Matthew Grenby, Early British Children's Books: Towards an Understanding of their Users and Usage
Very little is known about the readers of children's books in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period when modern children's literature began. There are good reasons for this. Children seldom left accounts of their own reading experiences, and when they did, they often seem to have been distorted in various ways—by the expectations of their parents or teachers, by their determination to fashion a particular kind of autobiography, or by scholars, as we impose our modern and adult conceptualisations of childhood and literature. This essay attempts to work towards an understanding of these first consumers of children's literature. It asks about who they were, where they came from and how they acquired their books, and it begins to question how children read their books and how these first users understood the concept of children's literature. The essay engages briefly with the various different kinds of data available—diaries, journals, pictorial images, conduct books, and so on—but it concentrates on a very neglected stream of evidence: inscriptions and marginalia. All the marginal marks in the Osborne Collection of early children's books in Toronto and the Hockliffe Collection in Bedford have been assessed to provide a statistical survey of ownership and use. Some surprising conclusions do begin to emerge—about the age, gender, location and socio-economic class of the consumers, about their relationship with their books and the ways in which different kinds of books were used, and about the development of a sustainable trade in children's literature. This kind of investigation provides an essential context for any analysis of the early development of the children's book as a literary form.