Strange Bedfellows? “King Lear” and “The Natural History of Ants”

Some strange things happen to King Lear in Shakespeare’s tragedy about the proud king of ancient Britain who gives away his crown, loses all — including his wits — and finds himself in tatters on a heath in a raging storm, accompanied only by his (perhaps witless) court fool and a truly noble, young nobleman pretending to be a madman (Edgar).  At one point, the three of them crowd together inside a hovel to seek nighttime protection from a raging storm — a mad king, a fool, and a nobleman feigning madness, all huddled together: strange bedfellows, indeed!

Title page: "The Junior Class-Book," by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813) Cotsen new accession.

Title page: “The Junior Class-Book,” by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813) Cotsen new accession.

But even this amazing juxtaposition might not seem stranger than finding a (greatly shortened) version of King Lear cheek-by-jowl with “The Natural History of Ants,” which outlines the behavior of ants and uses it to model virtuous conduct for children.  Yet, that’s just what I came across recently while cataloging a newly-acquired Cotsen Library book: The Junior Class-Book, or, Reading Lessons for Every Day of the Year, by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813).

How did such seemingly disparate items as Lear and ants  come to be yoked together?  Credit a literary miscellany for children, a genre featuring abbreviated excerpts (fiction, prose, poetry, religion) from a wide variety of authors on an intentionally wide variety of subjects and topics.  Like the once-popular literary miscellanies for adults, those for children were samplers of sorts, but they were also meant to subserve an underlying didactic purpose as well. The sheer variety in the selection of materials in children’s literary miscellanies was intended to make them both more engaging and more readily-digestible to young minds, as per Enlightenment thinking on education.  It was also meant to provide a wide array of information on all sorts of topics that educators of the time thought children should know about: morality, history, geography, natural science, and classical mythology, among them.

Religion, once the exclusive foundation of early childhood learning (“A is for Adam”) was no longer the sole basis for childhood reading by the time of this book’s 1813 publication.  In a Preface, Mylius, the book’s compiling editior, is quite explicit about the role he intends the miscellany to play and how this differs from prior practice:

It is now a maxim sufficiently established in schools that children of both sexes are to be practiced and perfected in the art of reading by a miscellaneous collection.  Fifty years ago, the Bible was the only book used for English reading… a miscellany has great advantage… a stepping stone and ladder to all knowledge…

The variety of a miscellany for children is thus the point, as well as one of its key means to achieving its pedagogical ends.  The unusual range of material in The Junior Class-Book certainly got my attention!

But to be accurate, I should also stress how stress that Mylius imposes considerable didactic order on his selections — this is definitely not free-form, study-what-you-will learning!  The eclectic overall work is carefully divided into weekly reading selections — to be commenced on the week “after the Christmas Holiday” — and each week’s reading is further subdivided into six passages, one for each day of the week.  (“Six days a week,” you ask?  Sunday, while a day of rest, was presumably not a day without reading and study in Mylius’s eyes, but one still revolving around the Bible, not assignments from his book.)

Contents

First page of “Contents” for “The Junior Class-Book”: from Fenelon to French Cookery to Shakespeare.

The first “Contents” page listing of readings should, I hope, give you with some idea of the variety of the content and format, as well as how the clearly didactic orientation is leavened by literature and variety: “Industry & Idleness,” “On Lying,” and “The Folly of Ambition” (almost sermon-like in their moral titles) are accompanied by “Of Bird’s Nests.” (Yes indeed, this passage discusses how birds’ nests are actually made, but it also stresses what humans can learn from observing how birds themselves learn how to build nests: learning from others’ learning — quite a sophisticated, psychologically-oriented  approach, when you think about it.)

“Florizel and Perdita” provides a more distinctly “literary” reading selection for the opening weeks, although a title perhaps not as immediately familiar to a modern reader as it would have been at the time of the Junior Class-Book‘s publication.  A retelling of an episode from Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale, “Florizel and Perdita”  is abridged from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, first published in 1807 to huge critical acclaim and general popularity and never since out of print.  Intended as an introduction to the then utterly-canonical (more unquestionably so then than today, believe it or not) plays of Shakespeare, the Tales were abridged narrative versions of twenty plays, intended as “easy reading for young children,” as the Lambs wrote in their own Preface.  But the selections are also quite didactic in their import, as the Lambs made clear at the end of the Preface, where they refer to their Tales as:

strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honorable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity… examples teaching these virtues…

Florizel

Beginning of “Florizel & Perdita,” adapted from Lamb’s “Tales of Shakespeare.”

