How a Young Woman Writer Got Her First Book Published: Lucy Peacock and The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon (1785)

Very few classic eighteenth-century children’s books have an origin myth, or story about how an adult came to write for a real child because the book he or she imagined didn’t exist and decided the manuscript should be published for others’ enjoyment.  The only one I can think of is Mrs. Barbauld’s brief account of Lessons for Children (1788): “amidst the multitude of books professedly written for children, there is not one adapted to the comprehension of a child from two to three years old …This little publication was made for a particular child [i.e. her nephew and adopted son Charles], but the public is welcome tit.”

The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon (1785) is not in the same league as Lessons for Children, but it stands out because we know the author’s name, how she got her first book in print, and something about her later career.   Miss Lucy Peacock described herself modestly as young and not possessed of advantages, but must have been a rather determined person.   She had written for young ladies a book-length imitation of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene entitled The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon, which is an original allegory about the passions, not a juvenile abridgment of Spenser, as is usually claimed.  Perhaps no bookseller would do business with this unknown writer and with no prospect of newpaper advertisements of the book and so she decided to try subscription publication instead, which the Oxford Companion to the Book defines as:

A system of obtaining orders (and sometimes payment) in advance to enable publication of a book. Worthy books have often been declined by publishers as poor commercial risks. Financial responsibility for their publication then falls on the author, who generally invites others to share the costs.

Bound into the first editions is a list of subscribers, or the names of people who signed up to reserve  copies of The Six Princesses of Babylon. Actually, there are three different versions of the list and the differences between them contribute new information to the story of her campaign.   The first one is the shortest, still Peacock’s tactics for garnering subscribers is clear. She had success attracting the custom of fashionable, titled ladies: at the head of the Ds is “Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire,”   none other than the showy and notorious Georgiana Spenser Cavendish, a devoted mother after her fashion, put down for seven copies. Peacock also signed up a number of celebrated London musicians, the best known being Dr. Charles Burney, father of novelist Fanny Burney, who also took a copy.  Then there was the Queen of the Blue-Stockings, Elizabeth Montagu.  Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, marine painter, designer of the Eudophusikon, a miniature mechanical theater, the inventor of spectacular stage effects, and his wife both subscribed.  Philanthropist, opponent of tea-drinking, and eventual champion of chimney sweets, Jonas Hanway can be found on the list. And she also landed Lady Charlotte Finch, royal governess to the children of George III and his consort Charlotte.

Could Lady Charlotte had something to do with Peacock obtaining permission to dedicate the Six Princesses to nine-year-old Princess Mary, the eleventh child of George and Charlotte, and their fourth daughter?  The subscribers’ list was reset with the dedicatee’s name at the head of the names in all caps.   Princess Mary’s approbation seems to have swelled the list with enough new names that it had to be reset a third time to fit in another two pages of names.Coaxing members of the London elite was hardly a novel tactic.  What was original about Peacock’s approach was that she solicited subscribers in girls’ schools from the very beginning. There are twenty-two described as such, with the names of the pupil-subscribers set down, giving some indication of the school’s size. The appendix of girls’ schools in Nicholas Hans’ New Trends in Education in the Eighteenth Century (1951) does not record any of them.  But it is possible that there are more schools there. A few of the heads of school put down for multiple copies but did not give the pupils’ names.  Could some of the subscribers who took more than three copies but do not seem to be members of the book trade have been educators?  Peacock’s list of subscribers could be a good jumping off point for further research  on girls’ education.

Who was this enterprising young lady who signed the end of every copy?  Her exact identity has yet to be established from perusing Ancestry Library can be trusted.   We do know that she continued to write for young people—original works, including several featuring Black and Creole characters, translations from the French, and reference works.  She also took charge of their sale and marketing from her Juvenile Library on Oxford Street.  She edited The Juvenile Magazine (1788) for John Marshall.  Did a male relative or friend help her get started on her interesting career in the literary world?  That is yet to be determined, but perhaps a strong entrepreneurial streak surfaced as early as her drive to write.

