Fox Collection: Evocation of the Past

There is a piquant nostalgia in handling books with inscriptions from teachers, preachers and fond old aunts. Caroline Savage is given a book "presented her for exceeding in spelling and good behaviour her schoolmates by her preceptor Anthony Forbes on May 8, 1815." The gift is a minister's tribute to his dead son. "Steale not this book for shame" is just a reminder for a thief with a yen for self-help stuck in the back of Isaac Watts' The Improvement of the Mind (15.1.1). Fanny Chase, Ebenezer Cook and Clarissa Noble practice their penmanship in the 1820s. Jane Eliot and Louise Wolcott make rickety attempts at writing their own names in 1843. So while slogging through quantities of inept or garish titles, some evidence of a previous reader reminds you what this particular copy meant to someone in the past. Even though they were cheap and advertised as such, their owners took the trouble to mend them with cross-stitching. The earliest books (1790s–1840s) have clumsy illustrations with the children pictured as small adults with enormous heads. In I Dare Not Tell A Lie (1.1.6A) an infant who resembles David Hockney mends his trousers. Careless Maria (1.5.25), another hydrocephalic child, throws her toys around until her uncle tells her, "I won't tee-totums buy for such a careless girl." Stock engravings are put to odd uses, for instance, The Little Rebel (1.1.6A) about "little Harry Chase, who has been kept all day shut up like a culprit, as he is," is illustrated with a Chinese criminal in the stocks. Little Ellen, The Good Girl (1.2.14) has a "Burman Idol" on the back endpaper.

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