Category Archives: 18th-Century Literature

A Panoply of Primers

For centuries, children’s literature consisted almost exclusively of didactic texts designed to teach basic skills like reading and writing or to impart religious lessons. During the Middle Ages, the vast majority of these texts were still written in Latin. Hornbooks with the Lord’s Prayer and the alphabet were the most common forms of children’s literature in the 1400′s, and alphabet books began showing up in Russia, Denmark, and Italy during the following century.

In the 1600′s, the concept of childhood shifted: children were no longer thought of as miniature adults, but as separate beings with their own juvenile needs and preferences. Publishers began printing books exclusively for children, though these, too, were often didactic. The seventeenth century also saw the rise of Puritanism, which again shaped people’s views of children. They were viewed not as young innocents, but as moral savages who needed stringent moral instruction.

It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that children’s literature came into its own as a genre. A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) by John Newbery is considered the first book published for children’s pleasure reading. As technologies improved and it got cheaper to produce books, the industry blossomed. Even as pleasure reading became popular, the publication of educational materials maintained its momentum. Literacy rates began to improve, increasing the demand for, and interest in, primers and similar educational pieces.

Today, collectors can build quite extensive collections around educational materials printed for children. The broadest category of these is the primer. The first known use of the word “primer” was in the fourteenth century. The term derives from the Latin primarium, meaning “primary,” and was the name for a layperson’s prayerbook. At the time, literacy was relatively uncommon, but people did need to read their prayers. This book was often the only one in a home, so it was used to teach children to read. Eventually the term broadened and referred to any small book intended to teach reading. Today a “primer” may refer to a short, introductory piece about a specific topic or to a brief, informative piece of writing.

A Selection of Primers

We’re delighted to offer a selection of primers in a variety of subjects and time periods. Should you have a question about an item, please don’t hesitate to contact us!

The London Vocabulary

Greenwood_London_VocabularyGrammarian James Greenwood published the first edition of The London Vocabularly, English and Latin in 1713. After working for years at the Hackney Academy, Greenwood opened up his own boarding school in Essex in 1711 and was later appointed surmaster of St. Paul’s School in London. He’s best known for his An Essay on Practical Grammar (1711), which received much positive praise from a number of scholars and critics, including Isaac Watts.  The London Vocabulary went through a number of editions, both English and American, of which this is the seventeenth English edition. Details>>

The Instructor

Fisher_InstructorA quite popular primer, George Fisher’sThe Instructor  appeared in numerous editions, both throughout the United Kingdom and in America. Like many educational books at the time, it purportedly offered an easier method of learning than other primers. And also like many educational books at the time, it reminds us of just how little people really knew about geography at the time, and that this truly was an age of exploration and discovery. In this Glasgow edition, printed in 1786, California is still an enigma: “Northward, on the Pacific Ocean, is New Mexico, and the island of California; but of these we know but little.” ESTC records five holdings of this edition. Details>>

The Young Child’s ABC

Anderson_Young_Childs_ABCWritten by Alexander Anderson and illustrated by Samuel Wood, The Young Child’s ABC (1806) contains a horn book-style alphabet and a syllabary. Letters are illustrated with objects in alphabetical order. This children’s chapbook was the first item published by Wood, who would go on to have an illustrious and prolific career in the trade. He had thousands of titles under his imprint. Although four copies of later editions have come to auction in the last three decades or so, none of this first edition have come to market. It’s quite rare in the trade. Details>>

A Book Explaining the Ranks and Dignities of British Society

Lamb_Ranks_Dignities_British_SocietyCharles Lamb is best remembered for his collaboration with his sister, Mary Lamb, on Tales from Shakespeare. But he also anonymously published A Book Explaining the Ranks and Dignities of British Society in 1805. The charmingly illustrated children’s book delineates the hierarchy of the nobility, clergy, army, navy, government & professions; with their history & origins, forms of address, order of precedence, honors, with their coronets & coronation robes described, etc.This is the second edition, published in 1809. The book has been occasionally at auction these last 30+ years, though not since 2003. It’s scarce in the trade. Details>>

Le Livre des Enfans

Livre_EnfansLe Livre des Enfans was published in Quebec in 1834. Illustrated with woodcuts, the work begins with two alphabets, which are followed by the usual primer material. The cover features a short verse by Racine. Le Livre des Enfans also includes thirteen pages of animal descriptions, such as Le Zebre, Le Cheval, and Le Hibou. It’s scarce in the trade. Details>>

The New England Primer

Howland_New_England_PrimerPublished around 1840, The New England Primer bears quite a drop title: Containing the Assembly’s Catechism; The Account of the Burning of John Rogers; A Dialogue Between Christ, A Youth, and the Devil; and Various Other Useful and Instructive Matter. With a Historical Introduction, by Rev. H. Humphrey, D.D. Rogers was a biblical translator and commentator, and the first English Protestant martyr under Mary I. He was burned at the stake for heresy in February 1555. This primer bears a frontis of Isaac Watts. Though this copy has some wear to its wrappers, it’s in good condition. Details>>

Girls’ and Boys’ Primer, Part II

Girls_Boys_PrimerGirls’ and Boys’ Primer, Part II was published around 1850 by Rufus Merrill in Concord, New Hampshire. The alphabet is illustrated with woodcuts. The primer features the usual material: alphabet, poems, and lessons in spelling and writing. This copy is in the publisher’s original buff paper wrappers with ornamental border to front and rear wrappers and the signature of “Eastman & Bogart.” Though there’s light wear and soiling to the wrappers, this is a very good copy. Details>>

