The Annals of Reading: Once a Classic, Always a Classic for Children?

“Stories Old & New”: The Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales : brightly-colored, color-printed dust jacket of  Blackie & Son’s edition for children from their “Stories Old & New” series (©1966).

The other day I spotted an interesting-looking book on the shelves of the Princeton Public Library’s ongoing “Friends of the Library” book sale (which prices most books at $1 or $2, just the right price to snare a casual browser!).  It was an edition of The Canterbury Tales in a brightly-colored, illustrated paper dust-jacket, published by Blackie & Son of London and Glasgow (©1966), which originally sold for 45 pence as a new book, the equivalent of a little over $1 — or roughly about £9 and $11, respectively, at today’s exchange rate, the British pound having declined in value from about $2.40 to $1.25 between 1966 and 2019.  Times change, currency exchange rates change, and literary tastes with them!

Even accounting for changing book-design and cover artwork over the last 50 years, the dust jacket looked a too colorful for an edition of “classic literature,” at least to my eye; the book itself also seemed rather thin to contain all twenty-four of Chaucer’s tales.  Looking a little more closely at the book, I saw found the explanation on the inside front dust jacket’s blurb: this edition was part of the publisher’s series of children’s books — “Stories Old & New” — “designed and written to appeal to children over the age of seven.”  And the table of contents listed just four tales: The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Man of Law’s Tale, and The Franklin’s Tale, preceded by a short Introduction by the credited adapter, Dulan Barker, who purposefully rendered his adaptation in “simple and straightforward” prose,” not verse as Chaucer’s original had been (and in modern English too, not Middle English — young readers rejoice!).

Barker adds that he selected these four tales as ones “most likely to appeal to children.” A quick survey of Cotsen copies of a number of Canterbury Tales adaptations from the 19th and 20th centuries tends to confirm his judgement about popularity, at least insofar as “appeal” is reflected by which tales are included in reprinted editions.  And The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Man of Law’s Tale are confirmed as the “most often retold” of the tales in the Victorian and Edwardian editions for children by Velma Bourgeois Richmond in her scholarly study, Chaucer as Children’s Literature, which includes several checklist tables, tallying exactly which tales are included in prominent editions, as well as how many illustrations each of these various editions contain.[i]

“Stories Old & New” series titles, as listed on the dust jacket’s inside flap.

Barker’s short but illuminating Introduction concludes by asserting that he hopes readers will be prompted by his short edition to then turn to the “unique and delightful tales … as Chaucer wrote them.” The goals of adapting literary “classics” for children in language that they can (and will!) read and enjoy, seeking to use these adaptations to cultivate readers’ interest in the canonical originals — and in literature generally — and also using these adaptations as a means of teaching moral lessons are all ones that children’s books publishers pursued from the 18th century on into the 20th century (when explicit moral lessons and heavily didactic “instruction” increasingly took a backseat to “delight,” pleasure, and cultivating imagination).  Like most generalizations, the one I just made greatly oversimplifies nuances and individual authorial styles, but overall, I’d say that’s the general trend in children’s books over this time span.

Other “Stories Old & New” series titles listed on the lower inside dust jacket indicate that adaptation included a combination of older literary “classics,” perennial children’s favorites, and collections of tales or stories: The Arabian Nights, The Golden Fleece, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tales from Shakespeare (the Lambs’ prose adaptation of Shakespeare plays, which itself became a children’s classic), Alice in Wonderland, Stories from Grimm, Sleeping Beauty, Lazy Jack & Other Stories.

Following the general practice in adaptations of literary classics for children — and in 19th and 20th century versions in particular — Blackie’s “Stories Old & New” edition of The Canterbury Tales features a number of illustrations: dramatic line-drawings by Geoffrey Fraser. Several highlight the action-and-adventure aspects of the world of medieval knights, era of chivalry, or fabled warriors from mythic epics or romances that publishers thought would appeal to young readers, but particularly to boys, I’d have to say.

