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…

Nursery Crime! Sparrow Tells All about Cock Robin Murder!

Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive  is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists.  Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books.  Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine.  With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection.  Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the  antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.”   The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate.  The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.

The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies:  The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment.  The title page spread  is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left.  Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.

 

 

 

 

When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren.  Take a second look at the title page spread.   The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.”  On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.

The Tragi-comic History  departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.”  Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff.  (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?)  Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.

The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.”  In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner.  Here is  Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.

The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.

Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.

The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.

Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away.  Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,”   being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story,  “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.”  The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.

A word about the artist is in order.  The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863).  In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin.  The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).

Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.”  Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above).  The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.

The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold  (he had been attentive during the wedding).  Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”  

Thank heavens in the little republic of children’s literature, it is possible with some close reading to establish the facts and nothing but the facts about this famous nursery crime…