As a senior in the Book Studies Concentration at Smith, the Mortimer Rare Book Room is one of my favorite spaces on campus. I’ll miss it when I graduate. (In a way it graduates with me, as it will be taking a new shape in the redesigned Neilson Library to come.) I consider myself incredibly privileged to have spent as much time in in the MRBR as I have, and regret not taking advantage of this great resource sooner. What follows is part of the work of my capstone, and I endeavor to bring together as many elements of my previous work in the Concentration as possible. This includes learning to see and understand books as physical objects, as historical artifacts, and as art, as well as my personal interest in children’s literature, the contributions of women in the book world, and preservation via digitization.
First published in 1807, The Peacock “At Home” is a text at the intersection of changes in children’s literature, located in the rich historical context of printing and bookmaking in the 19th century, and authored by a woman. Due in part to massive popularity in its time, the Mortimer Rare Book Room has several copies of the work, dating from 1807 to 1876. In fact, the editions available for consideration include those published in magazines, chapbooks from both England and America, electronic copies, and, last but certainly not least, an elaborate manuscript written and illustrated by a woman.
On the Text
For those who might be unfamiliar with certain British customs, the part of the title in quotes refers to a social phenomenon in England which spanned at least from the mid 18th century to the late 19th. From the Oxford English Dictionary: “A reception of visitors, for whose entertainment the host or hostess, or both, have announced that they will be ‘At home’ during certain hours, in the course of which the visitors may call and leave as they please.”
The Peacock “At Home” is a direct sequel to The Butterfly’s Ball by William Roscoe (see title page right). The first six lines summarize the events of the original text—a party for bugs—and then the poem continues with the entrance of its title character, the Peacock. He gives a speech to his fellow birds, insisting that insects cannot possibly be more sociable and fashionable than they are. The result is, of course, that the birds must have their own party, and so the Peacock sends out invitations for Saint Valentine’s Day. Some birds decline, and their various, humorous, reasons are given, but most quickly begin to congregate. They put on a concert followed by dancing, card playing, and finally an extravagant feast. When the party winds down and everyone flies home, the final stanza gives us something special:
Then long live the Peacock, in splendor unmatch’d,
Whose Ball shall be talk’d of, by Birds yet unhatch’d
His praise let the Trumpeter loudly proclaim,
And the Goose lend her quill to transmit it to Fame.
In these last lines the poem becomes remarkably self-referential. Writing is valorized here as a transmission to Fame, and the poem recognizes the role that birds have historically played in our doing so. The poem insists on its own significance, as if the party was historic, and that history is transmitted in two ways: aloud by the Trumpeter and on paper by the Goose. Remembering that this poem was intended for children, regularly published as part of the Juvenile Library, we can make the connection to reading aloud to children who cannot yet read for themselves–that’s the Trumpeter. Mrs. Dorset, as the author, is the Goose. Considering the repeated anthropomorphizing of the birds throughout, the “Birds yet unhatch’d” can become people yet unborn. There is something prophetic in these lines then, because here we are in 2016 still talking about the Peacock’s ball.
On the Author
Catherine Ann Dorset (1750?-1817?) was born to Nicholas and Anna Towers Turner of Stoke House, Surrey and Bignor Park, Sussex. Her father was a poet and her sister, Charlotte Smith, also became a published writer. Although she had a somewhat successful career as a writer, her life was frequented by deaths in her family. Her mother died shortly after her birth; she was married to Michael Dorset, an army captain, but was widowed in 1805; in 1806 her sister Charlotte also passed away. In 1807 she wrote The Peacock “At Home”.
Catherine Ann Dorset often collaborated with her sister to publish works of poetry together. The MRBR also owns and has access to electronic copies of Mrs. Dorset’s other work, including sequels to The Peacock “At Home” and an original translation of a French novel. The publisher John Harris was either purposeful in choosing her to construct a sequel to The Butterfly’s Ball or simply lucky, as his choice was certainly a success. As described in auction catalogs from Justin Schiller (who sold Mrs. Dorset’s work to the MRBR), this poem was”the first of many imitations following the publication of Roscoe’s poem; it may even be said that this surpassed the original in popularity and was itself frequently imitated” (Catalog 39).
