Reviews 2011

The Children’s Book Business: Lessons from the Long Eighteenth Century

The Children’s Book Business: Lessons from the Long Eighteenth Century Lissa Paul. New York and London: Routledge, 2011. 208 pages. £80 (hardback).

Several times in her elegantly written book, Lissa Paul quotes a letter by William Godwin (1802) where he states his belief that the aim of children’s education, whether in face-to-face teaching or in literature, was to form “an active mind and a warm heart” (p. 62). In her study of the history of the flourishing of the children’s book business at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, she pursues this aim and, moreover, shows the relevance of this construction of a child with agency to the postmodern (or post Romantic) ‘knowing’ child of contemporary Anglo-American culture. In so doing, in six chapters she provides a revisionary history of the history of the children’s book in English, and argues for its relevance to children’s book culture today. Significantly, her history includes a revaluation of the women writers of the late Enlightenment who are often grouped unceremoniously together by a throw-away phrase by Charles Lamb, a contemporary of Godwin, in another letter of 1802, where he refers to them as the “cursed Barbauld Crew” (p. 62).

Paul achieves her aims by adroitly pursuing several methods and strategies simultaneously. Her approach is both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. The impetus for her project is Visits to the Juvenile Library by Eliza Fenwick (Tabart, 1805) which is a ‘product placement’ novel extolling the books and other artifacts sold in Tabart’s shop of the same name. She juxtaposes this against Marjorie Moon’s scholarly resource, Benjamin Tabart’s Juvenilie Library: A Bibliography of Books for Children Published, Written, Edited and Sold by Mr. Tabart, 1801-1820 (1990), to determine which books would have been present in the shop. In order to write this “biography” (2) of a little known book, she draws on (new) book history, in particular the sociology of texts that posits that books exist in communication cycles, including life-cycles. She focuses on three stages first, the “creation and initial reception” when the book is used as intended, the second when it falls out of use, and the third when its importance is recognized for the way in which it “documents the age that brought it into existence” (39-40). In order to do this, Paul provides many biographies, arranged in concentric and overlapping circles, of the street in which the shop is located in terms of the London book trade, of the books and educational materials that would be found on the shelves, of the libratory and enlightened lessons contained in the books, of the writers that produced the books, and the children who may or may not have read the books. To achieve this in an economical fashion, she draws on theories of new historicism and particularly begins to perform a revisionary women’s history of the book trade in children’s literature.

This project is undertaken in a witty and unusual fashion that seeks to marry form and content, so the act of reading Paul’s book recalls the focused pleasure of reading narrative or poetry. Two aspects suggest this: the qualities of authorial perspective and authorial voice and the organization of the book chapters themselves.

Regarding the first, in Chapters 1 and 2, Paul changes her vantage point from the street to the building and then moves inside the building to the design and display of the books. She mentions adapting different types of film techniques, and variously refers to her role as a tour guide and mediator. These techniques help create a distinct authorial voice and a lively style that makes the past seem present to the reader. This is enhanced by the superb selection of well-chosen images (a notable feature throughout that enhances the visual methods used in the writing). Here she selects a period image of the Bandbox seller standing outside the bookstore (9) and both period and presentday images of the street (12) including the present day upscale jewelers occupying the location.

Regarding the second, the book chapters are reworkings of the classic children’s nursery rhyme, “This is the house that Jack built”, which, as the Opies’ note in their Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, is an accumulative rhyme that has been popular for over 200 years (p. 272). That the rhyme was first published by John Newbery adds to the contextual publishing history in a subtle way. The form of the rhyme encapsulates the content for the idea of accumulation is echoed in the composition of the chapters of the book which are neither linear nor chronological, but which are connected like concentric circles that repeat back and move forward in different overlapping directions. Also, given the focus on the women writers working in this period, with reference to nursery rhyme, I can’t help link the women who wrote the books to the maiden “all forlorn”. As Paul’s study shows, the women were not credited properly by Tabart, nor have they been credited properly for their important contribution to children’s literature.

Applying the subtitle of ‘lessons’ learned from the long 18th century, there are a couple of obvious ones for the reader of Paul’s study. These lessons are of a comparative nature, since the arguments weave back and forth between the past and present, effectively bringing the past into the present and the present back into past. This reader appreciates the lessons about the parallels between the thinking and feeling middle class child of the early 19th century and today. Another lesson is presented for the historian of children’s literature: how children’s book historians were and are mainly men, and men with an encyclopedic or Renaissance man spread of knowledge: Darton, Muir, Alderson, Lerer. Although they have produced impressive, substantial volumes, Paul observes how masculinist their approach is. Because children’s books, like women’s writing, have been historically marginalized, this reader for one took the analogy to heart. Although a feminist, I had not appreciated the full impact of gender politics on the history of children’s literature, even though women printers, writers and thinkers have been present since the beginning, in both the private and public realms. They are present in the classic anthologies such as those edited by Patricia Demers (From Instruction to Delight) and of course the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature co-edited by Paul herself, but their work has not been sufficiently recognized. Paul is helping to right the balance with her small shapely volume.

Works Cited

Opie, Iona and Peter, eds. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Zipes, Jack, Paul, Lissa, Vallone, Lynne, Hunt, Peter and Gillian Avery, eds. The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English. New York: Norton, 2005.

Jacqueline Reid-Walsh
Penn State University, USA