A Farewell Present to a Female Scholar, on Going to Service

Farewell_Present_Female_ScholarsThanks to the Enabling Act of 1799, dissenters could teach without subscription to the Church of England. The London Sunday-School Union was formed in 1803 with the aim of educating poor children and became a very active publishing organization. One of its publications was A Farewell Present to a Female Scholar, on Going to Service (ca 1828). An apparently unrecorded little work, it offers counseling a young lady regarding her pending move to the world of ‘service,’ “a useful and important station in society ” and  outlines a number of ‘rules to live by’ follow, including “Fifthly- Always observe a respectful and obliging behaviour towards those with whom you live, and endeavor to go about your work with a cheerful air, as a pleasure rather than a burden to you.” It appears to have served as a sort of primer for young women entering domestic service. Details>>

Fleet Fact Book

Fleet_Fact_BookFleet Fact Book (ca 1906-1910) is separated into four sections: The “Dreadnaught” (2 text pages & 1 photographic image); Submarines (1 text page & 5 photographic images); Torpedo Boat Destroyers (1 text page & 2 photographic images); and The Fleet / Dreadnaught Types (1 text page summarizing the fleet strength, including ship types/numbers & 5 color postcard-type images of diverse dreadnaught types). In short, the volume offers a custom ‘primer’ for the Royal English Navy, ca 1910, with all indications the book created for the use of a senior Naval official, or senior political figure associated with the Royal Navy. Details>>

Puff and Dick

Puff_DickPictured are the main characters from this famous primary reader: Dick, Jane, Spot, Puff & Baby. This is a rare unused printed sheet of a tale from the highly-collected Dick & Jane reader series, published in the 1950′s. Details>>



Related Posts:
Chapbooks: Short Books with Long History
The Ins and Outs of Collecting Serial Fiction for Children
Randolph Caldecott: Legend in Children’s Literature


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Portrait of a Bluestocking: Hannah More

Hannah_MoreProlific author Hannah More made her way to the most prestigious literary circles of eighteenth-century England, establishing herself as a true Bluestocking. But she’s better known for her moralist writings.

Hannah More was born on February 2, 1745. Her father, who’d been raised Presbyterian, had turned to the Church of England. He’d aspired to a career in the church and raised all his daughters with a particularly strong religious foundation, even for the time. More and her sisters were educated at home. Her father taught mathematics and Latin. Later, her elder sisters would teach her French.

In 1758, her father established a girls’ boarding school. More eventually began teaching there. Her first literary endeavors were pastoral plays that would be appropriate for her students to perform. When she published In Search After Happiness (1762), the work proved a success. Within about twenty years, it had sold over 10,000 copies.

More gave up her position at the school in 1767 because she got engaged to William Turner. But six years later, the two still hadn’t gotten married–and Turner exhibited no sense of urgency. In 1773, the engagement ended. More suffered a nervous breakdown, and Turner agreed to pay £200 a year to More as compensation. That sum was enough that More could live modestly while she pursued a literary career.

Garrick-Poetical_WorksThat same year, More made a pilgrimage to London with two of her sisters, a trip she would repeat annually. Thanks to the lyrics she’d written about David Garrick’s version of King Lear, the legendary actor and playwright took notice of More. The acquaintance proved a fortuitous one for More: not only did Garrick help her gain entry into London’s literary circles, but he also collaborated with her on the tragedy Percy (1777), writing both the prologue and epilogue. The association ensured that when the play was performed at Convent Garden that December, it was a smashing success.

But when More followed up with The Fatal Falsehood in 1779, she was on her own. Garrick had passed away. The new play foundered, and More decided to turn away from theatre and pursue other genres. By this time, she’d become thoroughly ensconced with London’s literati. More befriended luminaries like Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Burke. In 1781, More met Horace Walpole, and the two occasionally corresponded thereafter.

More also frequented Lady Elizabeth Montagu’s salon and came to be closely affiliated with the Bluestockings, befriending Hester Capone, Elizabeth Carter, Frances Boscawen, and Elizabeth Vesey. In 1782, More wrote a witty poem in tribute to her friends called The Bas-Bleu, but it wouldn’t be published until two years later. That year also marked a turning point in More’s career. With Sacred Dramas (1782), she began turning toward more serious subjects. She followed up with works like An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1788) and Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1809).

More also began to engage in the abolitionist movement. She had become close with Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, along with evangelical leaders like Zachary Macaulay and William Wilberforce. More also found herself drawn into a circle of prominent anti-slavery activists like James Ramsay and Charles Middleton.

While back in Bristol, More discovered the poetry of Ann Yearsley. She took the young poetess under her wing, even organizing a benefit to raise money when Yearsley faced dire financial straits. Yearsley, who was known as Lactilia, published Poems, on Several Occasions and earned £600. Wishing to protect Yearsley’s earnings from her greedy husband, More and Montagu put the money in trust. Yearsley demanded the capital, but her mentors refused. Finally, Yearsley publicly insinuated that More had stolen the money. They were left with no choice but to turn over the money to Yearsley. Meanwhile, her reputation destroyed, More was forced to slink away from the London social scene.

Though More left London, she didn’t stop writing. She retired to the country with her sister Martha in 1785 and devoted her time to writing religious books and tracts. More’s long friendship with Porteus would come to significantly shape this period of More’s authorial career. At Porteus’ urging, More undertook a number of lively rhymes and prose stories–all didactic, naturally. They started in 1792 with Village Politics, by Will Chip, with the intent to refute the doctrines of Thomas Paine and undermine the influence of the French Revolution.Village Politics was a publishing phenomenon.


