Author Archives: laohagan

Guest post: Behind the Night-light: A Forgotten Bestseller

This guest post comes from Dr Lauren O’Hagan, sociolinguistic researcher of Edwardian material culture and class conflict.


“He is not quite a cow, but a little green bull
He lives in a large field where there is no up and no down
He always wears beautiful trousers
You may like him at first, but you will soon get tired of him
He is very pretty, but oh, so good!
He collects nothing”

Read the above lines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they came from one of Quentin Blake’s nonsense verses or a lost Dr Seuss book (minus the rhymes!). In fact, they are taken from Behind the Night-light, a 1912 book that captures the poetic musings of a three-year-old girl, Joan Maude. Back in December of last year, I shone a spotlight on another Edwardian child star: Daisy Ashford and her successful novel The Young Visiters. Like The Young Visiters, Behind the Night-light was also a bestseller in its day, only to have faded into obscurity over time. I’d like take the blog space this week to acquaint unfamiliar readers with this delightful and forgotten book.

Behind the Night-light was published by John Murray in June 1912 and went through four reprints in its first six months. It is its fourth reprint from January 1913 that graces the shelves of the Janet Powney Collection in Special Collections. Considering the way that most children’s books of the period were decorated, the book has decidedly bland black cloth covers. However, tucked within, page after page is filled with intriguing and humorous tales about an original world that little Joan Maude created from the comfort of her childhood playroom.

According to the title page, every story and poem in the book has been “described by Joan Maude and faithfully recorded by Nancy Price” (her mother). As Price explains in the preface:

“These quaint beasts who roam that delightful country ‘behind the night-light’ are the exclusive discovery of a child of three. Their names, their habits, etc., are entirely hers. My task has merely been to record them in language as near the original as possible.”

And this originality is certainly apparent in the contents page alone as we are introduced to such unique characters as the Kiddikee, Boo-Choo and Fat-Tack to the Mossip, Hitchy-Penny and Jonket. Through Joan Maude’s imagination, we learn about Bomblemass, an animal who “grows no teeth, carries a stick, wears a green plush coat and ties on his legs with black silk ribbon” or the Gott family “who all lost their ears because they wouldn’t listen.” We meet the Stickle-Jag “who has a coat made of hundreds and thousands, so that he can eat bits off of it when he can’t find the sugar basin” and the Lowdge who “collects dust and lives in the middle of it.” And so on and so forth across its fifty pages of creativity.

A key factor that influenced book sales was the fact that Joan Maude wasn’t just any little girl; she was the daughter of Nancy Price (1880-1970), a huge star of the Edwardian stage. Price had been part of F.R. Benson’s theatre company for many years, touring extensively in the provinces performing Shakespeare plays. In 1902, she caught the attention of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree who cast her as Calypso in Stephen Phillips’ production Ulysses at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. She later went on to play Hilda Gunning in Letty (1904), Mrs D’Aquila in The Whip (1909), one of the Pioneer Players in The First Actress (1911) and India in The Crown of India (1912). This meant that at the time of the book’s publication, she was perhaps as famous and recognisable as any of the big Hollywood stars today. Price would go on to establish the People’s National Theatre in 1930, as well as the English School Theatre Movement, which toured productions of Shakespeare plays to working-class children. She was awarded a CBE for services to the stage in 1950.

Upon release, Behind the Night-light was met with tremendous praise by the newspapers. The Era (8 March 1913) described it as “a collection of quaint and original animal fancies” and the Norwood News (12 December 1913) called it “a revelation of wonderful things, while The Pall Mall Gazette (8 June 1912) claimed that the monsters would have found a friend in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

One year after the book’s publication, Nancy Price enlisted the services of Joan Maude’s godmother, Liza Lehmann, also an English operatic soprano and composer, to turn the book into a stage show. By summer 1913, Behind the Night-light was playing all across England from the Manchester Theatre Royal and Bedford Town Hall to Torquay Pavilion and Ilkley King’s Hall. Reciting the rhymes were such big stage names as Jeannette Sherwin and Guide M. Chambers, and even Nancy Price herself at one special performance in London.

Up until the late 1920s, Behind the Night-light was also a favourite musical for schools to perform. Local newspapers raved about how pupils in Sevenoaks performed the songs at the Royal Crown Hotel (Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 30 November 1917), as well as how children at Steyne School in Worthing put on a show for an enthusiastic audience at Connaught Hall (Worthing Gazette, 7 November 1923). It is also claimed by Nancy Price that many of the expressions from the book went into common use and could be heard amongst such varied people as a professor of history and a pavement artist. “Don’t be a gott” was used to describe someone with a bad temper who wouldn’t listen and “a lowdge” became a term for somebody who ran very quickly.

Being the daughter of a famous actress and finding fame herself at such an early age meant that Joan Maude was always destined for stardom. In 1921, at the age of 13, she made her stage debut in Cairo at His Majesty’s Theatre in London. By the time she hit adulthood, Joan Maude had already starred in more than twenty stage productions all across the West End. As the ‘talkies’ became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, Joan Maude made her move from the stage to the screen, starring in a wide range of comedies, dramas and romances. Perhaps her most famous role was in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

After some fifteen years of popularity, Behind the Night-light stopped touring, schools ended their performances of the musical and sales of the book decreased. Whether the novelty of the book had simply wore off now that Joan Maude was all grown up or whether she herself wanted to distance herself from the book that had first made her famous remains unclear. Nowadays, Behind the Night-light is practically unknown; a cursory Google search brings up just 33 results.

