"Don't steal this/book if you do I will/beat your brains/out". Perhaps many of us have felt this passionate possessiveness about our books, though few, I suspect, have gone so far as to issue such a threat in writing. This forceful assertion of ownership, inscribed by David H. Hooper in his copy of Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book: Containing the Rudiments of the English Language (1819), is just one example of the remarkable annotations and marginalia that inform M.O. Grenby's search for the child reader in the long (very long!) 18th century.
Based on a close examination of more than 5,000 volumes in four major archives (Toronto's Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books; Princeton University's Cotsen Children's Library; the Children's Book Collection in the Charles E. Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Bedfordshire's Hockliffe Collection of Early Children's Books) this study provides an intensive investigation of children's books as unique material objects. Grenby offers a sceptical interrogation of the sources more frequently used to create a picture of the juvenile reading subject emerging at the very beginnings of a literature designed specifically for children.
Previous studies have relied largely on two sources of information to characterise the relationship between the 18th-century child and books: accounts of a younger self as reader found in memoirs and letters; and representations of the child reader found within the pages of the children's books themselves. Both, as Grenby reminds us throughout, raise questions of accuracy and reliability. Are the memoirs so often used to frame our understanding of childhood reading broadly representative or narrowly idiosyncratic? Are they rigorously truthful or strategically embellished?
The figure of the child reader represented in or implied by children's books poses similar problems. Is Margery Two-Shoes - still familiar culturally if not textually as "Little Goody Two-Shoes" - an ordinary impoverished 18th-century girl who just loves learning or a working-class fantasy of upward mobility through reading? Did real children ever insist, like the fictional Frank Howard in Eliza Fenwick's Visits to the Juvenile Library; Or, Knowledge Proved to be the Source of Happiness, "I find more pleasure in saving my pocket-money to buy books with, than in spending it on fruit or cakes, because fruit and cakes can only amuse me for a while, but books give me a lasting pleasure"?
Throughout The Child Reader 1700-1840, Grenby aims to test previous hypotheses against the evidence offered by the material remains of children's interactions with their books. Careful investigation of the names written in these volumes leads to "a broader demographic and sociological analysis" in the hope of discovering "which consumers powered the establishment of children's books as a new product in the cultural marketplace".
He finds that "among the seventy inscriber families whose socio-economic class can be confidently determined, no single socio-economic group dominated the ownership of children's books", identifying owners from the rural trades and the aristocracy, from manufacturing and farming. If statistical analysis can sometimes seem a bit alien to literary studies - and here Grenby uses the 1841 census to reveal that 9 per cent of a group of child book-owners went on to serve in the armed forces and 10 per cent later became landed proprietors - he nevertheless writes with a wry wit that invites readers to share the delicious ironies that can sometimes leaven this kind of methodical analysis. "One young member of the gentry, Charles Edward Stephen Cooke of Wheatley Park (b. 1829), lived in a household holding eighteen servants plus many gardeners, making his ownership of Idle Hours Employed (1831) especially apt."
For the careful observer, these objects offer tangible, if fragmentary, glimpses of a world paradoxically both long vanished and instantly recognisable in their record of such details as sibling debates regarding ownership of a book or the painstaking rendering of an address: "Ann Owen/Hay/Hadley/Barnet/Middlesex/England/Great Britain/Europe/P. Ocean (sic)/World/Air/Nothing."
Even the topics of concern sometimes seem uncannily familiar. The recent controversy over "age-banding" children's books is prefigured in Anna Barbauld's express design of the first volume of Lessons for Children (1778-79) as specifically for two- to three-year-olds, but nearly 40 years later The Juvenile Review (1817) reassuringly comments: "We would advise mothers not to be discouraged if their little ones cannot undertake these lessons till they attain the age of four or five years."
In sum, Grenby's focus on the traces revealing how children actually used their books provides an astute counterbalance to current approaches to imagining the child reader.
The Child Reader 1700-1840
By M.O. Grenby. Cambridge University Press 336pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780521196444. Published 17 February 2011