Party with the Parts of Speech: The Infant’s Grammar by Elizabeth Ham

In 1945 Eric Gillett published an unfinished manuscript of memoirs by Elizabeth Ham (1783-1859), the daughter of a yeoman under the title Elizabeth Ham by Herself 1783-1820.   Gillett somewhat condescendingly said the vivid account of the woman’s experiences was appealing because of “her struggles to make a life of her own, to be of use to someone.  Without training or business ability, but with educational and literary gifts above the average, ….and desperately conscious of her gentility, she was badly handicapped from the beginning.”

Ham made this all too clear in the stories she told on the mistresses of the dame and boarding schools she attended and the following horribly comic one underlines best just how irregular the quality of discipline and instruction for girls could be during this period:

The great punishment was to have a bow of black ribbon pinned on the sleeve.  I remember having a great dread of the “black knot,” and having one morning incurred the punishment, roared out most lustily.  As ill luck would have it, my cousin was strolling near and hearing the outcries of her darling, rushed in to the rescue.  She caught me under the arms to bear me away, but Aunt Sukey’s authority was not to be so condemned, she seized me by the heels whilst my cousin kept fast hold of my shoulders.  I really though I should be pulled to pieces between them.  I well remember the enflamed visages of the ladies as they tugged at me.  Their passion frightened me more than the black knot had done.”

It is to Elizabeth Ham’s credit that in spite of experiences like these (or perhaps because of them), she succeeded in composing an instructive poem for children that was informative, imaginative, and infused with gaiety: The Infant’s Grammar, or A Pic-nic Party of the Parts of Speech (1824).  She may have been familiar with the poems Donelle Ruwe has called “papillionades,”   whose depiction of the different kingdoms of creatures trying to outdo the others with splendid entertainments, were supposed to delight their readers into learning something about the range, classification, and character of the various costumed animals making their entrances, dancing, and enjoying the  dainties served at the midnight supper.  Famous examples are William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1806), or Catherine Ann Dorset’s 1807 companion pieces, The Peacock at Home  and The Lion’s Masquerade,Ham’s sociable parts of speech, who are not competing with rival concepts, throw a “pic-nic,” which then referred to what we would call a potluck, where all the guests contribute something to the feast.  However, Ham says nothing about the refreshments being a communal effort.  The event takes place indoors at Etymology Hall during the evening, not during the day in the open air, additional confirmation that the word’s meaning was in flux. Ham was not pleased with the liberties Harris’s illustrator (possibly Robert Branston) took here and there interpreting her verses.  Probably the most notable discrepancy is he changed the season from winter to summer and time of day from night to the day.  Yet the article “The” shown above  bears an entirely superflous  torch to light the guests way in. 

While Ham conceded that the illustrator had improved her original drawings in some places, she did not approve of his having costumed her characters in “fancy dress” inspired by the current vogue for Elizabethan fashion. Another addition that might have irked her was the insertion of  a tragedy queen center stage between Harlequin and the graceful dancer, for which there is no hint in the text.  She appears to have been modelled upon the actress Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, one of her most celebrated roles.Ham speculated the anonymously published poem, for which she received nothing,  had sold well enough over thirty years to have provided her with a modest financial independence. With that money she could have escaped her fate as an unmarried, genteel female, turning governess or housekeeper for wealthy families to earn her bread.  This could be either wishful thinking or anecdotal knowledge based on her having kept a sharp eye on the contents of booksellers’ shelves.   I have found an advertisement in an 1845 novel for an edition published by Harris’s successor, Grant and Griffith, that is later than anything found by Marjorie Moon, the bibliographer of Ham’s publisher John Harris.  It’s not idle speculation to imagine that the Infant’s Grammar of Ham might have been sold as a companion piece to the equally charming  Punctuation Personified; or Pointing Made Easy by Mr. Stops (below to the right), which was also first issued by Harris in 1824.