Encouraging virtue and providing lessons for both thought and conduct: classic goals of didactic literature.

Reading the Tales now, their didacticism is striking and unambiguous — as you might expect in a version of Shakespeare from this time aimed at “young children.”  And this is is even more explicit in Mylius’s abridgement of Lamb in his Junior Class-Book.  The innocent virtue of Perdita — described as a “poor deserted baby” — is explicitly rewarded with happiness, marriage, and celebration, all traditional hallmarks of comic dramatic structure.  King Leontes, her father, repents the jealousy and wrath that led him to banish his daughter (his actual intent being her death).  Yet Mylius manages to distill Lamb’s twelve-page rendition of Winter’s Tale into a four-page anecdote of climactic discovery and reconciliation that captures the essence of the longer version to a remarkable extent, at least in my opinion — and one that does reasonable justice to the original play too.

Lear

Reading for the 18th Week: “King Lear” in 8 pages.

The complex psychological and moral story of King Lear is similarly pared down by Mylius into just eight pages — compared with about fifteen pages in Lamb’s retelling of Shakespeare; his version also endeavors to tell more of the original story of Lear, not just focus on the final episode, as his “Florizel and Perdita” did.  Mylius outlines the context of the original story — Lear compelling his three daughters to compete in extolling how much they each love him — although he refers to Cordelia’s “plainness of speech” in refusing to “flatter” Lear, rather than her “appearance of ingratitude,” as Lamb phrases it.  Similarly, Mylius describes Lear as “incensed,” “full of wrath,” and “so little guided by reason and so much by passion,” in lieu of Lamb’s “dotage to old age…clouded reason…[inability] to discern truth from flattery…[and] fury of resentment.”  Likewise, near the end of his narrative, Mylius (rightly) labels Goneril and Regan as “wicked women” but not “monsters of ingratitude,” as Lamb terms them.  In all three cases, Mylius seems to be deliberately simplifying not just the language, but also the emotions, psychology, and motivation of the characters to make them more self-evident and comprehensible to younger readers.  Ingratitude, dotage, and flattery’s deceptiveness are, after all, pretty complex ideas for a child to grasp — and hard to do justice to in eight pages, either!  (Sub-plots and some characters are also eliminated, including Edgar, in both retellings of Lear for children, I should add, changing the cast of Shakespeare’s “strange bedfellows” referred to above.)

Much of the horror of Shakespeare’s play is mitigated — or left out altogether — in the retellings of both Mylius and Lamb — but both include the death of Lear, an “unhappy and misguided old man,” as Mylius terms him, at the end of his “tragical and instructive narration.”  (Some eighteenth-century versions of the play for adults changed Shakespeare ending to create a happy reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia, more akin to comedy or romance than tragedy.)  Lear’s life thus provides a cautionary tale, his fate something to be avoided by avoiding such character flaws and behavior.

Lear-p2.1

Conclusion of “King Lear”: “By the help of sleep and medicine, [Cordelia] and her physicians at length succeeded in winding up the untuned and jarring senses” of Lear.

To an adult reader today, King Lear might not seem like the best source of a story for children: a father behaving badly and driven mad by old age and pitiless remorse; resentful, spiteful children who lie to him and plot revenge; and a certain level of violence ending in suffering and death.  But Shakespeare was seen as a “special” writer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (again, even more so than now), an unmatched user of language and a perfect portrayer of human nature and activity.  And children can better appreciate complex character and motivations — even evil — and some level of violence in a story better than many of us once thought.  Just look at the popularity of the Harry Potter stories with children, some quite young; seldom have child readers (or movie-goers) found them too frightening or too violent to be compelling. Or perhaps that’s actually  part of their appeal?  Some parts can verge on being too scary or too extreme, but there are lines that don’t get crossed.

Regulus2-Turner

“Regulus,” as envisioned by painter J.M.W. Turner.