Looking at Behind the Night-light today, perhaps the most surprising observation is the book’s complete absence of images. With such rich descriptions of a world conjured up by Joan Maude, it is a real oversight not to have accompanied the text with vivid illustrations. This may have also secured the book’s longevity as children grew attached to such characters, remembered them more distinctly and then passed them onto their own children. 2020 will mark fifty years since the death of Nancy Price. To me, this seems like a glaring opportunity for a publisher to pick this book back up, update it, populate it with colourful imagery and introduce these charming characters to the children of today.

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Guest post: Deciphering the indecipherable in the Janet Powney Collection

This guest post comes from Dr Lauren O’Hagan, sociolinguistic researcher of Edwardian material culture and class conflict.


As a scholar of book inscriptions, what really frustrates me is when a mark of ownership has been thoughtlessly removed from a book. Often, all that is left is a jagged tear line acting as evidence of the bookplate or prize sticker that once was affixed to the endpapers. This careless act of erasure silences voices of past generations and with them, a wide range of social networks, thoughts and feelings that offer new perspectives on life in a particular time period and sociocultural context.

Yet what angers me even more is when an inscription is left in the book but has been scribbled through, almost taunting the reader with its partially obscured information. This is often the work of a later owner who deliberately seeks to stake their own claim to the book, giving no thought for people like me who spend their days researching them! Nonetheless, with a little time and patience, the indecipherable can become decipherable, as I found out last week when working on the Janet Powney Collection.

Towards the end of the day, I picked up a beautiful 1873 edition of Aesop’s Fables. It was custom-bound in dark green full calf leather boards with raised bands on its spine and embossed with a gilt armorial typical of non-state school prize books in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The armorial on the book’s cover was framed by the abbreviation ‘SCHOL: DIG: SOC: BRAS’ and ‘JACOBO HICKSON FUND’ with the date ‘A.D. MDCLXXXVII’ underneath.

Unlike the working-class prize books of board schools, which were bound and decorated in-house by publishers, prize books for middle- and upper-class children typically arrived at a local bindery unbound and were subsequently custom-bound according to each school’s requirements. In contrast to working-class prize books, far greater attention was also paid to their internal properties. As can be seen in this copy of Aesop’s Fables, the paper is of a higher quality and endpapers are marbled. As grammar and boarding schools considered it important to uphold tradition, it was no coincidence that books such as this one were made to resemble the fine bindings of the eighteenth century.

 

 

Turning to the front endpapers to consult the prize sticker and discover which school awarded the book, I was horrified to find that it had been completely defaced. An attempt had been made to remove the sticker and when the resistant glue had put up a fight, the previous owner had resorted to scribbling through all the information in black ink, totally obscuring the writing below. I had a challenge on my hands that I was determined to overcome!

Using my rudimentary Latin knowledge, I was able to make an educated guess that the abbreviated ‘SCHOL’ was school (schola), while the ‘SOC’ was society or association (societatus). The other two abbreviations posed more of a problem. Although the full name of the awarding institution was printed on the prize sticker, the act of vandalism had made the words almost indistinguishable. Using a magnifying glass, I was able to identify ‘DIG’ as ‘dignif[?]’, which was enough information to help me roughly translate the word as ‘dignified’ or ‘worshipful’. The last word was more difficult. It looked like it read ‘Brasiatorium’. However, the only translation of this word that could be found in Latin dictionaries was ‘brewery’ or ‘malthouse’.  Curioser and curioser…

After feeding various combinations of words into Google, I came across the Worshipful Company of Brewers (WCB). The WCB is one of the oldest Livery Companies of the City of London and received its first charter from King Henry VI in 1438. Could this be our ‘societatus’ and if so, what did the school part mean?

The next clue I decided to chase was the ‘Jacobo Hickson’ behind the fund that was presumably used to purchase the book and award it to its recipient. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not uncommon for rich entrepreneurs to leave money in their will to fund books for children. Could Jacobo Hickson be one of them?

After a number of unsuccessful searches for Jacob Hickson, rare books cataloguer Christine Megowan had the clever idea of translating ‘Jacobo’ into its English equivalent: ‘James’. Immediately, this brought up a wide range of results, all of which confirmed that James Hickson was indeed a brewer. Born in 1607 in Melton Mowbray, Hickson moved to London as a young man, became a brewer and was later elected an alderman of the City of London. He was one of the three main benefactors of the WCB, along with Richard Platt and Dame Alice Owen.

Hickson used his fortune to carry out philanthropic work. He built and endowed almhouses in South Mymms and bequeathed money in his will to Dame Alice Owen’s School in Potters Bar and Aldenham School in Elstree. Both schools still exist and to this day, they receive Beer Money, in the form of a commemorative coin, from the Master of the WCB. Was it possible then that the ‘schola’ mentioned in the prize sticker was either Dame Alice Owen’s or Aldenham?

Before investigating this thread further, I wanted to get to the bottom of the coat of arms. It clearly did not match that of the WCB (three kilderkins between three pairs of barley garbs). Could it belong to Hickson? Avidly flicking through an online version of an old heraldic dictionary for the surname Hickson, I was thrilled to find that the Hickson coat of arms was described as “two eagles’ legs, erased à la quize, sa., in saltire sable, the dexter surmounted of the sinister, or and sable” or in plain English, two eagles’ legs, upper-part shown only, crossed over, right on top of left, gold and black. Bingo!

As if all of this information was not enough to prove that the book was given by the WCB using money allocated in the bequest of James Hickson, a name at the bottom of the prize sticker confirmed this. Underneath the scribble, the name E.N. Buxton could be roughly made out with the title ‘Soc Bras [?]’ next to it. Consulting the records of the WCB, I found that an Edward North Buxton was the Master at the time that this book was awarded. Edward North Buxton (1840-1924) was a conservationist and Liberal Party politician. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and became a partner in the London brewing firm of Truman, Hanbury, & Co. It was through his work with this brewery that he obtained the position of Master of the WCB in 1875.

