Banned Books of the Past: Robert Dodsley’s Chronicles of the Kings (1740) “Altogether Abominable”

Eighteenth-century children helped themselves to fictional travellers’ tales such as  Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1729) or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) that were not intended principally for them.  Both characters having gone to sea against their fathers’ commands were not good role models for boys, who might acquire a desire to “ramble” from their reading.   In spite these concerns, the process of repackaging Crusoe and Gulliver as abridgments that were unmistakably children’s books was underway by the 1760s.

But other books for adults that children consumed have never factored into the history of their reading during the 1700s.  One of the more surprising ones is Robert Dodsley’s The Chronicles of the Kings of England (1740) supposedly written by the rabbi Nathan Ben Saddi in the style of the King James’ version of the Bible.  Dodsley (1704-1764), the son of a schoolmaster, apprentice to a stocking-maker, footman to well-connected London families, and poet, established himself as one of the most important literary publishers of the times.  As an upstart and outsider, he also made his mark as a satirist  of George II’s reign in popular works like The Chronicle,which are unread now even by specialists.

When Dodsley’s mock-history enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 1790s, one edition was reissued for young readers illustrated with handsome portraits of the kings and queens by Thomas Bewick by a group of children’s book publishers that included Elizabeth Newbery,  Darton and Harvey, and Vernor and Hood.  Elizabeth Newbery’s catalogue described it as “written in a Style adapted to impress upon the Memories of Youth the Elements of History.”

Mrs. Trimmer begged to disagree and attacked it as a very dangerous book in one of her longest and most negative reviews in the Guardian of Education:  “It was evidently composed with a most prophane and invidious design, to depreciate the Sacred Writings, and to bring contempt and ridicule upon the memory of the sovereigns who have successively filled the British throne, and through them to glance derision, upon monarchy itself.”   Although it not written with for children in mind, she pointed out that far too many of them seemed to be familiar with the Chronicles:  “We hear to our impressible concern, that it is extensively circulated, and that in some families children learn chapters of it by heart, as other children learn chapters in the Bible.  Nay, we ourselves have seen this book recommended…in a work professedly written to direct ‘Parents and Teachers in their Choice of Books in every Branch of Education.’”

Trimmer is still regarded with some justification as a paranoid reactionary responding to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution.  Because she saw it as her duty to expose conspiracies to the public does not mean that she was always wrong.  In the case of Dodsley’s Chronicles, her calling it  “obscene to a very high degree” was quite true.  Here is Dodsley’s version of the incident that set off Wat Tyler’s revolt during the reign of Richard II:

One of the tax-gatherers came to the house of a certain tyler…commonly called Wat the tyler, and demanded the tax for one of his daughters.

And Wat the tyler said unto him, Nay, verily, but thou shouldst not demand the tax of my daughter, for the maiden is not yet fifteen years old.

Howbeit the tax-gatherer believed not the words of her father, for the virgin was fair and comely to look on.

Wherefore he stopped down, and put his hand beneath the garments of the maiden, to see if peradventure the signs of her womanhood might not appear; and he discovered her nakedness”

The passage  about Sir Robert Carr doesn’t exactly mince words about the nature of his relationship with King James I:

Wherefore he [James] an eye of favour upon Sir Robert Carr, a gentleman of Scotland, of such exquisite beauty, and so delicate a composure of body, as if nature had framed on purpose to be a king’s favourite.

And the king loved him, and he pleased the king; nor was any man partaker of the royal influence like unto him; all matters of grace and favour passing from the kind by kind, insomuch that the queen was jealous.

She was even more scandalized by the impiety of  Dodsley’s praise of Elizabeth, which might serve an attractive model for children to learn how  to joke, scoff, and blaspheme in the language of Scripture, treating it not with reverence, but as material “on which to exercise their sprightliness of imagination, and their talent for ridicule.”

And woe unto you, Spaniards; woe unto you, ye haughty usurpers of the American seas; for at the lightning of her eyes, ye were destroyed, and at the breath of her mouth ye were scattered abroad; she came upon your Armada as a whirlwind and as a tempest of thunder she overwhelmed you in the sea.

Wisdom and strength were in her right hand, and in her left were glory and wealth.

She spake, and it was war; she waved her hand, and the nations dwelt in peace.