Mylius’s adaptation of King Lear is not unique among his selections in dealing with complex or potentially-disturbing stories either.  He also includes one titled “Regulus, the Roman Patriot” (adapted from Baldwin’s History of Rome) a history-based account of a Roman general captured by the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars, imprisoned for six long years, then sent back to Rome to urge peace terms favorable to the Carthaginians but not in Rome’s best interests.  Refusing to do so once back in Rome, Regulus returns to Carthage under the terms of his release, only to be subject to “excruciating torments” by the “cruel” Carthaginians for his refusal to place his own life before Rome’s interests.  This is hardly “kid stuff” and would probably not find its way into most books for children today.  But it is a compiling story — as anyone who has seen J.M.W. Turner’s stunning painting Regulus can attest — and it tells a story of stoical courage, patriotism, and “nobility” of character that was not so unusual in British children’s stories of the time, especially those for boys.

Readings for Weeks 18 to 20: From "King Lear," to the "Natural History of Ants," to "Robinson Crusoe"

Readings for Weeks 18 to 20: From “King Lear,” to the “Natural History of Ants,” to “Robinson Crusoe.”

As such, “Regulus” presents an important facet of the sort of reading material that educators thought children should read in 1813 — and which they no doubt did actually read. Turner must have gotten the original germ of an idea for his 1828 painting from somewhere and the dates are suggestive!

But what about the ants?  After all, I did mention them in the title of this blog posting.  And the “Natural History of Ants” does help us better understand Mylius’s overall miscellany, in particular because it’s the selection immediately preceding “Regulus”!  Reading for a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (“Regulus” is a two-day reading selection, as is “Florizel and Perdita” — “King Lear” is a unique five-day reading epic in The Junior Class-Book, a testament to both the complexity of the plot and its perceived importance as a piece of literature.)

Ants

Beginning of the “Natural History of Ants”: “They are seen diligently going from the ant-hill in pursuit of food for themselves and their associates…”  (“Associates”?  Are they all part of a law firm?)

Worker ants are presented as models of cooperation and diligence; they work together and they work hard; they “work continually … not sharing in the pleasures of the other parts of their community” (i.e. their “idler” children, who get to remain snug in the ant-hill!).  Ants also plan and defend their mound in concert, again working in “community” and even caring for the wounded and dead, according to the passage.  This rendition of “natural history” may seem a little poetic and anthropomorphized to a reader today, and Mylius’s selection is based on a work originally authored by poet Oliver Goldsmith (who also displayed his interest in children’s educational materials in works published by John Newbery).  Nevertheless, Mylius presents ants as models of social virtue, general benevolence towards their ‘associates,” and even patriotic virtues.  And he includes some of Goldsmith’s points of distinction between English and other European ants to make even clearer another at least implied meaning of the passage.  Rule Britannia!

So, we’ve seen how Mylius shapes material taken from Shakespeare and about Roman history, bird’s nests, and ants into the larger didactic whole of his miscellany.  Personally, I’m convinced that he does a masterful job of this.  But his didactic motivation is not without a sense of humor.  He includes William Cowper’s playful poem, “Dispute Between Nose and Eyes,” in which Nose and Eyes contend for ownership of the spectacles, using Tongue to argue and Baron Ear to hear the case (get it?).

And the verdict?

… whenever Nose puts his spectacles on,
Either by daylight or candle-light, Eyes should be shut.

I’ll let you puzzle out the full import of that poem for yourself — some works defy literary exegesis!

 

A Christmas Box, or, A Little Bibliographic Holiday Mystery…

Some Early Holiday Books for Children Published by the Baldwins

Book publishers frequently reissue a variety of new versions of books around the holidays, many in “special holiday editions” or versions meant to make them suitable as gifts. Sometimes, these are indeed new books, but often they’re just reissues of prior editions, with colorful new covers or dust-jackets, designed to catch the eye of someone looking for a entertaining but educational gift.  This is especially true of many children’s books.  What adult hasn’t spent time looking for a last-minute gift or stocking-stuffer for a child?

We tend to think of this repurposing of content as a modern phenomenon—after all, isn’t this the era of marketing and targeted sales? But—as in many cases—children’s booksellers seemed to have caught on to this idea long ago—indeed, in the eighteenth century they seem to have been one of the early innovators of this practice.