Duke Theseus of Athens — depicted much like a medieval king — accosted on his erstwhile wedding day by the widowed queen of King Capaneus, who begs for justice against the murderous, usurper Creon of Thebes in The Knight’s Tale.

The Athenian Arcita (i.e. Arcite), depicted as a chivalric knight, with quasi-Greek helmet, as he goes into trial combat with Palamon for the hand of Emily (Emelye), sister-in-law of Duke Theseus, illustrating a subsequent scene in The Knight’s Tale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women are depicted in an almost equal number of Fraser’s illustrations, most stressing the pathos of their roles in the tales in which they appear (usually as victims of the ill-will or capriciousness of others, mostly men but sometimes women too). These illustrations have an emotional power and resonance that I think distinguishes them from the illustrations of noble knights or some of the other, more simply pictorial ones.

“Patient Griselda” weeping with happiness and hugging one of her children, after finding out that they had not been killed by her husband, who also pretended to divorce her, and did cast her out of the house in a series of Job-like trials (The Clerk’s Tale).

Tempest-tossed boat carrying Constance — wife of the Syrian sultan and daughter of the Roman emperor — after she was treacherously put to sea in a rudderless boat to be “blown on the seas” for years until her “virtue and goodness” are rewarded” (The Man of Law’s Tale).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding this illustrated edition fascinating, if quirky, I realized that I didn’t recall seeing — or cataloging — very many editions of The Canterbury Tales in Cotsen Library’s collection over the years, especially books from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.  A quick search of our catalog bore out that impression — there’s weren’t nearly as many as there were of comparable editions of “literary classics” for children, such as adaptations of Shakespeare plays, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, or even Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter once something of a “must read” for children and the object of a number of illustrated or abbreviated versions for children. Virtually all the adaptations for children were from the 19th century — and the latter part at that — with earlier adaptations of Chaucer’s tales or episodes from the tales definitely not kid stuff!

Title page of Gay’s Wife of Bath Comedy (London: 1713) [3751.5.397.11]

Among the adaptations of Chaucer I found in Princeton’s catalog was a 1730 theatrical adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s Tale by John Gay, perhaps best know as the playwright of The Beggar’s Opera (immortalizing the likes of Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum), which had been first produced just two years before. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its sexual content and the bawdy language used by the Wife herself, is decidedly not for children.  And Gay’s “Comedy” is it is not intended for children either; it features characters with names like Doggrell, Merit, Astrolabe, Grist, Spigot, and Busy, more akin to those of the madcap inhabitants infesting Ben Jonson’s wildly satiric London City Comedies. (Prior owners have made some personal annotations on the title page, including adding Gay’s first name in a print hand, apparently later than the inked script at the head of the page.)

Another 18th century “adaptation” of Chaucer that my catalog search turned up was: John Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, or, The Knight’s Tale: in Three Books, contained in a 1713 volume of verse entitled, Fables Ancient and Modern…from Homer, Ovid, Boccace (i.e. Boccaccio) and Chaucer.  Again, not really children’s reading; I think they’d find three volumes of Dryden’s heroic couplets a bit taxing, and less than fully engaging, as the opening lines might suggest:

Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, from Fables Ancient and Modern… (London: 1730) [PR3418 .F5 1713]

In days of old, there liv’d, of mighty fame
A valiant Prince; and Theseus was his name:
A chief, who more in feats of arms excell’d
The rising not setting sun beheld.

Finding my OPAC searches not yielding much in terms of earlier children’s adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, I turned to some standard bibliographies of children’s books: The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: 1476-1910 (1975) and Laurence Darton’s The Dartons: An Annotated Checklist of Children’s Books… 1787-1876 (2004).  Both are magisterial classics.  But among Darton publications all I could find was a book, cover-titled Illustrious Characters… Ornamental Penmanship (1823), including an engraved plate statement about William Caxton, the first publisher of The Canterbury Tales.  Osborne listed A Treatise on the Astolabe, addressed to his son, Lowys, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1561?) and the 1882 title: Chaucer for Children: A Golden Key by Mrs. H.R. Havens , “a keen student of Chaucer,” also noted that she had previously published a 1880 title: Chaucer for Schools. 