“The Carpenter,” a broadside from the Cheap Repository series

Encouraged, More and Porteus embarked on a more ambitious endeavor. They began the Cheap Repository Series, which ran from 1795 until 1797. Already a prolific author, More managed to write three pieces for the series each month. The most famous of these, The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, was even translated into multiple languages. The tracts promoted Christian virtues like sobriety, frugality, and industry. But they also encouraged respect for the British Constitution and a trust in the benevolence of the gentry. Two million copies circulated in one year.

Meanwhile, More and her sister Martha had been busy setting up a dozen schools where children could learn to read and get lessons on the Bible and the catechism. Their noble cause had met with considerable resistance from local farmers, who feared that education would prove the downfall of agriculture. More also had some unlikely detractors: local church leaders, who considered More’s approach and doctrine too Methodist.

More remained quite active and productive until the last years of her life. She’s remembered today for her tireless work for education, and for her religious writing. Because her doctrine has fallen out of fashion, More’s works aren’t often taught, and she’s fallen from our collective conscience. But her works encapsulate the zeitgeist of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain.


Randolph Caldecott, Legend of Children’s Literature

Randolph_CaldecottYesterday the winners of this year’s Newbery and Caldecott Awards were announced. The latter was named for Randolph Caldecott, an accomplished painter and sculptor whose various attainments are often eclipsed by his brilliant carer as an illustrator. Along with figures like Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott was truly one of the most gifted illustrators of the Victorian era.

Caldecott was born in Chester on March 22, 1846. He was third child by his father’s second wife and would eventually be one of thirteen children. From the time he was young, Caldecott frequently spent his free time sketching and modeling his surroundings. But when Caldecott left school at fifteen years old, it wasn’t to pursue a career in art. He took a position at the Whitchurch branch of the Whitchurch & Ellesmere Bank. Caldecott settled in a nearby village, and he often took time to capture the country scenes that stretched out before him as he traveled to visit clients.

A lover of riding, Caldecott naturally took up hunting. His collected works include, therefore, a huge number of hunting scenes, along with myriad sketches of animals. Caldecott’s first published drawing was of neither; it was of a disastrous fire at the Queen Railway Hotel. Caldecott wrote an account of the blaze for the Illustrated London News. When Caldecott moved to Manchester six years later to work at the Manchester & Salford Bank, he took the opportunity to take night classes at the Manchester School of Art. Soon after, his drawings began appearing in local and London periodicals.

Randolph_Caldecott_MilkmaidThen in 1870, Caldecott’s friend Thomas Armstrong, a painter in London, introduced Caldecott to Henry Blackburn of London Society. Blackburn and Caldecott got along famously, eventually traveling together. For a time, Caldecott even lived in a cottage at Blackburn’s estate. Blackburn published a number of Caldecott’s illustrations in the magazine, and in 1872 Caldecott decided to move to London and pursue illustration full time. He was 26 years old.

Within two years, Caldecott found himself a prominent magazine illustrator working on commission. His opus is varied, ranging from children’s books to travel illustrations and caricatures. His illustrations for Washington Irving’s Old Christmas and Bracebridge Hall (1875) had made his name in the illustration world. Caldecott also illustrated works by Oliver Goldsmith, notably Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog. Caldecott’s illustration of the poem would be used in a World War I parody, in which the head in his original illustration was replaced by the head of the Kaiser of Germany.

Caldecott_Farmer_BoyCaldecott settled in the heart of Bloomsbury. He was surrounded by artists and literati, regularly encountering figures like Dante Rosetti, George du Maurier, and Frederic Leighton. Lord Leighton would go on to hire Caldecott to design four peacock capitals for the Asia room of Leighton House in Kensington; Walter Crane would design a peacock frieze for the same room.

In 1877, accomplished engraver Edmund Evans ended his relationship with illustrator Walter Crane. Evans found Caldecott’s illustrations “racy and spontaneous,” so he invited Caldecott to replace Crane. The first project: two Christmas books. Caldecott took on the work, illustrating The House that Jack Built and the William Cowper poem The Diverting History of John Gilpin. These books were so successful that Caldecott produced two more each Christmas for the rest of his life. Caldecott chose all the stories and rhymes, sometimes even composing them himself.

Caldecott_Song_SixpenceCombined sales of the Christmas books hit 867,000 during Caldecott’s lifetime. The artist was internationally famous. Caldecott’s publisher, George Routledge & Sons, took Caldecott’s works quite seriously. They took great pains to reproduce the colors exactly as Caldecott had intended. When the books were reissued by Frederick Warner & Co after Caldcott died, they brightened the colors but lost much of the subtlety imbued by Caldecott.

Not all Caldecott’s works, however, were commercially successful. In 1883, he undertook an edition of Aesop’s fables. He invited his brother Alfred to translate the tales from the original Greek, but later overruled Alfred’s accuracy. Caldecott’s goal was to make Aesop’s fables, which were often used for instruction, more accessible to children. He illustrated each of the tales he selected with Victorian human behavior. Usually comical, the illustrations illuminated the veracity of Aesop’s teachings. But the book was still too complicated for children, and it did not sell well.

Caldecott’s 1885 edition of The Great Panjandrum Himself fared much better. The nonsense poem by Samuel Foote had become quite the rage among university students, who would try to memorize the lines and recite them to one another. (Generations later, students would take up Winnie-the-Pooh, by AA Milne, with the same fervor; the story was even translated into Latin by one undergraduate.)