She surely would have been very angry to learn that another contemporary woman writer for children, Madame Leinstein, quickly produced plagiaries of both The Infant’s Grammar  and Punctuation Personified for Harris’s rivals, Dean & Munday and A. K. Newman and Co. later in 1824 to capitalize on their success.  Leinstein (about whom nothing is known)  dubbed her version of The Infant’s Grammar The Rudiments of Grammar  and only a page-by-page comparison of the two pamphlets can establish the literary theft.   In  Leinstein’s text, the school mistress Miss Syntax takes her scholars to a country fair, which seems quite different from Ham’s picnic of the parts of speech.  But the school’s facade and the two children in frontispiece to Leinstein have some suspicious similarities to the illustration of Etymology Hall in Ham..Is it a coincedence that Leinstein’s nouns are arrayed in Elizabethan finery and accompanied by an explanatory text very similar to Ham’s?  This is probably the most blatant of a series of borrowings:Leinstein’s page on the interjection is a clumsy adaptation of one of the best sections in the Infants Grammar .  Where Ham skilfully brings the party to a close with the poor housemaid  looking at the mess the merry parts of speech have left behind them,  Leinstine guests, Leinstein tacks on a superflous episode about Miss Syntax’s students relieving a poor girl.For Ham, who dreamed of an independent income,  Leinstein’s imitation surely would not been flattery, had she been aware of it.  Leinstein’s attempt to cut into her sales surely would have another bitter reminder of money she had lost. Well-a-day indeed…

A Girl’s Silence Is Golden; or An Old Take on “Lock Her Up!”

Children’s books can contain surprising survivals and one of the strangest I’ve seen recently  is the woman’s mouth closed with a padlock, a symbol of female self-control that is at least as old as the Middle Ages.  Rather than succumb to the temptation of idle talk, the wise wife takes the precaution of locking her lips and entrusting the key to  her husband.

It turns up in an innocent looking illustrated pamphlet published in 1770 by Francis Newbery, the nephew of John.  The story is not what we would consider a proper fairy tale, being short of marvels, but the narrator Jacky Goodchild visits Fairy Land and is taught the secrets of their power as a token of the king and queen’s esteem.   Robin Goodfellow transports him to Francis Newbery’s bookshop, so Jacky can observe how useful fairies can be to humans.

Miss Betsy Pert and her maid call at the shop, where she talks so much that she does not hear any of Mr. Alphabet’s improving conversation.  Robin Goodfellow takes matters into his own hands and if you look carefully at the illustration on the right, you will see a padlock fastened to her mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The anecdote is over, but not the curious history of the circulation of the alarming and cruel image of the girl who cannot keep quiet.  Such locks were real and could be purchased from vendors who specialized in the construction of devices in wood and metal. .

The earliest example of such lock I traced back to this 1703 work, which included the section Wit’s Activity Display’d, which consisted of instructions for performing all kinds of magic tricks.  You’ll notice that the lock on Miss Pert is a simple padlock, where this one is much more elaborate and formidable looking.Ornatissimus Joculator appeared twenty years before Henry Dean’s Whole Art of Legerdemain, or Hocus Pocus (1722), where he inserted an advertisement that any of the devices  illustrated in the text could be commissioned from his shop on Little Tower Hill near Postern Row.  Dean’s handbook went through many editions, some authorized, others not, usually under variant titles.  Here is an unauthorized one from the 1740s with a particularly good title page.

Editions of the Whole Art published as late as 1783 still carried Dean’s  address on Little Tower Hill, which must have been completely out of date.

I shudder to think of parents purchasing these instruments of torture to teach their daughters a lesson.  I’d prefer to believe that they destined for the theater or the stage itinerant.   Surely eighteenth-century drama, comic operas, and pantomimes had more characters than Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute who were punished for having their loose lips securely closed…  A salutary reminder that servants, as well as wives, were supposed to keep their masters’ secrets…