In much the same spirit of entrepreneurial innovation, bookselling was perhaps the first trade to realize that the packaging for item—that is, books’ covers or paper wrappers—could be a marketing tool for helping attract purchasers. Books, which had been offered for sale unbound or in plain bindings or paper wrappers, were sold in increasingly attractive publisher’s bindings, some illustrated, some colored, and some in eye-catching materials.  Dutch gilt paper for instance, was used by Thomas Boreman and John Newbery to bind up entertaining books for young readers as a way of distinguishing them from school books or more serious titles.

The Three Baldwin variations (arranged earliest to latest from left to right, in their appealing Dutch Paper wrappers. (Cotsen New Acquisition)

The three R. Baldwin editions (arranged from earliest to latest, left to right, in their appealing (but quite different) Dutch gilt paper wrappers.
(Cotsen New Acquisition)

 

Title page of a Christmas Box (R. Baldwin, [after 1754] (Cotsen new acquisition)

Engraved title page of A Christmas Box, 
(R. Baldwin, [after 1754])
(Cotsen new acquisition)

Cataloging several editions of a previously unrecorded eighteenth century children’s book brought home the idea of repurposing content to me. The first book I cataloged announced that it was a Christmas book in its title: A Christmas Box. The full title, as it appears on the title page is: A Christmass Box, or, Little Polite Tales, Fables, Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.: in Easy Prose and Verse, with Other Lessons of Morality Equally Instructive & Entertaining for Little Masters and Misses: Adorned with Sculptures.  Quite a mouthful, compared to the current practice of keeping titles to single words.  (Note: “Christmass,” which I first thought must be a typo, turns out to be an early variation on the spelling, more widely used in the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century, but clearly still in use in the mid-eighteenth century. By the way, a “Christmas box” was a small clay container with a slot like a piggy bank and at the end of the year servants went around with them collecting tips from employers.  The term could also be used in the eighteenth century as a synonym for any present given during the extended Christmas holidays).

As the subtitle suggests, the book is miscellany of fables, tales, riddles, short Bible stories, short poems, precepts, and epitaphs. This broad range of material was consistent with prevailing eighteenth-century views that an anthology ought to mix up serious and humorous materials as a way of catching and holding the interest of children, so they might learn something useful from their pleasure reading. It’s still fairly typical of gift books.

But this book posed some small mysteries for a cataloger.  When was it published? (It’s undated, as the image of the title page shows.)  Also, who was the publisher “R. Baldwin”? There several booksellers and printers using the name “R. Baldwin” at about the same time.  Cotsen Library has no other book titled Christmas Box by Baldwin, nor did I find one in the WorldCat, the world-wide combined library catalog.  With so little information and no other similarly-titled book to compare, the plot thickened…

But the long alternate title turned out to be an important clue.  And Cotsen does have another Baldwin publication—in fact two copies of one—titled Little Polite Tales, Fables Riddles, Stories, Letters, Epitaphs, &c.  Looking inside these books, I quickly realized that all three books had the same content, and the same number of pages (128, plus two leaves of engraved plates, the frontispiece illustration and the title page). Only the title pages were different—along with some other, relatively minor printing variations; take a look at the variations in the woodcut headpieces and the decorative capital letter “T” at the first selection in each book.

First page of text in all three books: actual text is the same but all three have different woodcut headpieces and decorative capital initial "T," among other smaller changes--suggesting different editions of similar content.

First page of text in all three books: actual text is the same, but note how all three have different headpieces of type ornaments and frames of different type ornaments around the initial “T,” among other smaller changes that indicate they are different editions.

 

Little Polite Tales, R. Baldwin, Jr, (1751) (Cotsen new acquisition)

Engraved title page of Little Polite Tales,
R. Baldwin, Jr,  (1751)
(Cotsen new acquisition)

Only one book was dated, the 1751 edition of Little Polite Tales. Was it the first one printed, or was one of the other books printed first?  How to tell?  One potential clue—or point of confusion—seemed to be in the variation in the publisher’s name, “R. Baldwin, Jr.” (on both Cotsen copies of Little Polite Tales), as opposed to “R. Baldwin” (on the Christmas Box).  But was this the same person or two different people, perhaps a father and son?  (Publishing in this era was often a family affair.)  To make things more confusing, there were at least five R. Baldwins issuing books in London at this time, three Richards and two Roberts, two brothers and their three sons!