On the Print Editions
The Peacock “At Home” was commissioned by John Harris, publisher, after the extreme popularity of The Butterfly’s Ball. It is widely believed that over 40,000 copies of the two were sold in 1807, that there were 26 editions by 1812, and that it continued to be printed until as late as 1883. More popular than Mother Hubbard at the time, The Peacock “At Home” was followed by at least 20 sequels, most of which were published anonymously. Roscoe had written the preceding poem, A Butterfly’s Ball (and Grasshopper’s Feast) for his son, but his day job as a member of Parliament likely left him too busy for, or uninterested in, pursuing a career in children’s literature.
John Harris is credited on the title page of many print editions as the successor to E. Newbery. The “E” stands for Elizabeth, a descendant of John Newbery for whom the children’s book award the Newbery Prize is named. Although the 1807 chapbook editions may name Harris as Elizabeth Newbery’s successor, he is also referred to as her manager in some cases; the degree of her involvement in the business is unknown. An edition from around 1840 held in the MRBR lists Grant and Griffith as the publishers, who name themselves the successors to Harris. It is still true today that publishing houses have a reputation and building that name brand is part of their business model. Being able to trace the publication of a children’s book back to Newbery himself was likely good for business.
Harris’ publications included engravings by William Mulready, and copies were often sold uncolored, to be colored in at home. What this means is that every copy in the Mortimer Rare Book Room with the illustrated pages has been colored differently (see above). Due to the popularity of Peacock, the pictures from it also appeared as pocket handkerchiefs, card games, and jigsaw puzzles (Muir, 102). These engravings would have appeared innovative and exciting in comparison with books still illustrated with woodcuts.
On the Manuscript
Perhaps the most impressive copy of The Peacock “At Home” in Smith’s collection is a manuscript dated 1875-1876. Its creator, calligrapher, and illustrator is Isabel Harriet Kerrich. Based upon census records and other documentation from Ancestry.com, Kerrich was born March 12, 1842 to Edward Kerrich (1807-1883) and Mary Evelyn Susan Kerrich (1809-1885). She died November 20th, 1916, living to be 74. She would have been 34 when she finished this manuscript, on Christmas 1876. One of eleven sisters, Isabel Harriet Kerrich likely had private schooling in the arts of calligraphy and watercolor. It is difficult to believe that the manuscript we have from her is her only piece, although it may be the only one to have survived.
Kerrich’s manuscript was bound in morocco, or goatskin, with gold tooling and the title on both covers (see left). The binding also features the name of its binder: Riviere. Robert Riviere (1808–1882) was a self-taught bookbinder who lived and worked in England. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “the majority of the binding of Riviere, like that of most binders of this period, is deficient in originality, it is in all other respects—in the quality of the materials, the forwarding, and in the delicacy of the tooling—deserving of much commendation.” Unfortunately, the binding on Kerrich’s manuscript is slightly warped and perhaps not as commendable as other work by Riviere.
The paper she used is watermarked “J Whatman 1874”. The Whatmans are credited as the first to manufacture wove paper in Europe, in about 1755, and may have invented the wove-wire mold. This paper looks somewhat like cloth when held up to the light and was considered superior due to its lack of chain or laid lines. First used by John Baskerville in 1757 for the famous typeface Baskerville, the Whatmans involvement in paper-making dates back to at least 1740 when James Whatman (1702-1759) became partial owner of Turkey Mill in England. His son, James Whatman (1741-1798) carried on his work. Eventually the mill changed hands, but due to the reputation attached to the Whatman name, their successors continued to use the watermark. There is reason to believe that Kerrich bought her paper in sheets and had it cut to the size she wanted for the manuscript pages, based upon pencil markings still visible at the top of pages and the variable placement of the watermarks. This is a common practice among bookmakers, especially considering the sheet size is too large for even oversize manuscripts such as this. Because Kerrich was using this quality of paper, this manuscript was probably not her first.
Rather than the metal plate illustrations of printed editions, Kerrich’s manuscript features hand-drawn watercolor flora and fauna borders on each page. It is art, in my mind, almost before it is poetry. Unlike a printed book where the text is the focus and not even the typeset letters distract from the words, this manuscript features a number of wonderfully distracting features. Due to its extravagance, heft, and all-around uniqueness I often hesitate to consider it a children’s book at all, despite the fact that the text is the same as in the chapbooks. Though colorful, these illustrations were done painstakingly, over a period of months, and with attention to detail. They are markedly different from the engravings featured in early printed editions, which were essentially coloring book pages for children to customize. Most of the time when you are reading a page of Kerrich’s calligraphy you will find the mentioned bird featured in the border.
