I’ve been visiting some of my favourite bookshops over the last few weeks and picking up some utter treasures. These are books that wouldn’t and won’t make a fortune if I sold them on, but to me they’re priceless in what they say about our ideas of childhood and children many moons ago. I’m going to introduce a couple of them to you over the next couple of weeks, The Child’s Guide To Knowledge (1861) is the first one up.
It’s a slim, small little thing, the sort of book that could fit easily into your pocket. I found my copy of it in a charity shop at the seaside, and it was dwarfed by the books about it. This is a copy that’s lived a life, and that’s no wonder when you consider the age of it. 1861. The American Civil War was happening, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, and on March 12, this book was being held by somebody called Richard. He wrote his name in it too.
(I wonder, upon investigation, whether it was this Richard? I’m not sure about the dates, or even if I’m reading his name correctly, but the area feels about right. I’m not sure people would have travelled far from their point of origin, particularly on a fairly prosperous coast(?)).
I had a little bit of a moment when I found it. I don’t know much about books like this, as they’re about fifty or so years before my specialist area, but I love them. These little collections of lessons and facts to be recited by some poor child in some schoolroom somewhere are fascinating. They tell us what adults thought children should know, and the way that they thought they should know them. This, for example, is onto talking about macaroni by page three. Macaroni! Macaroni comes before the lesson on the constitution! It’s so weird!
A final thing to note is the authorship. A Child’s Guide to Knowledge is written, rather coyly, ‘By A Lady’. (Coincidentally, this sentence tickles me so much, I used it as the background of my Twitter and might never change). The lady herself is never named throughout the text, except refers to herself as the authoress and refuses to add wood-cuts or engravings into the book as they ‘might take off the attention of children’. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Well, I can answer my own question straight away here and refer to the fact that she’s not named. Some of that is obviously due to convention, the status of writing for children at that time, and the blessed patriarchy that we all hold so dear (!). That can be rectified with the benefit of hindsight, and so here’s to you Fanny Umphelby and thank you for giving me so much joy with this peculiarly, brilliant little book. I particularly love how you finished the last page off with a good review.