To determine once and for all the school with which the WCB was linked, I turned to the other name underneath the scribble at the bottom of the prize sticker: Herbert Williams, schola magister (school master). Scanning through census records, I found that Herbert Williams (1826-1903) was a Church of England clergyman who went on to become the “headmaster of a brewer’s company school” in 1871. Aldenham School being for boys and Dame Alice Owen’s School being for girls, I was able to state with confidence that Aesop’s Fables was awarded to a pupil of Aldenham School by its headteacher, Herbert Williams. Aldenham School was founded in 1597 by Richard Platt, Master of the WBC. The WBC were its appointed governors and remain its trustees today.

The final piece in the puzzle was the pupil himself: R.W. Russell. This inscription was the perfect example of yet another pet peeve of mine – inscribers who only use initials for first names! This can make it incredibly challenging to track down the person. After several hours of trawling through census forms and consulting school records, I found a Robert William Russell who was born in St Alban’s, Hertfordshire and attended Aldenham School from 1871-1877. He then went on to study at Oxford University. Unfortunately, no census records have been found for Russell after this date, which may suggest that he moved abroad.

—–

Despite the numerous challenges posed by inscriptions such as these, with a bit of perseverance, it is possible to decipher them. Thanks to a combination of digital and traditional methods, I have been able to unlock the history of the WCB, one of its benefactors (Jacob Hickson), masters (E.N. Buxton), brewer’s school (Aldenham School) and pupils (Robert William Russell).

How, after Russell’s death in 1934, the book passed to a female grocer’s assistant in Penarth, Wales – Dorothy Davies of 16 Hastings Avenue (according to the defaced inscription at the top of the prize sticker) – is perhaps a mystery worth unravelling some other day…

Guest Post: The Inscriptions of Herbert Scylla Mallalieu

Today’s guest post comes from Lauren O’Hagan, who has been diligently cataloguing the Janet Powney Collection of Children’s Literature.

When asked why I have dedicated the last ten years of my life to investigating book inscriptions, I always answer with the same response. No, it is not because I am an admirer of old handwriting (although I am!) or even that I am nosy (well, maybe there is an element of that!); rather, it is I am fascinated by the fact that they act as thousands of threads which, together, weave the tapestries of life. Book inscriptions have an ability to stop time, to bring an emotional immediacy to the people who once walked this earth, to transform the book from a commercial object into a personalised item that forms the life soul of families…

Those of you who have been following my guest blog posts will know that for the past four years, I have been researching and helping to catalogue the Janet Powney Collection – a wonderful assortment of Victorian and Edwardian children’s books in Cardiff University’s Special Collections. While each book stands out for its beautiful covers and stunning illustrations, it is the inscriptions inside that most intrigue me. And last Thursday, I came across a real gem.

Cover

Publisher’s binding of The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans.

After a long session of cataloguing, I picked up the final book of the day: an 1894 edition of The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans. As I turned to the front endpapers, I came across a lovely inscription in black ink stating, “Herbert Mallalieu A birthday gift from his loving sister Pollie.” “September 1896” had been added in pencil below. The unusual surname immediately struck me. That would surely be easy to track down in census records! And indeed, it was! But what I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of ‘hidden history’ that it would unlock about Herbert and his family.

Herbert Scylla Mallalieu was born in 1879 in Coventry, England. He was the son of William Mallalieu (1845-1927) and Margaret Smith (1846-1919). Herbert had two older brothers, George (1873-1948) and William (1884-1937), and a younger sister Pollie (née Mary, 1880-1944). Herbert came from a family of professional actors and comedians. His parents were famous stars of the Victorian music hall. They also brought up their younger children to perform with them. For a reason that is sadly now lost to time, Herbert was the only member of his family not to join them on the stage. Census records show that he was not “deaf, dumb, blind, lunatic, imbecile or idiot,” so we can only assume that it was a personal choice on his part.

Inscription1

Mallalieu’s ownership inscription on the front fly-leaf.

This meant that Herbert spent most of his childhood on his own lodging throughout the UK with a wide range of strangers, while the rest of his family constantly moved around and performed. The 1891 census records him as living with the Wall family in Wells, Somerset and attending the local cathedral school. It was during his time in Wells on the occasion of his 17th birthday that he received The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans from his sister Pollie. Meanwhile, his family were based in Bath where they regularly took the stage at the Theatre Royal. Reviews in the Western Daily Press praise the Mallalieus’ talent, particularly young Pollie who stood out as a child star.

Pollie caught the eye of Lewis Carroll after seeing her perform in The Silver King in Brighton in October 1891. From this date on, he struck up a regular correspondence with Pollie’s parents. A surviving letter dated June 22nd 1892 that recently sold at auction asks Pollie’s mother whether he can take Pollie to the New Gallery, luncheon at a friend’s house and German Reed’s entertainment. We know from Carroll’s diary records that he did indeed take Pollie out and that he thought she was “a lovable child, ladylike and speaking good English.” Pollie also stayed at Carroll’s house in Eastbourne on several occasions and he even paid for a custom-made pair of boots for her.

By the time of the 1901 census, William Mallalieu had set up his own acting company in Leicester. The company was incredibly successful and brought much fame and fortune to the family. The company’s location may explain why Herbert is also based in Leicester on the 1901 census, although he is living alone in a boarding house run by Elizabeth Fox and working as a “land agent clerk.” Herbert’s brother George, on the other hand, known by the stage name Aubrey Mallalieu, had now found success on the stage in Australia and New Zealand. He would later go on to appear in hundreds of films throughout the 1930s usually as a respectable elderly gentleman of the establishment. He was described as having a “Dickensian appearance” with combed-over white hair and spectacles. Herbert’s other brother, William, left acting in 1901 and joined the Cheshire Regiment. He saw active service in the Anglo-Boer War and the First World War.