Meanwhile, Caldecott’s health was ever precarious. He frequently traveled to warmer climates. It was on one of these trips, in 1886, that he passed away. Caldecott and his wife had arrived in St. Augustine, Florida during a particularly cold February. Caldecott succumbed to the cold, and his memorial still stands in St. Augustine.

Related Posts:
AA Milne: Legendary Children’s Author and Ambivalent Pacifist
Kate Greenaway: Legendary Illustrator of Children’s Books
Maurice Moutet de Monvel and His Ingenious ‘Jeanne d’Arc’

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Chapbooks: Short Books with Long History

Scholars debate over the etymology of the term “chapbook.” Some argue that “chap” is derived from “cheap,” surely an accurate description of chapbooks, since they were indeed cheap little publications. But the more widely accepted explanation is that “chap” comes from the Old English “céap,” meaning “barter” or “deal.” Peddlers came to be known as chaps, and they were the primary purveyors of chapbooks. Whatever the origin of their name, chapbooks became a vital tool for dissemination of information and promotion of literacy. As publishing and readers’ tastes evolved, chapbooks also provided an ideal means of addressing an increased demand for children’s literature.

Since the Middle Ages, traveling peddlers provided many necessary wares to rural communities–and that included the news. They would often regale their customers with the latest in politics, entertainment, and gossip. Then in 1693, England repealed the Act of 1662, which had limited the number of Master Printers allowed in the country. The number of printers exploded. Meanwhile, charity schools emerged, making education and literacy more accessible to the poor. The demand for cheaply printed reading materials drastically increased as a result, and all the new printers were happy to supply their needs.

By 1700, chapmen regularly carried small books–usually about the size of a waistcoat pocket–on virtually every topic imaginable. The books were generally coverless, and their illustrations were made of recycled (and irrelevant) woodcuts from other publications. In the absence of copyright laws, printers would steal illustrations or even large chunks of text from other chapbooks and reproduce them in their own editions. Early chapbooks weren’t even cut; the purchaser would cut apart the pages and either pin or stitch the book together to read.

Dr Watts-Divine SongsChapbooks grew into an incredibly powerful tool for disseminating new ideas. When Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man, he suggested that the second edition be made available in chapbook form. The book went on to sell over two million copies, an incredible feat in those days, when the average publishing run might be only a few hundred or thousand copies. Religious organizations used the form to publish religious tracts, nicknamed “godlinesses” or “Sunday schools.” There were even chapbooks for the chapmen themselves, containing information about different towns, dates for local fairs, and road maps.

The Industrial Revolution, however, brought a revolution in the printed word as well. People flocked to the cities, reducing chapbooks’ role in news delivery. Newspapers had also become cheaper to produce, so they were no longer relegated to the upper class. And chapbooks’ days seemed numbered when public solicitation was outlawed and peddlers could no longer distribute them. Meanwhile people’s tastes were changing. As the decades of the 1800′s passed, the novel was emerging as a new, preferred form, and in terms of “cheap” literature, chapbooks eventually gave way to “penny dreadfuls,” the dime novel, and other such low-brow forms.

But changing reading habits and higher literacy rates also meant an increased demand for children’s literature. From around 1780, most booksellers offered a variety of children’s chapbooks, which included ABC’s, jokes, riddles, stories, and religious materials like prayers and catechism. Thanks to improved printing techniques, this generation of chapbooks was printed with relevant illustrations and attached colored paper or card wrappers.


Though we think of chapbooks as a distinctly British form, they emerged in various forms around the world. Harry B. Weiss writes in A Book about Chapbooks, “The contents of chapbooks, the world over, fall readily into certain classes and many were the borrowings, with of course, adaptations and changes to suit particular countries.” And despite their variant forms and culturally specific content, chapbooks consistently served as a democratizing force in the dissemination of ideas.

Collectors may build entire collections around chapbooks, or they may find that certain chapbooks fit in well with their collections. For example, the 1849 edition of Juvenile Pastimes includes a rare early pictorial depiction of baseball, making it an ideal addition to a collection of baseball books. Collectors of erotica may enjoy Dumb Dora: Rod Gets Taken Again, an adult chapbook with suggestive, but not pornographic, illustrations. The variety of chapbooks means there’s a little book for everyone!

This month’s select acquisitions are a short list of delightful chapbooks. Please peruse them and contact us if you have any inquiries. As cataloguing chapbooks is quite the endeavor, we’ve also put together an article about the resources used to catalogue the items on the list, which includes our bibliographic sources at the end.


Samuel Johnson: Both Author and Subject of Innovative Biography

Life of Johnson-James Boswell

September 18 marks the birthday of Samuel Johnson, legendary author, essayist, and lexicographer. Johnson is perhaps best known as the subject of James Boswell’s seminal Life of Johnson, the biography that ushered in a new era for the genre. But before Johnson merited his own biography (indeed, multiple biographies), he got his start by writing a biography himself. Johnson began a strange and relatively short-lived friendship with minor poet Richard Savage, and gained attention by writing Savage’s biography.

An Unlikely Friendship

Grub Street Journal

From The Grub Street Journal (Oct 30, 1732), this cartoon depicts the “literatory,” a sort of publishing factory driven by beasts without artistic inspiration. Such was the perception of Grub Street writers like Johnson and Savage, who did indeed scrape together a living from commissioned writing.  

