These Are (Not) the Children Who Read the Books That Lived in the House That Ben Built
The two boys in this detail from William Hogarth’s 1732 portrait of the Cholmondeley family (Figure 5.1)1 are playing with their books. The younger boy on the right has constructed a tower of books on a chair and appears to be balancing precariously on top of it. The slightly older boy to the left is posed as a mirror image of his young brother, with his hand fi rmly on the pile of books on the table, hoping perhaps to protect them. These long-dead real children are caught eternally in this perfect moment of balancing the books. The real children who read the books that lived in the house that Ben built have long since grown up and grown old, had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their own; these children have had many generations of descendents. So much time has elapsed that no one alive now could even have had memories of memories of people who knew the real children who were the fi rst readers when those books came hot off the presses, crisp and fresh, and still smelling of ink and paper. And unless the children who read the books from Ben’s shop grew up to be famous themselves, and records of their juvenile reading and writing survived by chance, very few of the fresh fi rst impressions of those stories are available for us now. Surviving artifacts are largely limited to fragments, at best, small snatches of conversation or discussion recorded in memoirs or surviving letters, recounting interactions between a particular child and a particular text in a specifi c context.2 So while recapturing glimpses of those long lost children seems to offer almost magical moments of insight into the past, these insights aren’t enough on their own to justify their retelling. As modern readers, what’s important are the lessons that we can learn from those long-dead children, as we try to imagine and construct our own futures. So here in my account
of the children’s book business, I bridge the two hundred years which transpired between those Enlightenment families and us. Because I ended the last chapter with a story about the failure of Ann and Jane Taylor’s Signor
Topsy-Turvy to fi nd an audience in its own time (and so its failure to survive the fi rst phase of the life of a book), this chapter on real children begins with a success story about one of Ann Taylor’s poems. The poem, “My Mother,” was published when she was just out of her teens and it put her on the literary map; the poem is taken from the Taylor sisters’ fi rst collection, Original Poems for Infant Minds,3 “the book,” says Darton, as you may remember, “that awoke the nurseries of England” (Darton 181). Glimpses of Ann and Jane Taylor’s real lives as real children remain available partly because they grew up in a “book business” family of engravers, and because their fi rst best sellers were for children. And even though I’m telling the story of one of Ann’s poems, I want to repeat again that it is one of Jane’s poems, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” that is still said and sung by real children. The chapter continues with other glimpses of Enlightenment children, real and fi ctional, thinking and reading, and moves on to the thinking and knowing children of the new millennium.