Marks in Books 15: The Taylor Sisters’ Annotations in Limed Twigs to Catch Young Birds

Ann and Jane Taylor by their father Isaac Taylor, oil on canvas, circa 1792

Collaboration isn’t anything unusual in the performing arts or the sciences, but the construct of the solitary literary genius is so strong that writers who work together can be slighted as less talented.  How texts are created by a team isn’t perfectly understood, especially when evidence for working methods can be elusive.   Some divide up the tasks according to individual strengths.  At the beginning of a project, the great folklorists Iona and Peter Opie did just that: she did the field work, he did the library research.  It’s unclear if the division of responsibilities was so clear cut when they got down to writing the manuscript.

When the collaborators don’t describe their creative process anywhere and no working manuscripts survive, chance survivals may be the only means of learning about how they worked.   Early in their careers, the trio of siblings Ann, Jane, and Isaac junior known as the Taylors of Ongar, together wrote and illustrated works for children.  All three had been trained as engravers, but they also had a turn for writing.   Some hints survive in Ann’s memoirs about the way the girls worked when they were little.  They found skipping rope was condusive to thinking up verse, which sounds a bit like William Wordsworth composing in his head while he walked.

One of the Taylors’ rarest collaborations, the graded reader Limed Twigs for Young Birds (1808) came on the market recently. (The title pays tribute to Lady Ellenor Fenn’s best-selling reading lessons, Cobwebs to Catch Flies.) Cotsen was very lucky to acquire a special copy, which the sisters presented to the Taylors’ old neighbors the Watkinsons after they had emigrated to America years before.

“J” for “Jane” at the end of “The Two Games.”

Isaac signed the copper plate for frontispiece, showing a conversation between the nurse, who is holding a baby,  and her big sister, stockings sagging.  Her dolly has been thrown face down on the floor.  The text is divided into twenty-six storylets in words of one to five letters, then one to four syllables.  At the end of every one is an initial assigning authorship: “A” for “Ann” or “J” for “Jane.”  Each of the young women contributed thirteen passages.  Ann penned “The Bee,” “The Cut,” “Getting Up,” “The Cat,” “The Poor Old Man and the Cakes,” “Learning to Read,” “The Dark,” “The Bird’s Nest,” “The Babe,” “The Kites,” “Disappointments,” “The Church Yard,” and “The Two Sixpences, That at Last Made One Schilling.”  Belonging to Jane are  “The Gay Book,” “The Careful Ant,” “The Idle Fly,” “The Frog,” “Old Dobbin,” “The Blind Man,” “The Two Games,” “The Birth-Day,” “The Rabbit,” “The Evening Play,” “The New House,” “The New Dresses,” and “The Old Mariner.”

Limed Twigs was a rather dreary little book  according to bibliographer Lawrence Darton.    He thought it reflected “The Taylors’ preoccupation with the theme of child mortality and physical distintegration,” but the only storylet to which that is applicable is  “The Church Yard,” an conversation between mother and daughter about the body and the soul that arises during a  walk through the church yard.  They do see a human bone in freshly dug earth, which turns into an object lesson about death, but it is short and short on details.

“A” for “Ann” at the end of “The Poor Old Man and the Cakes.”

All the other storylets’ subjects focus on the mundane experiences of ordinary children and they reflect real familiarity with the interactions of parents and children.  In Ann’s “The Cut,” a little boy says to his father, “O, do see my sad cut!  Is it not a bad one?” as if he is happy to show it off to get some attention.  His father doesn’t take the bait, remarking that yes, it is all red, but not worth crying over. “It is so sad to be cut, do let me cry,” the boy replies, making a play for sympathy.  Papa holds the line, “O no; a boy may not cry!”  And why not, asks his son, arguing that cats cry when they are hurt, and so should he.  Papa points out that he is bigger and older than a cat, and besides, seeing and hearing his son cry makes him sad.  Only when the boy concedes that he’ll try not to cry if it’s not allowed, his father praises him for being brave and tells the cut “Now dry up, sad cut, for my boy did not cry.”  It’s not a strategy acceptable to many parents now, but it’s important to see when it could be used without question.

In “The Two Games,” Jane captures the authentic whine of sibling snark:

James. Charles, pray come out and have a game of trap-ball out on the lawn.

Charles. I shall play at nine pins to day.  I do not like trap-hall half so well as I did: one has to run such a way after the ball, and then I am so often out, and and you do not play fair, I know.

James. O, as to that, I could cheat at nine pins too, if I pleased; but I do not though, I am sure.  I do not cheat in any game; so if you will not come and have a game at trap, you may go where you like. –I shall not play at any thing else, I can tell you.

Jane’s  “The Old Mariner” teaches children that putting sugar in their tea is not an innocent act. It’s not  at all uncommon in a volume composed of short passages to find material with a political slant where the title gives no indication of its presence.  Does the “fine little gentleman” realize that his favorite tea comes from a country half way around the world?  Does he take it with sugar?  “Well then,” says the mariner, “away we sail to the west, to those sultry islands where the sweet sugar-cane is cultivated.  Aye, Sir, and there one may see thousands of poor black negroes, that are brought slaves from their native country, toiling all day long, in the burning sun to cultivate this sweet nicety, for the gentlefolks in England.”

Ann  slips an in-joke into “Learning to Read,” which is a conversation between two girls, who just happen to be named…Ann and Jane.  When Jane asks her friend Ann if she can read, the answer is, “No, to be sure: what need have I to take so much time with a dull book?”  Ann, the resistant reader, is unconcerned if people will think she’s a fool if she never learns her A, B, C. “O, I do not care for that; for I have got a new doll, and a tea-pot, and some cups, and a nice bed for my doll to lie in; and I mean to play all day long and not care for my book.  Will not that be a good way?”  Jane stoutly defends herself, and points out that she doesn’t feel at all like a “mope” when she sits down to look at her lovely picture book, “I am sure you will love it much when you try.”  Jane has the last word, so the reader does not learn if she convinced Ann of the error of her ways!  The reader may not realize that the two anonymous authors are poking fun at themselves, but that doesn’t necessarily spoil their fun.

Critics tend to give the Taylors a bad rap, but they should be given more credit for lively dialogue and humor in their children’s books.