Samuel Johnson came to London in 1737, when he was 28 years old. By 1739, he was already separated from his wife (already in her late forties) and scraping by as an impoverished writer in Grub Street. It was during this period of poverty that Johnson befriended Richard Savage. Savage was at least twelve years older than Johnson, and he, too was struggling to make a living with his pen. Savage claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield and the Earl Rivers. Thanks to a sensational public divorce, Savage’s repeated insistence on his ancestry, and the fact that he did in fact receive financial support from the countess, his assertions are rather well corroborated.

Savage found even further notoriety when he killed a man and was sentenced to death. He says that his own mother encouraged a speedy dispatch of her illegitimate son, but Queen Caroline interceded on his behalf. Savage was released, and soon stories of his origins and exploits had taken on a life of their own. Savage’s most famous poem was, appropriately enough, The Bastard.

Richard Savage-Old Bailey

Etching of proceedings inside the Old Bailey (c 1725)

It’s not clear how or when Johnson and Savage first met. There’s no actual documentation of their meeting in the form of letters, journal entries, or eyewitness accounts. But in Johnson’s later years, the myth developed that Johnson and Savage encountered each other on the street at night. Neither could afford food or lodging, so they passed the nights by wandering through London. Their friendship, however, lasted less than two years. And while Johnson writes of Savage’s nightly walks, he never mentions himself as a companion–he never alludes to the pair’s first meeting at all.

The friendship is unlikely in every sense. Johnson was a devout Christian, hardly a likely companion to a murderer and profligate. It was likely a friendship of proximity, promulgated by shared circumstances. But Life of Savage propelled Johnson to fame, and he remained successful thanks to subsequent works like his momentous Dictionary of the English Language (1755), The History of Rasselas (1759), and The Rambler (1750-1752). Savage, on the other hand, continued to languish as a minor poet. He relentlessly and shamelessly sought the patronage of Robert Walpole and an appointment to the position of poet laureate, but to no avail.

An Empathetic Biographer

Johnson starts his biography with a sort of meditation on Savage’s nightly perambulations around London. He places these excursions in the context of Savage’s poem “Of Public Spirit,” which considers the state’s responsibility to care for the poor and indigent and questions the Whig policy of expatriating the underprivileged to North America and Africa. Savage goes so far as to attack colonialism, countering the popular rationalization that “while they enslave, they civilize.” It’s quite fitting that “Of Public Spirit” sold only 72 copies, underlining Savage’s status as a nonentity. Savage himself was disenfranchised, and Johnson saw him as a spokesman for the downtrodden. Johnson’s latent empathy for Savage betrays his own familiarity with such destitution.

Yet while Johnson writes of Savage’s nightly walks, he never mentions himself as a companion–he never alludes to the pair’s first meeting at all. By the time he set about writing Savage’s biography, he had already realized the need to distance himself from Savage. Johnson wrote, “it was always dangerous to trust him, because he considered himself discharged, by the first Quarrel, from all Ties of Honour or Gratitude.”

Richard Savage-Samuel Johnson

Thus, while Johnson saw Savage as a Romantic figure, a starving-poet archetype, he never got taken by him. A great appeal of Life of Savage was that tension between Johnson as biographer and Johnson as friend; he constantly walked a line between judgement and empathy. This approach was certainly uncommon; biographies tended to aggrandize their subjects, glossing over shortcomings. Johnson also departed from the classic form of biography, drawing influences instead from distinctively English sources: elements of Newgate confessions, scandal romances, and courtroom dramas all crop up in Life of Savage. Johnson’s innovation resulted in a biography that was as readable as a novel.

A Role Reversal

Fast forward almost twenty years, to May 16, 1763. Johnson was 53 years old. He entered Tom Davies’ bookshop and encountered the 22-year-old James Boswell. The Scottish Boswell had entreated Davies to keep his heritage a secret; he knew that Johnson disliked Scots. But Davies laughed off the request and made a very casual introduction. The meeting affected Boswell deeply, just as Johnson’s first interaction with Savage had likely affected Johnson profoundly. Boswell wrote of the experience later, noting that Johnson was “a Man of most dreadful appearance. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge, and strength of expression command vast respect and render him excellent company.”

Boswell resolved to record further details of his interactions with Johnson, an endeavor that would later result in eighteen volumes of documentation over their long friendship. It’s important to note that Boswell only spent approximately 250 days with Johnson, which illustrates how truly fastidious he was in recording the details of Johnson’s life. When Boswell undertook Johnson’s biography, he overcame the challenge of having met Johnson later in life by conducting extensive research. Despite apparently possessing all the “truth” of Johnson’s life, Boswell still took liberties with Johnson’s life. He censured some of Johnson’s less politically correct comments and omitted some events altogether.

Samuel Johnson-James Boswell-Oliver Goldsmith

In “The Mitre Tavern” (1880), Samuel Johnson (far right) converses with James Boswell (center) and author Goldsmith.

Yet Boswell wasn’t the first to attempt a biography of Samuel Johnson. Other much more illustrious authors, namely Horace Walpole, Elizabeth Montagu, and Frances Burney, were all working on biographies. And Sir Richard Hawkins had already beaten Boswell to the punch. The two, it turns out, didn’t agree on much–except that Johnson’s relationship with Savage was completely inexplicable. Though they presented disparate accounts of Johnson’s first meeting with Savage (and Johnson himself did nothing to elucidate the matter), their estimation of Savage is perhaps best distilled by Boswell: he called Savage “a man of whom it is difficult to speak impartially, without wondering that he was for some time the intimate companion of Johnson; for his character was marked by profligacy, insolence, and ingratitude.”