While Herbert’s parents and sister are recorded as living in Heston, London on the 1911 census, Herbert cannot be found with them. An inspection of emigration records shows that he moved to New York in the early 1900s for business purposes before returning to the UK where he married Elsie Blythe, a dairy maid, in 1913. The newly-weds then moved back to the USA, this time to Orange, New Jersey, where she gave birth to a son, Herbert Blythe Mallalieu (1914-1988). Herbert Blythe Mallalieu went on to serve in the Second World War and gained renown as a war poet. Julian Symons described him as “one of the best known of the younger British poets before the Second World War.” He published several poetry collections in his lifetime, including Letter in Wartime (1940) and On the Berlin Lakes (1988).

Inscription2

A second enigmatic inscription, dated 33 years after the first.

Unfortunately, Herbert and Edith’s marriage did not work out. Just a few years later, Herbert returned to the UK with his son and filed for a divorce. In 1923, he got remarried to Edith F. Curteis, a grocer’s cashier. On July 5th 1929, Edith gave birth to a little girl, Paula. Sadly, Paula was stillborn. In a remarkable yet sad twist of fate, the event is recorded in Herbert’s poetry volume. As I flicked through the pages, I was astounded to come across an inscription tucked away on the flyleaf clearly added by Herbert 33 years on from his sister’s original message: “He never smiled again pg. 128 July v/29.” Turning avidly to page 128, I discovered that it was a direct quote from a poem in the collection about King Henry I’s grief over his son William’s death. Clearly, Herbert had remembered the quote and drew parallels with his own tragic situation. Feeling so upset about the premature death of his only daughter, he recorded the date in his poetry book alongside this quote. The book he had kept since he was given it as a young boy by his estranged younger sister had now become embedded with a new inscription that marked this important event in Herbert’s life.

Herbert and Edith never had any further children. They lived a quiet life together in Croydon, Surrey until his death in 1957. Herbert outlived all of his other family members.

——

Behind the two seemingly insignificant inscriptions in The Poetical Works of Mrs Felicia Hemans lies the untold story of Herbert Mallalieu and his family. In just a few written words, we can learn so much about his life, his loves, his losses. It is stories like this that make me so thankful for the work I do and the opportunity I have to keep these memories alive for future generations.

Guest post: Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters: A Forgotten Bestseller

In today’s guest post, recent PhD graduate Lauren O’Hagan shares a recent discovery from the Janet Powney Collection of Children’s Literature.

For the past month, I have been helping to catalogue the Janet Powney Collection in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives. Having worked extensively with the collection as part of my PhD research, I was very excited to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the wonderful Victorian and Edwardian children’s books that it comprises. As I sifted through the familiar colourful volumes with their decorative lettering and pictorial cloth covers, enjoying the pleasant scent unique to old books, I felt like I was reencountering old friends. That was until I came across an intruder, a strange trespasser that seemed out of place in a collection largely made up of religious novels that were given as prize books to the working-class children of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain.

The book stood at just 7” in height. It boasted quarter black cloth covers with marbled paper on its boards and a printed spine label: all characteristics of early publisher’s bindings (1820s-1840s) or temporary bindings. Inside, the text was printed on heavy wove paper with deckle edges, suggesting that the volume was, indeed, a product of the early nineteenth century. However, to my surprise, the front of the book clearly stated “Reset, 111th thousand Nov. 1919” meaning that 111,000 copies had been printed by November 1919. How could this be?

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The binding and paper are in a style reminiscent of early 19th century books.

With the appearance of machine-made paper in the nineteenth century, the deckle edge (which is only found on handmade paper) gradually came to be seen as a status symbol. This tradition carried forward into the twentieth century when many presses advertised two versions of the same book: one with smooth trimmed edges and a higher-priced deckle version. Could this desire for prestige explain the unusual pages of the book? Perhaps so.

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The only clue to the book’s provenance is this cryptic inscription.

But what about the binding itself? Now able to discount the fact that the book was an early publisher’s binding, the question arose that if the book was, indeed, a temporary binding, why did its owner never get it rebound? The longevity of temporary bindings was certainly underestimated, as attested by the survival of so many books with temporary bindings in special collections. Could the high quality of the temporary binding expound why the owner chose to keep it that way? Or perhaps they lacked the money to take the book to a binder and have it bound to match their own personal library. Unfortunately, the cryptic inscription on its front free endpaper – ‘Nora Xmas 1919 from “46”‘ – meant that no supporting information from census records about the socioeconomic status of the giver or recipient could be used to support this theory.

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Illustrated dust jacket, from a copy for sale by James Cummins Booksellers.

It was not until I carried out further research on book history and antiquarian booksellers’ websites that I was able to solve this conundrum. These websites revealed that the volume was, in fact, originally issued with a dustjacket bearing a decorative illustration in grey and red. The copy in Special Collections clearly lacks this dustjacket, which offers some suggestion as to why the covers beneath are so uncharacteristically plain in appearance. Priced at 3 shillings and 6 pence (roughly £7.64), the book sat at the lower end of the market. Therefore, it is possible that all its ‘antiquarian’ features served to attract potential buyers who viewed the book in shops by making it look more valuable than it actually was.

Having resolved the mystery of the book’s uncharacteristic appearance, its frontispiece presented me with a new puzzle. It showed a photograph of a little girl with the caption ‘the author’. “The author?” I thought to myself. “How can that be?” Yet, as I dug into the story behind the book, it became apparent that yes indeed, the author was just a little girl: Daisy Ashford wrote The Young Visiters, or Mister Salteena’s Plan when she was just nine years old.

