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 said somewhat condescendingly that 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. This 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.” They describe different kingdoms of creatures trying to outdo the others with splendid entertainments, which would so delight readers that they would be tricked into learning something about the range, classification, and character of the various costumed animals from the way they made their entrances, danced, and behaved 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, a complete fabrication. She appears to have been modelled upon the actress Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, one of her most celebrated roles.Ham speculated that the anonymously published poem, for which she received nothing, sold well enough over thirty years to have made her financially independent. With a modest income, she would not have been obliged to earn her bread as a governess or housekeeper employed by a wealthy family. 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 coincidence 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 skillfully brings the party to a close with the poor housemaid looking at the mess the merry parts of speech have left behind them, Leinstein tacks on a superflous episode about Miss Syntax’s students relieving a poor girl.For Ham, who dreamed of independence, Leinstein’s imitation surely would not been flattery, had she known about it. Leinstein’s attempt to cut into her sales surely would have another bitter reminder of money she should have had. Well-a-day indeed…