When Boswell finally published Life of Johnson in 1791, the work was truly exhaustive. Boswell set a new standard for biography, insisting upon the importance of details, of acknowledging that the minutiae are ultimately part of the big picture of someone’s character and personhood. His work now stands as the greatest biography in the English language, perhaps, as some think, eclipsing even the work of Johnson himself.



Eliza Haywood, Overlooked Authorial Pioneer

Called both the “Great Arbitress of Passion” and insulted as “Juno of majestic size,” Eliza Haywood occupied a complicated place among her contemporaries. The incredibly prolific author wrote novels, plays, and pamphlets, and her writing incited controversy among her peers. Today scholars appreciate Haywood’s role as a feminist writer, and collectors can build an expansive and diverting personal library around her many works.

A Start on the Stage


Eliza Haywood

Haywood’s origins are obscure, mainly because she gave conflicting accounts of her own life. But experts agree that she was born in or around 1693. Born Elizabeth Fowler, she first appears on the public record in 1715 as “Mrs. Haywood” in Thomas Shadwell’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens; Or, The Man-Hater at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre. She shared the stage with bookseller William Hatchett, who would be her companion and lover for over 20 years; the two never married, but Hatchett was the father of Haywood’s second child.

By 1717, Haywood had made her way to Lincoln Inn Fields, where she worked for John Rich. Rich had Haywood write an adaptation of The Fair Captive, but the play ran for only three nights. Rich staged the play for a fourth night, giving the proceeds to Haywood. Haywood’s own first play, A Wife to be Lett was staged six years later in 1723. She would go on to join Henry Fielding at Haymarket Theatre, staging opposition plays. In 1729, Haywood wrote Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lunenburgh to honor George II, the head of Tory opposition to Robert Walpole’s ministry.

More successful, however, was an opera based on of Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies. Called The Opera of Operas (1733), Haywood’s adaptation included an important difference: it includes a reconciliation scene. By this time, George I and George II had reconciled, thanks to Caroline of Ansbach, and Haywood includes this development–along with symbols borrowed from Caroline’s grotto. These hints weren’t lost on Haywood’s audience, and they signaled her shift in politics to support the Tories. Fielding, however, kept up his oppositional activities, and Robert Walpole responded with the Licensing Act of 1737. The legislation effectively stopped all new plays from being produced, leaving Haywood, Fielding, and their contemporaries to pursue other authorial genres.

Amatory Fiction and Parallel Histories

By this time, however, Haywood had already exhibited talent in a variety of genres. Throughout the 1720′s, she wrote the kinds of novels that would today be called “bodice rippers.” Haywood made her debut with Love in Excess; Or, the Fatal Enquiry (1719-1720), which offered a surprisingly positive view of a fallen woman. The novel was published in two separate volumes thanks to the economy of the time; authors were paid flat fees for their work, rather than royalties, so it behooved Haywood and her contemporaries to publish their works in multiple volumes.

Watch an Oxford University lecture on Haywood’s Love in Excess and Defoe’s novels>>

Had she gotten royalties for Love in Excess, she’d have been well off, indeed. The book was reprinted six times over the next decade. To advertise subsequent editions, Haywood’s colleagues wrote in praise of Haywood’s seductive writing. Richard Savage exclaimed that her “soul-thrilling accents all our senses wound” to promote the second printing of the novel’s first edition, and James Sterling wrote in 1725 that Haywood was the “Great Arbitress of Passion.”

Haywood continued penning novels for the next three decades. She, Aphra Behn, and Delarivier Manley came to be known as “the fair triumvirate of wit,” and Haywood contributed fully to the literary life of her era. Her Adventures of Eovaii: A Pre-Adamitical History (1736) mocks the idea that a woman should barter her virginity to obtain a place in society, later popularized by Samuel Richardson in Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). Henry Fielding would also satirize Richardson’s novel with An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741).

Haywood’s writing evolved considerably over time, as did her evaluations of marriage and relationships between women and men. The History of Betsy Thoughtless (1751) is considered the first novel of female development written in English, and it’s also unusual for its focus on marriage, rather than courtship, which became popular and reached a peak in the nineteenth century with authors like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Pamphlets and Periodicals


Duncan Campbell

Along with her thrilling novels of the 1720′s, Haywood also published a number of titillating pamphlets about the life and supposed talents of the deaf and mute Duncan Campbell. Campbell allegedly had a gift of prophecy, which was attributed to numerous supernatural sources. Haywood published A Spy Upon the Conjurer (1724) and The Dumb Projector (1725). It’s also conjectured that Haywood wrote, along with Daniel Defoe and William Bond, The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell (1720).

In 1744, Haywood undertook a new and impressive task. She began issuing The Female Spectator, the first periodical written by women, for women. It was Haywood’s response to The Spectator, an incredibly popular periodical issued by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and she followed the example of John Dunton’s Ladies’ Mercury. In The Female Spectator, Haywood wrote using four personas, rather than her own name. She issued four volumes of the periodical between 1744 and 1746. When Haywood published her conduct book The Wife a decade later, she originally published under the “Mira” persona she’d used in The Female Spectator. But The Wife’s companion piece, The Husband was published shortly thereafter under Haywood’s own name.

Haywood again ran into trouble for expressing her political views with The Parrot (1746) and A Letter from H__ G__g, Esq (1750). She created fictional accounts of the exploits of Bonnie Prince Charlie, which proved an ill advised topic to address on the heels of the Jacobite uprising. A stack of the pamphlets was found in her home, and Haywood was arrested and charged with seditious libel–as was Hatchett.. Haywood argued that she hadn’t written or printed the pamphlets, but that someone had left them at her home. Neither Haywood nor Hatchett ever went to trial.