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The author was just nine years old when she wrote The Young Visiters.

The Young Visiters is a society novel that parodies upper-class society in late Victorian England. It tells the story of Alfred Salteena, “an elderly man of 42”, who strives to become a gentleman in order to win the love of Ethel Monticue. Despite his best efforts, Ethel ends up marrying Bernard Clark, a real gentleman, thus breaking Alfred’s heart.

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A facsimile of the original manuscript.

The novel was written by nine-year-old Ashford in 1890 in a school exercise book. The book lay forgotten in a drawer for many years until 1917 when Ashford rediscovered it and lent it to her friend, Margaret Mackenzie, who was recovering from an illness. Mackenzie passed on the book to Frank Swinnerton who worked as a reader for the publishing house Chatto and Windus. Swinnerton was so enthusiastic about the book’s raw innocence and naiveté that the publishing house immediately agreed to publish it almost exactly as it had been written. After hearing about this child prodigy, J.M. Barrie put himself forward to write the book’s preface.

In early 1919, The Young Visiters was released, complete with its childish spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, single-paragraph chapters and, of course, a preface by the distinguished J.M. Barrie. All of these factors contributed to the book’s massive success. In no time at all, it became a bestseller, reprinted eighteen times in its first year alone. The New York Times described it as “one of the most humorous books in literature.”

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The novel was so successful that it was reprinted more than sixteen times and sold more than 111,000 copies in its first year.

In 1920, a stage play of the novel was written by Mrs George Norman and Margaret Mackenzie and first performed in London before transferring to New York shortly after. The play was praised strongly by critics, with Alexander Woolcott of The New York Times stating that “probably no novel was ever so reverently dramatized since the world began.” For some time, the book’s title even became a witty way in which to criticise other works of a naïve style. Edmund Wilson most famously referred to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise as “a classic in a class with The Young Visiters” in a bid to make fun of his childish writing style.

Over time, the book faded in popularity. This was largely due to a rumour that circulated, which claimed that it was an elaborate literary hoax and that J.M. Barrie himself was the real author. During the late 1960s, the book was rediscovered and a musical was produced by Michael Ashton and Ian Kellam. It resurfaced again in 1984 when a feature-length film starring Tracey Ullman and John Standing was released. In 2003, a television film version of the book starring Jim Broadbent, Lyndsey Marshal and Hugh Laurie was made by the BBC. However, The Young Visiters still remains widely unknown to even the most avid readers.

Shortly after the publication of The Young Visiters in 1919, a volume including some of Ashford’s other writings was released, the last of which, The Hangman’s Daughter, was written when she was fourteen. Ashford produced no other work in her lifetime. Instead, she led a quiet life in Reepham where she ran the King’s Arm Hotel with her husband James Devlin. Much speculation has taken place regarding why Ashford stopped writing. The most likely answer has been that she simply grew up.

Now largely forgotten, The Young Visiters was a record-breaking novel in its day, selling just as many copies as the better known My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse and The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham, also released in the same year. Behind those unassuming covers of the little volume held in Special Collections lies a tale of genius and marvel, surprise and wonder, innocence and amusement. It just goes to show: you can never judge a book by its cover.

Guest post: Exploring historical gender inequality in prize and gift books

This guest post comes from Lauren O’Hagan, PhD candidate in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, who is researching early 20th century book inscriptions and reading practices in Great Britain.


The World’s Your Oyster… Unless You’re a Girl:
Exploring Historical Gender Inequality in Prize and Gift Books

From the #metoo campaign to the gender pay gap, in recent months, the topic of gender inequality has seldom been out of the headlines. Since the early twentieth century, bolstered by the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union, women in Britain have been fighting for equal rights and opportunities. While images of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike or members of the Women’s Liberation Movement burning bras are ingrained in our minds as early examples of the struggle against gender inequality, there is one form of historical discrimination that remains largely forgotten, despite the fact that it is still prevalent in our society today: the giving of books as gifts and prizes. The full extent of this highly gendered practice only became apparent to me through a delve into the Janet Powney Collection at Special Collections and Archives.

The Janet Powney Collection is made up of some eight-hundred children’s books, largely dating from the late-Victorian and Edwardian era. These books were predominantly given as gifts or awarded as prizes to children and, as such, most bear an inscription on their front endpaper.

The years 1880 to 1915 are generally considered to mark a key period in the development of a distinctive girls’ and boys’ culture in Britain. Nothing illustrated this distinction more obviously than books. As book production grew and new designs and modes of distribution developed, publishers began to recognise the commercial potential of identifying specialist readerships, particularly girls and boys. Taking advantage of the emerging ‘vanity trade’ in which buyers were strongly influenced by a book’s outer appearance over its internal content, publishers produced books whose images, typography and colours were heavily influenced by gender.

More than one hundred years later, these same marketing strategies can be observed in children’s books today, as seen in the photo below from Waterstones taken by the #LetToysBeToys campaign group.

Books are, of course, not the only objects to have become genderised. From a young age, advertisements (and indeed many parents) are still largely responsible for teaching children that dolls are for girls and cars are for boys. The breadth of this issue and the various debates it provokes have most recently been demonstrated by John Lewis’s decision to introduce gender neutral clothing lines for children. While many people praised the progressive move of John Lewis, arguing that “you don’t look at food and say it’s going to be eaten by a man or a woman, so why should it be any different for clothes?” others criticised the retailer for “bowing down to political correctness.” The mixed responses that this topic has generated indicates that, now more than ever, it is necessary to return to the past in a bid to improve the future.

Books as Gifts

What it meant to be a girl and a boy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain can be clearly seen through the inscriptions made in gift books within the Janet Powney Collection.