I like to imagine that my reasons for wanting this poem digitized are quite similar to Kerrich’s reasons when she set out to create her manuscript. I’m just lucky that my process won’t take nine months. A large part of the impetus behind re-imagining this text in a new format is the desire to preserve it. The small, flimsy, chapbook versions of Peacock were not printed to last, especially not in the hands of children. Kerrich’s manuscript is in better shape as far as the longevity of the paper and the color of her illustrations; it is a work of art that belongs in a rare book room. Creating a digital copy of it will not only make this one-of-a-kind object accessible to people all over the world, but also establish once and for all the state of the book at this time. If the MRBR ever decides to have it rebound, for example, they’ll have the old binding documented. If some kind of disaster were to occur—ink spill, water damage, fire—the digital copy could even outlive the physical. While Kerrich may have been thinking more along the lines of creating art than preserving the text and her own knowledge of birds, it is also likely she could not have predicted that her work would be the subject of study 140 years later. Similarly, though I’m thinking of accessibility and preservation, as well as recording as much information on the text as I can, this work of research and digitization may have effects unknown to me now. I certainly hope so.
You can find the newly-digitized copy of the manuscript here or by clicking Menu at the top right of this page, and then on Book. Also, available through LibriVox, you can listen to an audio recording of the poem here.
I’m so glad to have spent so much time on this text and this manuscript, writing and researching in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. I remember expressing an interest in children’s books, watching Barbara Blumenthal pull out this beautiful book, and knowing that we didn’t need to look at anything else. I also remember my capstone advisor, Karen Kukil, asking me “Are you bird-watching today?” as I poured over the watercolor illustrations. Everyday with that manuscript was bird-watching. I want to thank Barbara and Karen for their help with this project, It really emphasized my feeling of being part of a tradition of women in the book world, especially as I was researching the women who created the text and manuscript of The Peacock “At Home”.
I feel that I should mention that much of my research and interest in specific details of the text and manuscript did not make it into this post. To that end, I will be presenting on my research on April 22nd as a part of Smith College’s Collaborations. If you’re interested in seeing the manuscript or any copy of the text pictured here in person you can contact Barbara Blumenthal or stop by Neilson Library February 13 to March 13 when the manuscript and print editions will be on display in the front hall for I Love My Library Day.
A few more thank yous before I go: Thank you to the offices of Justin Schiller for responding to my questions. Thank you also to all the great professors in the Book Studies Concentration, especially if I’ve taken your courses. I’ve loved all of them. Thanks to Barry Moser, who I dragged across campus one day just to look at what I was working on. A final thanks to all of the people who have lovingly curated the Mortimer Rare Book Room and worked to make it an invaluable educational space on this campus. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m indebted to you.
(Tasha Binkowski ‘17, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Anne Pimlott Baker, ‘Whatman, James (1702–1759)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 http://www.oxforddnb.com.libproxy.smith.edu:2048/view/article/40776
“at home | at-home, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/12501
Briggs, Julia, Dennis Butts, and M. O Grenby. Popular Children’s Literature In Britain. 1st ed. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008. Print.
Demers, Patricia. From Instruction To Delight. 1st ed. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2015. Print.
Knuth, Rebecca. Children’s Literature And British Identity. 1st ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2012. Print.
Muir, Percy H. English Children’s Books, 1600 To 1900. 1st ed. New York: Praeger, 1954. Print.
“My Discoveries” Ancestrylibrary.com. ProQuest, February 2017. Web. http://www.ancestry.com/inst/discoveries/?emailId=N-5e1a35dc-7438-44d0-aff1-6d6894beee9b&language=en-US&ahsht=2016-10-27T18%3a12%3a48&ahsh=c51d1db81fec87535acebaa820d61d51&o_xid=59215&o_lid=59215&o_sch=Email+Programs
Reynolds, Kimberley. Children’s Literature. 1st ed. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
W. Y. Fletcher, ‘Riviere, Robert (1808–1882)’, rev. Mirjam M. Foot, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 http://www.oxforddnb.com.libproxy.smith.edu:2048/view/article/23694