From Trimmer’s perspective then, it was irrelevant that Dodsley meant to call to account abuses perpetrated by  Sir Robert Walpole, George II’s prime minister that could have terrible consequences for the nation.  She did not have the power to halt the distribution or publication of the Chronicles, but she could call it out in the strongest of terms to dissuade parents and teachers purchasing or circulating it.

Crocodiles Ready for Their Closeups

The number of crocodiles and alligators in picture books have proliferated over the last few decades for no obvious reason.  Increasing the representation of reptiles might be a good thing if we think their stories should be told alongside those of creatures with fur and feathers.  They aren’t the usual friendly beasts in children’s  books.  Just watch a crocodile bring down a wildebeest on a BBC Earth or a YouTube video of a gigantic alligator marching across a Florida golf course.

F. D. Bedford’s illustration of Captain Hook’s demise from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (1911).

Famous literary crocodile characters tend to be wily predators, like the ticking one waiting for its chance to nab the rest of Captain Hook or the soft-spoken “large-pattern leather ulster” that grabs the Elephant Child’s nose to drown him for dinner.  After its fifteen-minutes of fame in Paris as the Egyptian sensation, the reptile in Fred Marcellino’s I, Crocodile (1999) eludes Napoleon’s cook by slithering down a manhole into the sewer, where it can pick off unwary merveilleuses for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.Hippos can take on crocodiles in nature, a situation playfully recreated in Catherine Rayner’s Solomon and Mortimer (2016), where two bored male juveniles find themselves at the receiving end of their own practical joke.  Humans fare less well. Thomas in Patricia McKissack’s A Million Fish…More or Less (1992) illustrated by Dena Schutzer doesn’t stand a chance against Old Atoo, the grand-pere of the Bayou Clapateaux’s alligators, when he claims share of the enormous catch.Girls seem better at eluding crocodile incursions than boys. In Sylviane Donnio’s I’d Really Like to Eat a Child (2007) illustrated by Dorothee de Monfried, a girl so effortlessly repels scrawny Achilles’ attack that he realizes that he will have to consume mountains of bananas to grows big enough to catch tasty young humans. Poling through the bayou in her flat boat, the girl in Candace Fleming’s Who Invited You? (2001) illustrated by cartoonist George Booth has to let a heap of bold animals cadge rides. The low-riding boat catches the attention of “a-smilin’, a-slinkin’, a-blinky-blanky-winkin’” old gator who tries to clamber in too.  When the original nine freeloaders tell him there’s no more space, he just grins as wide as he can, “That’s all right…’cause I have room for YOU.” The girl escapes without a scratch. The heroine of author-illustrator Sophie Gilmore’s Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast (2019) runs a jungle clinic catering to sick crocodiles. One day Big Mean, the largest and surliest of them all, turns up at the door and isn’t especially uncooperative.  While the monster takes a cat nap, the little doctor finally succeeds in prying open her jaws.  By falling accidentally into Big Mean’s mouth, she finds the real patients, little hatchlings that need untangling from plastic waste.  For freeing them without a second thought about ng her own safety, Big Mean pronounces the little doctor  a “fearless beast…who could not rest until she had helped her fellow creature.”Of all the scene-stealing reptiles, the one in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Princess Cora and the Crocodile (2017) takes the prize.  The princess begs her fairy godmother for a dog and receives a crocodile instead, who has been charged with rescuing the princess from her overly fastidious nanny and slave-driving royal parents.  The crocodile will impersonate the princess and refrain from biting or eating anyone so she can have a day off to do exactly what she pleases.  During her absence, he stays more or less within parameters, but uses deliberately inappropriate methods of sensitizing the nanny, queen, and king to her discontents.  But they do set the stage for Princess Cora to calmly renegotiate the terms of her daily routine, which earns him in perpetuity a place in the royal lily pond and all the chocolate and vanilla cream puffs he can gobble up.

The gaping jaws need never be opened to make a wonderful picture book starring crocodiles, as the last two featured titles demonstrate. The quiet crocodile Fossil, created by Natacha Andriamirado and Delphine Renon, cheerfully plays along with his small herd of animal friends who clamber onto his back to form and reform into living sculptures until commanded to roar and send them flying.Instead of imagining a friendly crocodile at play, Giovanna Zoboli and Mariachiara di Giorgio celebrate the daily routine of a contented working reptile in their wordless Professional Crocodile (2017).  If you want to know his place of employment, you’ll have to read the book!With apologies to Bernard Waber and Maurice Sendak for not having room for Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and No Fighting, No Biting!