For girls, religious fiction was most frequently gifted, primarily by their mothers, grandparents and friends. Religious fiction emphasised traditional female qualities of sacrifice and obedience and encouraged girls to uphold the conventional role that had been pre-established for them in society: that of being a wife and a mother. In contrast, boys were chiefly given adventure fiction by their mothers, grandparents and friends. Adventure fiction promoted cultural expectations of masculinity, and focused heavily on the notions of imperialism, heroism and comradeship. For both boys and girls, it was the mother who inscribed the book; the father’s name was conspicuously absent. The Victorian scholar, Kate Flint, claims that the mother was generally considered the most appropriate person to choose a book for her children – a belief that still prevails today (please click through to request access to the article from the author).

The fact that the same split into religious fiction for girls and adventure fiction for boys can also be observed when friends gave each other books as presents indicates that the purchaser of the gift was typically an adult, i.e. the child’s parent, and so, it was their views on gender appropriacy that were given overriding priority. The book historian, Jonathan Rose, claims that girls’ books only sold well because they were chosen as presents by adults, and, in fact, many Victorian and Edwardian girls preferred adventure fiction and often read their brothers’ copies surreptitiously. Adventure fiction was discouraged for girls, as it was deemed harmful to their ‘fragile’ minds and risked diminishing their value as females.

Despite these gender stereotypes that were largely influenced by the giver’s concept of what was suitable for the receiver, the collection has one notable exception: in all examples of Aunts giving books to Nieces, the books belong to the adventure fiction genre. While this suggests that the modern-day concept of the ‘cool aunt’, in fact, has its origins in the late-nineteenth century, this theory falls apart slightly when noting that nephews continued to receive adventure fiction, with no examples of religious fiction given. This gives weight to the widely asserted claim by the scholar, Barry Thorne, that it is more acceptable for girls to associate with masculinity than boys with the lesser valued and ‘contaminating’ femininity.

Many of the above points are still relevant in today’s society. While religious fiction has largely disappeared from bookshops with the increase in secularisation, it has come to be replaced by the romance genre – perhaps a reflection of the growing acceptance of girls’ sexuality, yet still stereotypical in its own way. Boys’ fiction, on the other hand, continues to be dominated by adventure and fantasy novels. Despite the fact that a recent survey demonstrates that comedy is now the favourite genre of most boys and girls in the UK, with David Walliams and Jeff Kinney being cited as the favourite authors of both genders, when it comes to gift-giving, many family members and friends still resort to stereotypical genres and authors. Equally, while it is now widely acceptable for girls to receive Harry Potter or Hunger Games books as gifts, for example, very few boys are the recipients of books by Jacqueline Wilson or Jill Murphy. Although the Representation Project is attempting to challenge and overcome gender stereotypes by encouraging parents to buy books for children based on their individual personalities and interests instead of defaulting to gender-specific gift options, these findings show that there is still clearly a long way to go.

Books as Prizes

Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian era, awarding books as prizes was standard practice for most schools, Sunday schools and other institutions across Britain and its Empire. While these books were typically awarded in recognition of an outstanding achievement or contribution, they also served a secondary function of moral education and they were often used by educational and religious institutions as tools to disseminate approved fiction. Writing in 1888 in favour of prize books, the literary critic, Edward Salmon, argued:

“The young mind is a virgin soil, and whether weeds or rare flowers and beautiful trees are to spring up in it will, of course, depend upon the character of the seeds sown. You cannot scatter literary tares and reap mental corn. A good book is the consecrated essence of a holy genius, bringing new light to the brain and cultivating the heart for the inception of noble motives.”

The prize books in the Janet Powney collection generally reflect similar trends to the gift books, although there is some variation according to awarding institution. For example, within Sunday schools and faith schools, both boys and girls were most likely to receive religious fiction. As the prize book movement was largely aimed at bringing respectability to working-class children, religious fiction was considered the most suitable type of book to provide appropriate models of behaviour to boys and girls. More importantly, however, educators saw religious fiction as a ‘safe’ and ‘reliable’ book genre that advocated conventional masculine and feminine roles. These gender differences are explicitly reflected in the titles of prize books: ‘sacrifice’, ‘obedience’ and ‘barriers’ most frequently occur in girls’ titles, while ‘winning’, ‘voyage’ and ‘victory’ feature most regularly in boys’ titles. These words demonstrate that girls were expected to live a contained life with limited opportunities and within local boundaries, but boys had the freedom to explore the global picture and the choice to do as they wish.

Despite supposedly having no religious affiliation, board schools also favoured religious fiction as prizes for girls; in contrast, boys were awarded adventure fiction. In some cases, boys were also given history and biography books, which tended to emphasise the view that to be British was to be a conqueror, an imperialist and a civilising force. This fits with the argument of historian, Stephen Heathorn, that the Victorian and Edwardian elementary classroom served as a workshop of reformulated English nationalism.

Although most prize books awarded by clubs were directly liked to their ethos (i.e. Bible classes distributed Bibles, Choirs presented music books etc.), many clubs still showed gender bias in their choices. For example, both religious and secular clubs awarded books to boys that focused on temperance and the criticism of other vices, such smoking, gambling and pleasure-seeking. These books also placed great attention on the importance of chastity and the concept of chivalry as a means of self-control. These issues were highlighted, as educators feared a supposedly causal link between boys’ crimes and reading matter that influenced them. Boys’ books also focused on the importance of saving money and owning a house, which fit with the traditional view of ‘man as economic provider’.

The girls’ book given by both religious and secular clubs, on the other hand, focused heavily on the notion that moving out of one’s social station was against God’s will and often warned girls of the dangers of switching religious allegiances. As the ‘weaker’ sex, girls were considered more likely to become ‘corrupted’, particularly by Catholicism, which was believed to be strongly linked to the forces of social and political reaction, moral decadence and foreign treachery at this time.