I later turned up a number of other versions of Chaucer for children in Cotsen’s collection and elsewhere, most of them from the latter 19th century or the 20th century, when Chaucer adaptations for children really seemed to come into their own, in part due to the romantic allure of medievalism and medieval design. But many items were entered (properly) under their own title, not with “Canterbury Tale,”or “Chaucer” as part of their title, and some were published as part of broader collections of items within a book of a different title (cf. Dryden’s Fables…, which I mentioned above, which fortuitously mentioned Chaucer in its title and also included a cataloger’s note about the contents.  Thus, Chanticleer and the Fox (mentioned in the Nun Priest’s Tale), The Story of Patient Griselda (from the Knight’s Tale), or Pilgrim’s Tales from Chaucer, were among the books turning up in a revised search query.  So I got a small lesson in catalog searching!

Gilt-stamped pictorial cover of the search-evading title: The Story of Patient Griselda (London: Routledge, [1906]) [Cotsen 84718]

But the absence of earlier (17th-18th c.) adaptations was still a puzzle to me. Was Chaucer considered unsuitable fodder for children’s adaptations because of some of the Tales‘ inappropriate sexual, and sometimes reprehensible content, the sometimes-bawdy language used by some characters, or something about the subject matter related (drinking, warfare, quarreling, etc.)?  Or did this absence have something to do with religion?  The pilgrimage to Canterbury was made by the tale-tellers (like others) to venerate a Catholic saint, Thomas Beckett; pilgrimages and saints also continued to have distinctly Catholic overtones in assertively Anglican England after the Protestant Reformation and perhaps even more so in Puritan England and America.  Could this religious context have made the Tales content that a publisher would shy away from issuing for children?  Were fabliaux, fairy tales, and fantastical tales considered too racy or too tied to superstition, or wild imaginings and fantasies for some educators and proponents of children’s literature after the Enlightenment?  Or some combination of all of these?  This seemed possible to me, and Richmond’s introductory chapter — “Contexts and Criticisms” — confirmed this.

But this is a topic that I’d like to explore more — as well as looking more closely at some of the (often lavishly-illustrated) Canterbury Tale adaptations for children from the mid-nineteenth century onward in a future blog posting.  And all this because of a $2 book found in a library book sale!

“Dinner in the Olden Time” – Late 19th c. colored wood-engraving by Edmund Evans, depicting the Canterbury pilgrims at a tale-telling meal: Chaucer for Children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1877) [Cotsen 23643]


Notes:
[i] Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. Chaucer as Children’s Literature: Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Co., 2004. 

According to Richmond, The Knight’s Tale comes in as the #1 tale, included in virtually all collections of Canterbury Tales reprints in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

More “Gigantick Histories” that “altered the concept of children’s books”

Dutch paper covers of four of Cotsen’s “Gigantick Histories,” showing the variations in the original paper used for different titles.

Thomas Boreman’s “Gigantick Histories” were landmark publications in the history of children’s books, as we saw last week. Beginning with the first tiny book — The Gigantick History of the Two Famous Giants, and Other Curiosities in Guildhall — Boreman developed a model for what would eventually comprise a series of ten separate volumes.

After the folk-tale rendition of the story of the giants Gogmagog and Corineus that occupies most of the Gigantick History, Boreman turned to the Guildhall and some of its “curiosities” at the end of the volume 1. His stated intent in verse:

The second book / will plainly show / all in the Guildhall / you want to know.

