Don’t judge this copybook by its spotted vellum boards. It looks anything but promising, but it is worth a careful look. Elizabeth Harris, who may have lived in South Molton, Devonshire, filled it full of exercises for learning commercial arithmetic. Her signature dated 1750 can barely be read on the front board (it is clearer in the photograph above than in person) and the headpiece in the second photograph above has the year 1749 written in the fish’s stomach. Elizabeth did not sign and date the pages in her copybook like David Kingsley, so there is no telling how many months in each year she was copying out lessons. She worked through the basic operations of arithmetic, troy and apothecaries weights, dry, liquid, and cloth measures, the rule of three, etc. Someone must have felt it was important for Elizabeth to be well versed in arithmetic, probably so she would be capable of managing the family accounts when a married woman.
The title page, which is oriented landscape-wise, is the only one decorated with figures of pen flourishes. The text inside the bird is not laid out perfectly and you can see that she had a little trouble squeezing in her name, the completion date, and the ownership rhyme which children frequently copied into their books, “Learning is better than House and Land, / For when House and Land are gone and spent, / Then Learning is most excellent.”
Elizabeth didn’t fill up all the pages, leaving a short section of blanks at the end of the book. At some point, someone–perhaps a brother–claimed possession of it. Was she there to defend her property? Did she let him have it because she had no further use for it? Was he much younger than she and simply helped himself? There is no evidence that establishes when exactly this amusing page was written and who could resist imagining a scenario in which one child takes another child’s book? The object then becomes a silent witness of childhood experiences in the past. Assuming that the second owner was a boy is not, on the other hand, pure supposition. Owner number two did not fill up the pages with lessons, but with transcriptions of a love song and a ballad and the latter is the same tale type about a cross-dressing heroine as the one in David Kingsley’s copybook. The ballad copied out here stars a noble-born damsel from the Isle of Wight who traveled to France dressed as a man to find the lover her father sent away.
To look through the entire copybook, click here
One child apparently appropriating a book from another (often with the same surname) is not unusual, so interpreting the scribbles as a manifestation of sibling rivalry rings true to one’s own childhood experience, with stories in children’s books, and constructs of gender. But children may also mark up books to establish territory by calling attention to their presence in a world which doesn’t pay them enough attention. The boy who hijacked Elizabeth Harris’s copybook may have had something in common with the greatest exhibitionist in the Cotsen collection, Thomas Webb of Pulham, Norfolk, England, Europe, World (another traditional ownership formula). He literally inserted himself in the story by putting his initials over all the pictures of its protagonist, Tommy Newton. Subversion or self-assertion?