The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XVI. Children’s Books

§ 8. The Chapbook

It was the chapbook, that last poor refuge of Middle Age enchantments, which provided children with what they wanted in the reign of queen Anne and the first three Georges. They had to learn the alphabet, they had to read the guides to goodness, the Ollendorfs of petty culture, the anecdotal or poetic allurements to superior virtue, which, as a matter of fact, young persons are often quite ready enough to acquire without force. But they were not less ready to enjoy other fare. A famous passage in The Tatler (No. 95), in which Mr. Bickerstaff describes his little godson as absorbed in the stories of Bevis and Don Belianis and other great and famous heroes, sums up the charm of forbidden romance with the nicest perfection. The chapbook was what the poor and the young could read familiarly. In these little penny, twopenny and sixpenny productions—octavo in form, with sixteen pages, at first, but, after 1726, usually duodecimo, with twenty-four pages—the last fragments of the old romances were enshrined. They existed before 1700—certainly early in the eighteenth century, at least; but few early copies have survived, and it was not until the Georgian era that they were profusely manufactured.

Who wrote these versions is not known. They may have been abbreviations of the manuscript texts of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries; but the discrepancies are so marked that, more probably, they were oral versions committed to print independently in some obscure way. They were issued all over the kingdom, the centres with the greatest output being, apparently, London (Aldermary churchyard in particular), Dublin, York, Glasgow, Newcastle, Stirling and Banbury. The books were not, in the first instance, meant for children, though, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, whole series expressly juvenile appeared (the Banbury set was the best known and, perhaps, best produced); but children possessed themselves of them. Wood-blocks were used almost haphazard: Guy slaying a boar in one booklet was George slaying a dragon in another. The indigenous heroes of Britain—Tom Thumb, certain Jacks, Hickathrift, Friar Bacon—were here preserved in a vernacular epic cycle, with such additions as fashion, fact, or sheer literary piracy from time to time provided. In some volumes, indecency was the sole point; others were merely coarse in a natural way; in all, the English was vile. After 1800, they fell into a decline: better production ousted them from favour: “the blocks and types were getting worn out.… Catnach buried them in a dishonoured grave.”

The chief addition to the common stock of chapbook material made in the eighteenth century were the adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver, Watts’s poems, the adventures of Philip Quarll (a pseudo-Crusoe), anecdotes decked out with names invented by John Newbery for his own much better productions, collections of nursery rimes (after about 1760) and various versions of Perrault’s fairy tales; towards the end of the century, eastern and Arabian tales were added.

It was the chapbook, also, which preserved to us our scant native fairy lore. Andrew Lang once said that England had but one authentic fairy-hero—Jack the slayer of Blunderbore and other giants. But, wherever the stories originated in the long history of man’s mind, many were current, and England once was “al fulfild of fayerye.” Popular taste ascribed the decay of Titania’s kingdom to monks: where monks were, “farewell, rewards and fairies.” But the stories remained; and a curious allusion in bishop Corbet’s rough but charming seventeenth century poem shows that they were respected and treasured:

  • To William Churne of Staffordshire,
  • Give laud and praises due,
  • Who every meal can mend your cheer
  • With tales both old and true:
  • To William all give audience,
  • And pray ye for his noddle:
  • For all the fairies’ evidence
  • Were lost if it were addle.
  • William Churne, whoever he was, perished, and his tales with him; and the sad friends of fairy truth must go up and down with careful search for such relics as they may find in the byways of folklore. It was from France that the revival of magic came. Fairy tales reached the French court about 1676, and set a fashion of simplicity, sometimes real, more often affected. In 1696, Charles Perrault began to publish (in Moetjen’s Recueil de pièces curieuses et nouvelles) the famous stories alleged to be written by his little boy; they came out in a separate volume in 1697, as Histoires ou Contes du Tems Passé, avec de Moralités; the frontispiece contained the immortal legend, Contes de ma mère l’Oie.