Boreman’s second printed volume — The Gigantick History, Volume the Second… the History of the Guildhall — discuses aspects of the Guildhall, such as the its chapel and statues outside the building. Boreman adopts a tour-guide style that would characterize most of the following “Gigantick Histories” But I wonder if the details of the Guildhall were as entertaining to young readers as the adventures of the two giants? As if anticipating this criticism, Boreman includes tidbits of history laced with folk-tales in his description, as well as Bible stories and a long description of the Lord Mayor’s Show, a crowd-pleasing public spectacle that would be featured in later children’s books, such as Dean & Munday’s mid-nineteenth century Lord Mayors Show [sic].

The Gigantick History… the History of the Guildhall: frontispiece and title page of Cotsen’s “Second Edition” copy (1741)

Cotsen’s copy is from “the second edition,” as noted on the title page, so the book must have been reasonably popular. The title page also mentions a second location where Boreman’s books are sold — The Boot and Crown on Ludgate Hill — perhaps another suggestion of popularity; an unsuccessful bookseller would be unlikely to have a second location (but is has been suggested that Boreman’s Ludgate Hill location may have predated his Guildhall bookstall¹). Ludgate was the heart of London printing and bookselling in the eighteenth century.

Boreman’s issue of a second edition of the History of the Guildhall might also reflect the very small size of the initial print run. Precise numbers of the print runs of the “Gigantick Histories” are unknown, but subscriber lists in the books themselves and later scholarship suggest printings of between 300 and 500 copies per volume, with the number increasing over the course of the series.²

Next up in Boreman’s “Gigantick Histories” appears to have been the two-volume Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741), which opens with a poem, which reads in part:

Too rigid precepts / often fail / Where short amusing / tales prevail. / The author, doubtless / aims aright, / Who joins instruction / with delight.

This verse may not scan perfectly, but the view underpinning it seems clear: children’s stories should combine instruction and delight if they hope to catch the attention of child readers. And Boreman seems to take his own counsel for the most part in these two books.

Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741): title and frontispiece.

While Volume 1 has a frontispiece of the “White Tower,” and Volume 2 features the Crown Jewels in its frontispiece, much of both volumes’ text and illustrations highlight something likely more appealing to children: animals.

“One of the strangest animals in the world”

Animals? Yes; the Tower housed a menagerie of exotic wild animals from some time in the 1200s until 1835. Among the animals there were lions, tigers, and leopards, all of which Boreman describes and illustrates with woodcuts. One of his more surprising inclusions (to me, at least) was a porcupine, which he described as “one of the strangest animals in the world” with quills “each a foot and a half long.” Boreman’s description and the woodcut of the porcupine he included both seem fanciful, but so too were some of the creatures described and pictured in his earlier titles, Description of Three Hundred Animals (1730) and Description of a Great Variety of Animals and Vegetables (1736), the latter touted in publisher’s advertisements at the end Volume 1 of St Paul’s.

History and Description of … St Paul’s: title page and frontispiece depicting the “new” cathedral

Also issued in 1741 was the two-volume History of St. Paul’s, whose two volumes include nineteen woodcuts, a relative extravaganza for Boreman. In addition to history and tour-guide details about the St. Paul’s — including the weight of its “famous” clock (four tons, four hundred and four pounds) and the number of stairs to the upper gallery (530)! — Boreman sprinkles in Bible stories and concludes with an “Account of the Monument of the Fire of London.”

“Old” St. Paul’s Cathedral. Compare the views of “old” and “new” that Boreman features.

Why such attention to the Monument in a book ostensibly about St. Paul’s Cathedral? The Great Fire of London devastated a significant part of London, including thousands of buildings and landmark churches, one of them the “old” St. Paul’s Cathedral, which Boreman also pictures in his section on the the “History of St. Paul’s. It’s a very medieval-looking structure, in contrast to Christopher Wren’s masterpiece “new” St. Paul’s shown on the frontispiece. Wren also worked on the design of the Monument (along with Robert Hooke), as well as designing many other buildings and churches in the London rebuilt after the Great Fire. Wren is famous to this day for putting his architectural imprint on London; imagine how prominent his name would have been In Boreman’s London! The history of St. Paul’s and the Great Fire would have been something that Boreman’s “little masters and misses” would be expected to learn about too. Boreman is trying to teach as well as amuse.