Haywood’s Appearance in Pope’s Dunciad


The first volume of ‘Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia’ (1725)

Ever interested in politics, Haywood published a series of parallel histories, notably Memoirs of a Certain Island, Adjacent to Utopia (1724) and The Secret History of the Present Intrigues of the Court of Caramania (1727). In the former, Haywood not only picks a fight with her contemporary Martha Fowkes, but she also not so subtly alludes to her one-time affair with Richard Savage–and to Savage’s lack of proper pedigree. Savage claimed that he was the illegitimate heir of a wealthy family, and many details of his claims have been corroborated. He also murdered a man but managed to dodge the death penalty.

Savage’s purported lowly origins only served to heighten his notoriety. A poet (and the father of Haywood’s first child), Savage became a famous figure, so much so that Samuel Johnson deemed him worthy of biography. The success of Johnson’s Life of Savage (1744) pushed both Johnson and Savage to even greater prominence. Savage’s celebrity would soon present a challenge for Haywood. Intimately familiar with the hacks of Grub Street whom Alexander Pope so openly despised, Savage fed Pope plenty of details for the Dunciad Variorum (1729). Savage undoubtedly aided Pope in excoriating Haywood, who unabashedly wrote to feed her two children. Pope found Haywood absolutely “vacuous.” He refers to her as the “phantom priestess,” an allusion to Fantomina and calls her “Juno of majestic size, with cow-like udders, and ox-like eyes.”


Richard Savage

Savage’s sycophancy paid off with years patronage from Pope, and he enjoyed several years of prosperity. But one by one, his patrons dropped away until Pope was the last remaining. In 1743, even Pope wrote to cut off ties, and Savage soon found himself penniless. He died in debtor’s prison. Though at the time Savage enjoyed a strong reputation as a poet, today his works are mostly overlooked in favor of his more illustrious contemporaries.

Unfortunately for Haywood’s legacy, for centuries she was remembered primarily for her appearance in the Dunciad. It’s only in the last several decades that scholars have begun to recognize Haywood’s varied contributions–and more remain to be discovered, since Haywood so frequently published anonymously. Today, experts see Haywood’s novels as a pivotal transition between lurid novels like those of Aphra Behn and the more plain spoken works epitomized by Frances Burney.

For collectors, Eliza Haywood offers limitless opportunities to build a rich collection. A truly prolific author, Haywood could keep the dedicated completist busy for a lifetime! And her fascinating relationships with other authors offer numerous directions to extend a collection.

Further Reading

Williams, Kate. ‘The Force of Language, and the Sweets of Love’: Eliza Haywood and the Erotics of Reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies/ Lumen:travaux choisis de la Société canadienne d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, vol. 23, 2004, p. 309-323

Wilmouth, Traci. A Savage Spy: The Role of Richard Savage in Composing Pope’s Dunciad. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 2007.


A Brief History of True Crime Literature

True crime literature is unique because, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, the genre has “always been enormously popular among readers…[and] appeals to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally.” The popularity of true crime literature extends to the rare book world.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

The literature of true crime dates all the way back to the Elizabethan era, but the genre didn’t enter the mainstream until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It its earliest form, true crime literature included biographies of prisoners before and after executions. In some cases, these accounts were factual, but they were just as often completely fictionalized–and almost always sensationalized. These gave rise to fictional criminal autobiographies, notably The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1721) by Daniel Defoe. Domestic dramas such as George Lillo’s The London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnard (1731).

William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a sharp decline in crime literature, but the genre reasserted itself in the nineteenth century. Factual reporting, in the style of Francis Kirkman’s The Counterfeit Lady Revealed (1673), again came into vogue. The Newgate Calendar published criminal biographies starting in 1773, and it was periodically published before finally being compiled in 1841. In the United States, the National Police Gazette was launched in 1845 and remains in publication today. Meanwhile leading literary figures also began to address issues of crime and punishment. Charles Dickens included studies of Newgate and the Old Bailey in his Sketches by Boz, and William Makepeace Thackeray wrote “Going to See a Man Hanged” (1840).

Perhaps the most influential was “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” two essays Thomas de Quincey published in Blackwood’s Magazine (1827 and 1839). De Quincey explored the Radcliffe murders of 1811, which were presumably committed by mariner John Williams. He delved into the psychology of the murderer, victims, and witnesses in a way that no other author had attempted before. Oscar Wilde followed suit in “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” in 1889, when he argued that Thomas Griffith’s creativity improved when he began taking out life insurance policies on relatives, whom he then poisoned with strychnine. These seminal works paved the way for modern works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).

Crime in fiction had taken a turn for the low brow; starting in the 1820′s the so-called “Newgate novel” romanticized the lives of criminals, depicting highwaymen as heroes–even when their exploits ended at the gallows. Thackeray would parody Newgate novels in several of his works and publicly attach their authors, but the works still flourished. GWM Reynolds, for example, published Mysteries of London from 1845 to 1848, with sequels to 1856. The books, which sold for one cent, came to be known as “penny dreadfuls.”

Sherlock Holmes

The iconic Sherlock Holmes

The 1830′s saw the development of the modern police force–with detectives to investigate crime and constables to enforce order–in both England and the United States. For this we can thank, among others, author and magistrate Henry Fielding. Soon these men of the law popped up as characters in fiction: Inspector Bucket in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) and Sergeant Cuff in Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), respectively based on real-life Scotland Yard detectives Charles Field and Jack Whicher. Poe invented a more complex detective in his C. Auguste Dupin character, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle debuted Sherlock Holmes in 1887. Four years later the detective began making regular appearances in Doyle’s Strand Magazine.

