy who hijacked Elizabeth Harris’s copybook had something in common with the greatest exhibitionist in the Cotsen collection, Thomas Webb of Pulham, Norfolk, England, Europe, World (a traditional ownership formula).  He literally inserted himself in the story by putting his initials over all the pictures of its protagonist, Tommy Newton.   Subversion or self-assertion?