While such stark gender inequalities may not be as apparent today in prize-giving practices, they still prevail in some institutions, albeit covertly. Sunday schools throughout Britain still promote the awarding of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ books. Seemingly innocent titles, such as ’10 Boys Who Changed the World’ or ’10 Girls Who Changed the World’, in fact, reveal that the boys are all involved in dynamic actions as sailors, smugglers or gangsters, while the girls are confined to lowly positions as slumdogs and orphans, or have physical and mental impairments.

Even within non-religious institutions, such as state schools, prize books remain gendered with neutral stories, such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, creeping into volumes labelled as Favourite Fairy Tales for Girls and Favourite Stories for Boys respectively. Although book titles no longer appear to use stereotypical adjectives to define boys and girls, just like in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, they remain ladened with gendered words: witches, fairies and unicorns dominate girls’ books, while dinosaurs, castles and football are exclusive to boys’ books. Recently, the National Union of Teachers carried out a Breaking the Mould Project to encourage nursery and primary classrooms to challenge traditional gender stereotypes through books. They recommended awarding books, such as Anne Fine’s Bill’s New Frock or Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess to engage with the range of ways in which children can be stereotyped. Given the complexity of this topic, it is unsurprising that many schools have now opted to award book tokens instead of books to avoid the difficult act of choosing.

A child’s home and educative experience has a direct effect on his or her short-term and long-term achievements and is responsible for shaping his or her pathway in life. For this reason, it is important to engage with historical artefacts, such as the books in the Janet Powney collection, to learn from negative representations of gender. By using the gift and prize books to map particular attitudes to and constructions of gender, we can correct any potentially harmful behaviours that still remain in our society and strive towards living in a country with gender equality for all.

Guest post: The birthday book: tracing an absent presence

This guest post comes from Lauren O’Hagan, PhD candidate in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, who is researching early 20th century book inscriptions and reading practices in Great Britain.


 

Like most investigatory projects, it started with a serendipitous encounter. I was using the Janet Powney collection in Special Collections and Archives back in January 2016 as part of my PhD project on Edwardian book inscriptions, when I came across a real gem: a beautiful dark brown cloth pocket book published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in 1879 and entitled The Birthday Record – A Daily Remembrancer. As I opened the book, I came across page after page of fascinating inscriptions, through which the owner had documented key moments in his life, leaving a visible trace of an absent presence that echoes through to modern day.

The birthday book was a Victorian invention, which came about in the 1860s as a result of popular interest in graphology and a burgeoning culture of celebrity. It represented a shift in printed discourse towards a rhetoric of personalisation and intimacy. Seen as a status symbol for the increasingly literate population, the birthday book was used typically by middle-class young men and women or working-class ‘new readers’ that aspired to pure and elevated taste. As such, it was available in multiple formats to suit a range of budgets: from octodecimos with embossed cloth and gilt edges (1s 6d) to morocco-bound octavos with ivory rims and clasp (21s). The birthday book was advertised as the perfect gift for a loved one; thus, great attention was paid to its aesthetic appeal. Publishers masked their commercial motive through the use of content that was linked to the moral education and self-improvement promoted in advice manuals of the time. They targeted buyers who were seen as older guardians or mentors, such as parents or elder siblings. By 1899 over 270 types of birthday book had been published. While many were secular in nature and drew upon canonical figures, such as Tennyson, Shakespeare and Longfellow, religious publishers added culturally legitimating moral messages from sacred authorities to the popular autograph format.

 

The Birthday Record in Special Collections falls into the religious category. As its preface states:

“This little volume is intended, as the title shows, to be used as a daily scripture textbook; and also to contain a record, on the blank pages, of birthdays, or days on which friends  desire to be specially remembered and prayed for. The same pages may be employed to note down personal anniversaries, days of joys and sorrow, trials and deliverances. (…) The plan adopted by the editor had been to choose for each day a verse containing some precept or exhortation to duty, direct or implied, with others of corresponding prayer or pious resolution. This arrangement, it is believed, will offer profitable associations with special anniversaries, and also tests for self-examination on their annual return” (iii-iv).

The Birthday Record was given to Richard J. Keen by his sisters on January 14th 1881 for his 19th birthday. Sitting on the cusp between upper-working class and lower-middle class, Richard was the characteristic target of a birthday book at this time. Richard was born in 1862 in Pimlico, London, and lived with his mother and father (a coachman for Baron de Worms, a Conservative politician) and three sisters (Harriet, Alice and Caroline) in a two-bedroom house in Eaton Square. The inscriptions within the book show that Richard engaged with it actively throughout his entire life. Through the collection of signatures, the birthday book acted as a tool for social networking. In religious birthday books, this social function was particularly enhanced, as the combination of holy text and handwritten names reinforced the owner’s desire to pray for their family and friends. By combining secular trends for autograph-collecting with devotional practices, the religious birthday book became an integral part of Victorian faith.

However, in Richard’s book, this does not appear to be the case. All entries are written solely by the owner, suggesting that limited engagement took place between recording information and practising religion. Furthermore, the opposition of printed scriptural texts and contemporary autographs is respected, as pages with religious texts are kept clean and unannotated. This reflects an acceptance of the hierarchical division between the two aspects of the book, which bestows it with new introspective, subjective and solipsistic purposes. From the mere fact of simply containing the holy word, the religious birthday book required more respect and obedience from its users than its secular counterpart. This meant that there were restricted opportunities for self-expression, which can be seen in The Birthday Record, as most entries consist solely of a name and date. The handwriting in all examples is deliberate and self-consciously neat, and throughout the book, no examples of spelling mistakes or crossing-outs are present. On the few occasions when entries have been written in the wrong section, a very small and indiscreet mark is noted next to them rather than risk defacing the book. The book contains just two variations in format: newspaper clippings and a feather. Two newspaper clippings recording the death of Richard’s father in 1886 are glued onto December 3rd, while a white bird’s feather on which To Mrs Whitty is written is enclosed loosely within the leaves of the book.