In the last century there has been a markedly decreased overlap of true crime and literature. But the genre of true crime writing remains quite popular, and many rare book collectors build entire collections around the genre. There are plenty of interesting items for collectors of true crime literature and ephemera.

The Confessions of Jesse Strang

Originally from Putnam County, New York, Jesse Strang deserted his wife when he suspected that she’d been unfaithful. After a stint in Ohio, Strang made his way to western New York–where he faked his own death in the spring of 1826. Strang ended up in Albany, where he used the alias of “Joseph Orton.” He saw Elsie Whipple in an Albany bar and was immediately interested in the spirited young woman. Elsie was the daughter of a wealthy family in Albany, and Strang managed to get hired as a handyman at the family’s estate, Cherry Hill–where Elsie lived with her husband, John. But that didn’t stop Strang from pursuing Elsie, and the two were soon exchanging love letters with the assistance of other members of the household.

Cherry Hill-Jesse Strang

Cherry Hill as it looked at the time of the murder

Elsie, known for being moody and tempestuous, decided that the lovers should kill John and run away together. Strang was reluctant, but ultimately supplied Elsie with arsenic to poison John. But she didn’t administer enough poison, and John merely suffered an upset stomach. The lovers clearly needed a more foolproof plan, and Elsie urged Strang to shoot John. Eventually he acquiesced, climbing onto the roof and shooting John through a window into the couple’s quarters. Elsie had removed the curtain to give Strang a clear shot. Strang rushed to a local store to give himself an alibi, then returned and even helped the doctor remove the bullet from John’s body. But the police ruled that Strang had enough time to commit the murder and make it to the store, so he was arrested. He immediately confessed and implicated Elsie.

Strang desperately asked his lawyer to plant papers at Cherry Hill implicating Elsie as the mastermind of the plot, arguing that Elsie would receive a lighter sentence because she was a woman. His lawyer refused, but Strang was correct. While he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, Elsie was found not guilty on all charges. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people came to watch Strang’s execution on August 24, 1827. Among the crowd were peddlers hawking pamphlets containing Strang’s confession. Strang himself promoted the pamphlet from the scaffold, saying, “This contains a confession of the great transaction for which I am about to die, and every single word that it contains, tot he best of my knowledge, is true; if there is a single word in i t that is not true, it has been inserted by mistake, not by design.” Strang’s hanging was botched, and his neck did not break. He hung for half an hour before suffocating. It was the last hanging in Albany.

Official Report of the Trial of Laura D Fair

On November 3, 1870, Laura D Fair followed Alexander Parker Crittendon onto a ferry, where he was meeting his family. Fair shot Crittendon in the chest with a pepperbox pistol and fled to the ship’s saloon, where she immediately confessed to her crime. Fair believed that she was defending her own name; Crittendon had represented himself as single when he began courting Fair, and when she discovered that he was married, Crittendon promised to divorce his wife. When he failed to follow through, Fair decided to exact revenge.

Laura D Fair

Laura Fair

The ensuing trial was a national sensation. Fair’s defense argued that Fair had experienced delayed menstruation (in part because she assumed a masculine role by running her own business), which resulted in temporary insanity. Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony took up the cause, noting that “female hysteria” had long been used to subjugate women to men. Prosecutors also focused on gender, portraying Fair as a man-hungry murderess whose temporary insanity could also have been caused by sexual excess. Fair was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the trial was overturned because evidence had been incorrectly admitted. After a second trial, Fair was acquitted.

The case remained in the headlines intermittently from June 1871 to January 1873. Mark Twain and his collaborator Charles Dudley Warner would incorporate the case into Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day, published in December 1873: Laura Hawkins bears a striking similarity to Laura Fair. Twain also incorporated another famous trial; the Senate investigation of Senator Dilworthy for vote buying parallels the real trial of Kansas Senator Samuel C Pomeroy. Both critics and historians agree that these sensational elements greatly contributed to the novel’s success.

Ruth Snyder’s Own True Story

Ruth Snyder

Snyder and Judd Gray conferring during a break in the trial

In 1925, housewife Ruth Brown Snyder began an affair with married corset salesman Henry Judd Gray. She soon began planning her husband, Albert’s murder, with only reluctant support from Judd Gray. Snyder reportedly made seven attempts to kill her husband. Finally, she and Judd Gray garrotted Albert, shoved chloroform soaked rags up his nose, and staged a burglary. Their ploy fell apart under only the slightest scrutiny, and they were both convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Ruth would be the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899, and the first ever to be executed by electrocution.

The murder trial was covered by a number of prominent journalists, but only one was granted an interview: Jack Lait, who would provide Ruth the typewriter she used to record her memoir. Ruth Snyder’s Own True Story (1927) proved a poignant and candid account of Ruth’s experience–and a useful bit of propaganda for Lait. In the preface, he writes that Ruth “bristles with courage, she has poise, assurance, no end of intelligence…she loves like fire and hates like TNT.” (With such a portrayal, it’s perhaps no wonder that Ruth received 107 marriage proposals before her execution!) At Ruth’s execution, Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard captured her final moment with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. The image, now famous, was emblazoned on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Our interest in rare books about true crime shows no evidence of fading, especially since the genre so frequently intersects with the worlds of history and literature. How has true crime crept into your book collection?