Seeing the London panorama from the top of the Monument.

As the highest viewpoint in London at the time, the Monument would have been a place that children, sightseers, and visitors would have marveled at and wanted to visit — with those who could afford it paying the fee to climb 300+ steps to the viewing platform for a then-unrivaled panoramic view of London. Boreman provides a cut of the viewers admiring the view, something I think would have appealed to young readers, thereby encouraging them to learn about the history and details of the Monument.

Westminster Abbey was the subject of Boreman’s next “Gigantick Histories” publication, and he once again upped the ante by publishing a three-volume set, which took two years to complete in print (1742-1743). Volume 1 alone included fifteen woodcuts. But, curiously enough, apart the claustrophobic close-up view of the Abbey in the Vol. 1 frontispiece, all the other cuts depict funeral monuments or memorials within the building, and much of the text provides details about the color and nature of marble used. It’s a little hard for me to imagine young readers being enthralled by this turn among the tombs, even if it did introduce them to famed English writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Abraham Cowley, or Ben Jonson (spelled “Johnson” by Boreman). But take a look at the entry for Jonson and the woodcut portrait, and decide for yourself.

“Oh Rare Ben Johnson”

For some reason, presumably financial, Boreman issued the third Westminster Abbey volume with fellow-bookseller Richard Ware, and indeed Ware’s name appears first on the 1743 title page: “Printed for R. Ware at the Bible and Sun in Amen-Corner and Tho. Boreman, near the Two Giants in Guildhall.” Ware might have provided more of the upfront investment than Boreman did; or perhaps he just struck a hard bargain with Boreman, possibly in need of another investor in order to issue the last volume in this set of three?

Boreman revisited the realm of giants in his 1742 title: The History of Cajanus, the Swedish Giant: from his Birth to the Present Time / by the Author of the Gigantick Histories. (This means that Cajanus predated the third Westminster Abbey volume.) But unlike Gogmagog and Corineus, Boreman’s two original giants, Cajanus is not based on a character from English folklore, but rather on an actual person. Daniel Cajanus lived from 1704-1749, having been born in Finland (not Sweden); his huge size was such a curiosity to some that Cajanus made a living putting himself on show in England at points in the 1730s and 1740s, where Boreman must have seen him, or at least heard about him.

The History of Cajanus: title page and frontispiece depicting Cajanus’s size in context.

In Boreman’s rendition of the story, Cajanus goes to visit the Guildhall, where he marvels at the statues of the two giants and is then “presented” with a copy of The Gigantick History. Boreman thereby manages a clever piece of “product placement,” puffing his first Gigantick History in this one.

Boreman himself appears to have dropped out of sight as a bookseller after the “Gigantick Histories.” There seems to be “no evidence that he published after that date,”³ and I haven’t been able to find out terribly much about him or his life before that date either. Standard resources on eighteenth-century printing and bookselling, such as the British Book Trade Index or Plomer, have relatively little to say about him.

Boreman seems like something of a mysterious figure in publishing history to me. But his legacy to later children’s booksellers and publishers is clear in terms of aspects like: publishing tiny books for tiny hands in a standard format, binding them in Dutch paper, creating subscriber lists with children’s names as a marketing tool, cleverly using publisher’s advertisements and product placement, and generally combining text and illustrations to create books that appealed to children and also provided a model that Newbery and others could then refine.

***
¹ H.R. Plomer, Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers who were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland, p. 30.
² Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature; accessed online; Wilbur M. Stone, The Gigantick Histories of Thomas Boreman, p. 11 ff.
³ Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature; accessed online.