Students, Teachers, and Classrooms Illustrated in the Catalogue of the Cotsen Children’s Library

The last two volumes of the Catalogue of the Cotsen Children’s Library, a comprehensive index, have just been published, bringing this huge project to completion.  This post will offer a survey of the pictures of children appearing in the preliminary pages of the eight volumes that illustrate the subject of teachers and pupils interacting in traditional and innovative classrooms.The frontispiece to vol. 1 of the pre-1800 imprints is a portrait of Margaret Bryan, a pioneering science educator for girls that appeared in her first such work, A Compendious System of Astronomy, in a Course of Familiar Lectures of 1797 (Cotsen 31780).  The two young ladies are her daughters; this plate was engraved by William Nutter after a painting by Samuel Shelley.   Bryan represents just one of many women writers for children whose works are described in the catalogue; she was unusual for attaching a likeness of herself in her book. Mothers are frequently portrayed in their role as their children’s first teacher.  It is no surprise that the allegorical figures of instruction and grammar are also represented as females, as in this mezzotint print ca. 1720 engraved by J. Jacques Haid after a painting by Hans Rottenhammer (Cotsen 38458) used as the frontispiece to the second volume of the index.  The rather masculine-featured woman solemnly shows a toddler a tablet of the letters of the alphabet, the first step towards literacy.  The child seems engaged by the task he is being set.Children like the play the part of teacher.   This little girl is too old for the alphabet blocks scattered on the floor, so perhaps she is preparing the doll in her lap for a lesson. This detail from a drawing in ink and gouache (Cotsen 18123) by British artist Helen Jacobs, possibly for Alice’s Alphabet.Jessie Wilcox Smith’s picture of a studious girl biting the end of her pencil from Carolyn Wells’s The Seven Ages of Childhood from 1902 (Cotsen 18997) was chosen as the frontispiece for the second volume of twentieth century imprints.  We take for granted  girls’ right to an education, but some illustrations in early modern school books are reminders that they were not welcome until comparatively recently, and if they were present, very much in the minority.  The title page vignettes for the pre-1800 volumes, The Parents’ Best Gift: or, The School of Learning [between 1748 and 1776} (Cotsen 26265) and Edward Coote’s The English School-Master (1658) (Cotsen 34054).Documenting the history of visual learning was a subject very close to the donor Mr. Cotsen’s heart, so illustrations of learning spaces full of pictures were essential.  If they really represent actual classrooms used for instruction, they were simply spectacular.  This spacious room shown in the frontispiece to the second volume of the pre-1800 imprints comes from the picture dictionary Primitiva latinoe linguoe circa 1736 (Cotsen 1088).This one, which opens out into a formal garden,makes an extensive gallery and a collection of scientific instruments available to the pupils.  It was taken from Sechzig eroefnete Wekstaette der gemeinnuezigstem kuenste und Handwerk fuer junge Leute of 1789 (Cotsen 91643). The illustration by Adrien-Emmanuel Marie of the father indulgently watching his son intent on assembling a jigsaw puzzle serving as the frontispiece to the L-Z volume of nineteenth-century imprints brings us back into the home, an important site for learning, especially in families that could afford novel aides to education.  This came from Jules Jouy’s Le chanson de joujoux of 1892 (Cotsen 3253), as does the final picture in the post, a critical reminder that all work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy…Special thanks to Stephen Ferguson, Associate University Librarian for External Engagement and designer Mark Argetsinger, who together made Mr. Cotsen’s dream of a fabulously illustrated multi-volume catalogue of his collection a reality.  As all of us who worked on this massive project can testify, along with the great children’s poet Kornei Chukovskii,  “Ach!  It’s no light task to pull a hippo from the marsh!”  Thanks for persevering!

The volume 1 team. Mr. Cotsen is to the far right. Stephen Ferguson second to the left.