Marks in Books 14: A Botched Book Curse

A bound volume of eighteenth-century almanacs does not seem like a logical addition to Cotsen’s collection of illustrated children’s books.    I can’t explain why the third volume of the Diaria Britannica: or the British Diary: An Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1790 printed in Birmingham caught Mr. Cotsen’s eye, but I can hazard a guess.

If you flip through the pamphlet, you will find a number of pages filled with rather intimidating mathematical questions, to which eager readers were invited the previous year to supply solutions.  People who submitted correct answers had their names and calculations printed in the next year;s volume.  Mr. Cotsen, who could do “huge horrible sums” in his head with astonishing ease probably passed these over for a curious page mostly filled with rather scratchy writing in what looks to be a child’s hand.

It looks suspiciously as if the writer had been on the lookout for a blank piece of paper to practice his or her penmanship.   The text that the perpetrator copied out is a variation of a familiar book curse, or folk formula to protect the precious object from light fingers. I have seen the first two lines scribbled in other Cotsen books, but not this longer version in six.  Certainly the punishments called down on the thief’s head sounds like something a child rather than an adult would say.

But parts of two lines in the poem are difficult to decipher and my first attempts at filling in the blanks didn’t make much sense in context.  A little research turned up a version fairly close to this one, but the missing words can’t be substituted here because the lines won’t scan.   Perhaps the young writer was transcribing a text heard orally and didn’t catch those words correctly rather than simply having problems with spelling. Or maybe the writer could not recall the passages exactly and simply filled in bits as best he or she could.

Here is a transcript:







With thanks to Dame Rose Hay for emending the transcription!

The Iconography of Fairies: A Field Guide

Lucy Crane, The Baby’s Bouquet: A Fresh Bunch of Old Rhymes and Tunes. Illustrated by Walter Crane. London: George Routledge & Sons 1878 (Cotsen 21153).

Identifying the fairy in this famous illustration isn’t hard.   This next example isn’t difficult  either…

The fairy Cri-Cri. Fairy Tales, Consisting of Seven Delightful Stories. London: T. Hughes, 1829. (Cotsen 33142).

Don’t be too quick to say there aren’t any fairies in this lovely drawing by William Blake….

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910

Did Blake forget to draw the wings on the dancing fairies????   That’s a good question to which I don’t have a definitive answer.  But I think probably not, because eighteenth-century illustrations of fairies rarely have them (I confess I have not done a survey of illustrated editions of Pope’s Rape of the Lock).

Here is the plate illustrating “Peau d’ane” in an edition of Perrault’s Contes from 1798.  The girl with the donkey’s skin thrown over the blue dress must be the heroine, so the fairy has to be the lady in the rose gown with the billowing yellow scarf sitting in a cloud.  When goddesses appear to mortals, they frequently descend in clouds–but fairies?  Yes, they can, to quote Rose Fyleman..

“Peau d’ane,” in Charles Perrault, Contes des fees. Paris: Chez Devaux, 1798 (Cotsen 60006).

Of course fairies can disguise themselves to test mortals.  In Perrault’s “La fee,”  the girl  sent to the well by her cruel stepmother to draw water for the family pauses to give the poor old woman a drink, when she ought to hurry back home with the full pitcher. The reader can’t tell from this picture what the fairy looks like when she is not undercover as an old woman.  Nor does she reveal her true self later in the tale.

“The Fairy,” Charles Perrault, Histories, or Tales of Passed Times. Third edition, corrected. London: R. Montagu, and J. Pote at Eton, 1742 (Cotsen 25143).

Incidentally, this copy was owned by a Mary Fearman in the 1740s.  She tried to protect her property from the light-fingered by writing a book curse on the rear endpaper…

Cotsen 25143

The last item in this identification guide is one of my favorite books in Cotsen.  The frontispiece seems to be a very early picture of tiny wingless fairies dancing in a ring before their king and queen, who are the size of human beings.  The fairies are all wearing brimmed hats with steeple crowns–the kind of hat that witches wear.  Or Mother Goose…

d’Aulnoy, Mme. History of the Tales of the Fairies, newly done from the French. London: Eben. Tracy, 1716 (Cotsen 25203).

This translation of a selection of Mme d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales seems to have been someone’s prize possession, perhaps the George Jones who wrote his name in the back of the book.  George (or someone else) tried to copy a portion of the frontispiece on its blank side.

Cotsen 25203.

He also left traces at the very end of the  book.   The drawing on the top might be his take on a scene in Mme d’ Aulnoy”s “The Blue Bird.”

Cotsen 25203

Why did the appearance of fairies change so drastically over time?   Was it the influence of Victorian ballet and theatre productions, where fairies had gauzy wings attached to the shoulders of their costumes?  Perhaps some enterprising fairy tale scholar will concentrate on exploring the history of fairy wings…