 

When I first looked through The Birthday Record, I wrongly assumed that Richard was the sole proprietor. However, I was left with a mystery on my hands when census records revealed that Richard died a bachelor in 1904, yet the book continues to be used up until 1953. Piecing together the other entries, it became apparent that the book was passed down to his youngest sister, Caroline, who would continue to update it until her death in 1942. Caroline was born in 1864 and married Thomas James Whitty, a policeman, in 1888. They lived in Thorrington, Essex, and had four children together, of which only three survived – Violet, Henrietta Amy and Doris Evelyn. After Caroline’s death, the book is only updated twice more on November 2nd 1950 and 27th April 1953, marking the births of Colin Hayes and Nigel Hayes respectively. Although the third owner cannot be traced due to the fact that census records are only released after a one-hundred-year closure period, it is possible that the book was passed down to one of Caroline’s children upon her death.

The various entries in the book can be classified into nine distinct categories:

  • Birthday: 127 examples
  • Death: 26 examples
  • Marriage: 17 examples
  • Starting/ending a job: 8 examples
  • Outbreak/end of war: 6 examples
  • Funeral: 3 examples
  • Christening: 1 example
  • Wedding anniversary: 1 example
  • Coronation: 1 example

This indicates that while the book was still being used predominantly for its established function of recording birthdays, both Richard and Caroline appropriated it to record other information. Using the birthday book to memorialise the dead, commemorate marriages and mark important global events shows the owners’ awareness of a web of connection between themselves and the wider reading context, and the movement of the birthday book between public and private domains. By turning the book into a record of individual and familial identity, it offers a variation on the tradition of using Bible endpapers to record such information.

As censuses were only carried out every ten years, the birthday book is an essential resource for investigating the years in between. The Birthday Record, for example, can be used to trace Richard’s professional career. Despite not receiving the birthday book until 1881, on March 17th Richard writes, “Went to Montreal Oaks 1877.” Montreal Oaks was a stately home in Sevenoaks, Kent, owned by the Honourable Hugh Amherst. Richard’s first job at 15 years old was working there as a footman. We know from the birthday book that he left in April 1st 1881 and shortly after, moved to Belsay Castle in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne where he continued to work as a footman from May 27th 1881 to March 11th 1884 for Sir Arthur Edward Middleton, M.P., 7th Baronet. Just over a year later on May 9th 1885, Richard obtained a new job as a butler for Lady Dashwood of West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, where he remained until April 1st 1886. On October 5th of the same year, he entered into the services of Robert Porter Wilson at Cumberland Terrace in St. Pancras. By the 1891 census, Richard is still working as a butler in Cumberland Terrace, but this time for the coal magnate John Lambert. Various entries in the birthday book suggest that Richard kept in touch with many of his previous employers. He marks Amherst’s wedding on January 2nd 1896, as well as the birthday (April 26th) and death (February 13th 1904) of Wilson – the latter being the last scribal act that Richard was to carry out before his own death later the same year. The fact that Richard’s father worked as a coachman for a Baron for twenty-six years may explain how Richard ended up working for so many noblemen and women across England.

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Throughout the book, Richard also marks a series of significant world events that take place during his lifetime. This is something that his sister, Caroline, continues to do once the book is passed down to her. Richard indicates the death of Queen Victoria on January 2nd 1901 and the proclamation of peace in South Africa on June 1st 1902. Caroline marks the date and time of the death of Edward VII (May 6th 11:45pm 1910), the proclamation of King George V (May 9th 1910), England’s declaration of war against Germany (August 4th 1914), the armistice (11:30am, November 11th 1918), the proclamation of peace (July 5th 1919), peace celebrations and victory march through London of allied troops (July 19th 1919), death (11.55pm, June 21st 1936) and burial (June 28th 1936) of King George V, and the declaration of war against Germany (September 3rd 1939). The entries also give a sense of Caroline’s feelings towards the monarchy, as she expresses affection through such entries as “our beloved King George.”

 

The recurrence of certain surnames throughout the book can also reveal information about Richard and Caroline’s social networks. For example, with 32 individual entries, Whitty is the surname that most frequently occurs throughout the book. While this is to be expected given that Caroline married into the Whitty family, census records indicate that their younger sister, Alice, also married a Whitty – George, the brother of Caroline’s husband, Thomas James. The frequency of entries and terms of endearment made relating to Alice and her four children (Gertrude Carrie Alice, Winifred Lottie, Ida Gwendoline and Reginald George Hedworth) suggest a close relationship between Richard and his elder sister. Other surnames to frequently occur throughout the book are Owen (12 entries), Keen (9 entries), Lord (8 entries) and Hall (4 entries). Census records show that Caroline’s daughter, Violet, married Wilfred Owen, whereas Richard’s eldest sister, Harriet, married Thomas Hall, whose cousins were Lords. There are 62 other surnames that occur just once or twice throughout the birthday book, which demonstrates the wide social circle of family, friends and acquaintances that both Richard and Caroline had.

This little birthday book is just one of the thousands of incredible resources in Special Collections. If you haven’t yet viewed the Janet Powney collection, I urge you all to take a look now. It is in the foyer in large glass cabinets, and boasts striking colourful spines characteristic of the prize books of the late 19th and early 20th century. Maybe serendipity will shine upon you too. As Qwerty states in Lemony Snicket’s When Did You See Her Last?, “With a library it is easier to hope for serendipity than to look for a precise answer.”