Marks in Books 14: A Botched Book Curse

A bound volume of eighteenth-century almanacs does not seem like a logical addition to Cotsen’s collection of illustrated children’s books.    I can’t explain why the third volume of the Diaria Britannica: or the British Diary: An Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1790 printed in Birmingham caught Mr. Cotsen’s eye, but I can hazard a guess.

If you flip through the pamphlet, you will find a number of pages filled with rather intimidating mathematical questions, to which eager readers were invited the previous year to supply solutions.  People who submitted correct answers had their names and calculations printed in the next year;s volume.  Mr. Cotsen, who could do “huge horrible sums” in his head with astonishing ease probably passed these over for a curious page mostly filled with rather scratchy writing in what looks to be a child’s hand.

It looks suspiciously as if the writer had been on the lookout for a blank piece of paper to practice his or her penmanship.   The text that the perpetrator copied out is a variation of a familiar book curse, or folk formula to protect the precious object from light fingers. I have seen the first two lines scribbled in other Cotsen books, but not this longer version in six.  Certainly the punishments called down on the thief’s head sounds like something a child rather than an adult would say.

But parts of two lines in the poem are difficult to decipher and my first attempts at filling in the blanks didn’t make much sense in context.  A little research turned up a version fairly close to this one, but the missing words can’t be substituted here because the lines won’t scan.   Perhaps the young writer was transcribing a text heard orally and didn’t catch those words correctly rather than simply having problems with spelling. Or maybe the writer could not recall the passages exactly and simply filled in bits as best he or she could.

Here is a transcript:







With thanks to Dame Rose Hay for emending the transcription!

Marks in Books 13: A Drawing of a Rose in Mrs. Sherwood’s The Re-captured Negro

It’s easier to find doodles, scribbles, and inscriptions in children’s books than polished drawings.  When I discover one, I always hope that it will provide some insight into the artist, who presumably owned the book and had some reason for decorating the page.

The other day I opened up a rather sorry-looking American book from the 1820s, which had on the back of the front free endpaper a handsome color drawing of a rose below a name in a hand that could be contemporary with the book.  The more I looked at the book, the more difficult it became to draw any conclusions about the drawing.

The name above the drawing is “William Crowell.” Lacking a date or a place, there’s no information in the book to help answer the question when his name was written in the book,  or to try and identify him,  his home or age.

Would a boy or young man be as likely to choose the subject of a flower than a girl or young woman?  Is it possible that the signature and drawing were made by a girl or woman presenting the book to him as a gift? Or does that line of thought simply demonstrate how easy it is to fall back on gender role stereotypes when there is no information to query.  While this makes it easy to construct a plausible little scenario, it shuts down thinking about alternative explanations.   William Crowell might have been an enthusiastic gardener or plant collector.

The frontispiece, showing Dazee being pursued by the slaver. The illustration is a copy of the frontispiece in the original British edition published by F. Houlston ca. 1818.

But why would anyone draw a rose in a 72-page pamphlet by Mrs. Sherwood, the famous British evangelical woman writer?  It seems irrelevant to the story of  Dazee, a West African boy taken by a slaver operating illegally after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807.  An anti-slavery patrol of the Royal Navy liberates him before he can be sold and takes him to freedom in Sierra Leone.  A missionary takes an interest in the boy, a willing convert to Christianity who finds peace when eventually reunited with his mother, who also embraces his faith.

What if there is no connection between the signature and the drawing: they might have been done at separate times by different people.  The person who drew the rose may have had no interest in the story at all, but simply been looking for a blank piece of paper to fill.  Seeing a beautiful rose, he or she pulled the book out of a pocket and captured its appearance.

Whether or not we know how the rose came to be drawn in this tract, the bibliographic record will record the presence of the drawing, the signature, and the little vignette on the title page.  Some researcher may recognize the book as having belonging to a library that was dispersed sometime ago and be delighted to add this to the list of books it once contained.  Someone curating an exhibition may want to include it as a specimen of amateur botanizing.  What matters is that these traces left behind in The Re-captured Slave are discoverable.