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…

The “Fanaticism” Frederick Douglass Found in the Columbian Orator

The thirteen-year-old Frederick Douglas put down fifty cents for a copy of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, which had been first published in 1797.   He described the anthology both as “a rich treasure”  and as a source of fanaticism because its contents included the fiery speeches of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Chatham, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox.  Armed with this volume, Douglass said “My own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the coloured people.”

But the selection he describes in the greatest detail is a dialogue between a master and his slave, who has been recaptured after a second attempt to run away.  Instead of being punished, he succeeds in winning his freedom  through the cogent analysis of the arguments for and against slavery.   Douglass recalls that “I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance would find their counterpart in myself.”

This dialogue work had been extracted without credit by Caleb Bingham from the sixth volume of Evenings at Home (1796), a collaboration between John Aikin and his sister Anna Letitia Barbauld, author of the celebrated Lessons for Children (1778-1779) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). “A Dialogue between a Master and His Slave” was one of Aikin’s contributions to the project.  While the attribution has been known for some years, its significance has not always been appreciated.  Aikin and Barbauld were born into a family of Dissenters, which meant they were denied full religious liberty in their own country.  While their situation was not analogous to enslavement, they knew first hand the pain of  intolerance and alienation.  Aikin and Barbauld wrote as members of the cultured and liberal British middle class, they embraced the responsibility of teaching children how to read, analyze, and evaluate so that they would act as ethical social beings.   Here is the dialog:

Douglass was by no means the only nineteenth-century reader deeply influenced by a piece from Evenings, even though it is unclear if he ever learned that its author was John Aikin.  It was also among the favorite children’s books of George Eliot and John Ruskin, to mention two other distinguished writers.  We may never know what edition of The Columbian Orator Douglass owned or if it has survived in some collection, but it is testimony to the power of a school book to shape the minds of young readers who were not fortunate enough to own many books, but were hungry to read, analyze, evaluate, and act.

John Aikin, author of “A Dialogue between a Master and his Slave”