To make a long story short, it seems that “R. Baldwin, Jr” was Richard Baldwin, 1724-1770, son of Richard, brother of Robert, and both nephew and cousin of two Roberts. He first issued books under the name “R. Baldwin, Jr.” to distinguish himself from his father, but gradually dropped the “Jr.” once he became more established himself; the last book he issued as “R. Baldwin, Jr.” was in 1754.¹

Title page of Little Polite Tales, R. Baldwin, Jr, ([between 1751 & 1754?]) (Cotsen new acquisition)

Title page of Little Polite Tales,
R. Baldwin, Jr,  ([between 1751 & 1754?]) 
(Cotsen new acquisition)

What does all this mean in terms of dating our books? Remember, one copy of Little Polite Tales was dated 1751. So the other copy of Little Polite Tales, the one with no date, seems likely to have been issued sometime between 1751 and 1754—that is, between the date of the first (dated) edition and the date when Richard Baldwin dropped the “Jr.” from his imprint.  This conclusion seems supported by an interesting change to the title page of this undated edition, the addition of the text: “A Pretty Present as a Christmas Box, or New Year’s Gift.”  This suggests the original Little Polite Tales was reissued as a holiday gift book. (Perhaps the printing of the frontispiece and title page in red ink was meant as a festive touch?)

The book titled Christmas Box, then, must date from sometime after 1754, since Baldwin identified himself just as “R. Baldwin.”  Cotsen’s copy of this book also has an inscription dated “1774,” so we can use 1774 as the last possible date the book could have been issued. So the Christmas Box seems to date from between 1754 and 1774 and it is apparently the last of the three books to be published.

Inscription, dated Jan1774, in Christmas box, which suggests a 1774 terminal date

Inscription, dated Jan, 7, 1774, in A Christmas Box, which suggests 1774 as a terminal date for publication: thus a date of [between 1754 & 1774].  The January 7 inscription also suggests that this book was indeed given to Jos. Phillips as a Christmas or New Year’s holiday book.

This sequence of publication also makes sense, I think, in terms of how the title of the book seems to have evolved: 1) Little Polite Tales; 2: Little Polite Tales…A Christmas Box…; 3) A Christmas Box. The idea that Baldwin took a “regular” book and reissued it at least twice seems to make sense too, in terms of the general publishing “model” I talked about at the beginning of this piece—it seems unlikely that Baldwin took a Christmas book and reissued it as a non-seasonal piece (but technically, that remains a possibility).

And what sort of Christmas delights could be expected by the “masters and misses” to whom Baldwin dedicated each version of his book?  “A Short Essay on the Nature and Beauty of Fable,” and “An Alphabet in Verse, containing Rules of Life,” lead off the book, followed by fables each followed by an explicitly didactic moral “application.”  Next come the riddles, and after them, the Bible stories, such as “A History of the Creation of the World, and the Fall of Man,” “The History of Cain and Abel” (accompanied by a woodcut of Cain braining Abel with a huge club), and “ The History of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” Following these Bible stories, comes the seven-page “Filial Ingratitude: the Ancient History of King Lear and his Three Daughters,” which at least follows the eighteenth-century editors’ practice of having Lear and Cordelia survive “for some years afterwards,” instead of meeting the tragic ends Shakespeare provided.  (Dr. Johnson, for one, thought the original ending of King Lear was just too horrific for adults, not to mention for children.)

Concluding all three of the “Christmas Box” books and its kin are “serious” and “humorous” epitaphs, the last reading:

An Humorous Epitaph

On Little Stephen, a noted fiddler, in the Country of Suffolk.
Stephen and Time
Are how both even;
Stephen beat Time,
And Time beat Stephen.

So, while these eighteenth-century books are quite different from earlier religious instruction, primers, and alphabet catechisms aimed at “miniature adults,” as they’re sometimes termed, publishers clearly had quite a different idea of what an “instructive and entertaining book for little masters and misses” was than we have now.

And on that note, Cotsen Library wishes all of you–children and grown-ups alike–a very Merry Christmas!

 Note:  1) C.Y. Ferdinand, “Richard Baldwin Junior, Bookseller,” in Studies in Bibliography, Vol 42 (1989), p. 259.