William Fordyce Mavor (1758–1837), from a Scots Jacobite family, set out in 1775 to seek his fortune in London. After staying for a bit with a cousin who, as the ODNB remarks in a wonderful throw-away line, ‘had become a prosperous city merchant on his release from the Tower’, he obtained a post as assistant master (he was competent in Latin, apparently) at a private school in Burford in the Cotswolds, where he stayed for seven years, and began his writing career.
A teenage book of verse, Parnassian Springs (1777 – one sometimes feels that every writer in the eighteenth century produced a similar title at some point in their career) was followed by a much more practical Universal Stenography (1779 – his own system of shorthand) which went into several editions. Meanwhile, he was writing widely for various publishers and periodicals, and in 1782, opened his own school, the Woodstock Academy. He was ordained in 1784, and patronage (notably by the Malborough family) obtained him several curacies and then several vicarages, while the school was a great success. (We have recently reissued his edition of the Elizabethan farmer-poet Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry.)
He was a teacher of (for the time) very liberal ideas: education, in order to stick in the infant mind, should also entertain: ‘Dry lectures seldom leave any lasting impression,’ he wrote, ‘but convey the moral you wish to inculcate through an interesting story … and the effect is seldom lost’. A result of this view was his most famous and popular work, The English Spelling-Book, which we have just reissued.
It was first published in 1801, had gone into its 284th edition by 1823, and had sold by then over two million copies. We always try to reissue the first edition of a book unless there are scholarly reasons why a later version is preferable, but we had no luck in finding an 1801 copy: we did borrow one from 1807, but it turned out to have two pages missing, and although it is sometimes possible to fix this by ‘borrowing’ digitally two pages from elsewhere, we couldn’t do this for Mavor, as there were variations in size and changes in content in all the editions which meant that a straight substitution was impossible.
Meanwhile, I had become very attached to the book, not least because of the delightful Bewick woodcuts, and in a rush of blood to the head, bought my own copy through Abebooks. It was alleged to be an edition from 1806, but this information was derived from the author’s preface ‘Woodstock, Feb. 12th, 1806’ – there was no date on the title page. As I riffled through, I noticed that the most recent entries in the history of the ‘Christian Aera’ were dated 1843, being respectively ‘Thames Tunnel opened’ and ‘Duke of Sussex [Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle] died’.
However, the content, apart from occasional updatings of this sort, is largely unchanged from the earlier editions. The ‘spelling-book’ element comes first: an alphabet illustrated by Bewick cuts, from the familiar (cock and dog) to the exotic (ibex and ocelot). The first lessons are of consonant-vowel combinations: ‘ba be bi bo bu by’ or ‘ab ac ad af ag al’, etc. These tables are in a large font, as are the simple sentences which follow: ‘He is up. We go in. So do we.’ (By the end of the book (p. 168), the font is very much smaller than a child or an adult today would be expected to cope with for normal reading.)
Lists of monosyllabic words are followed by very short sentences made up of short words: ‘His pen is bad’, ‘You are a bad boy if you pull off the leg of a fly.’ This moral message is followed by others as we progress to monosyllables with more letters: ‘Tom fell in the pond … and then he was sick, and they put him to bed; and he was long ill and weak, and could not stand. Why did he go near the pond? He had been told not to go, for fear he should fall in; but he would go, and he did fall in; it was his own fault, and he was a bad boy. Mind and do not do the same.’
Frank takes young birds from a nest, and they die. ‘How would he like to be stole from his home?’ Jane’s hand is bound up in a cloth: she tried to poke the fire although she had been told not to. ‘…she can not work or play, or do the least thing with her hand. It was a sad thing not to mind what was said to her.’
When we move on to two syllables, the stories get longer too: an idle boy learns his lesson over three paragraphs, a foolish little lamb meets a grisly fate over three longer ones (this is described as a ‘pretty tale’, by the way). Then we come to ‘entertaining and instructive lessons in words not exceeding three syllables’: ‘Gold is of a deep yellow colour. It is very pretty and bright. It is great deal heav-i-er than anything else.’
After words of three syllables, we move on to lessons in natural history, embellished by Bewick: eleven animals from the horse (who ‘dis-tin-guish-es his com-pa-ni-ons’) to the lion, the elephant and the bear. Words of four syllables are followed by ‘select fables’, again with woodcuts, and with a short verses at the end of each to hammer home the moral even more vigorously. Finally, on to ‘words of six syllables, and upwards, properly accented’: A-bóm-i-na-ble-ness, ex-tra-pa-ró-chi-al, An-ti-trin-i-tá-ri-an…
At this point, the spellings give way altogether to moral instruction: ‘Industry and Indolence Contrasted’, by Dr Percival; ‘Moral and Practical Observations’; ‘Advice to Young Persons Intended for Trade’, by Dr Benjamin Franklin; ‘Inducements to Morality, Derived from Scripture Examples’. Next are some pretty terrifying columns of proper names from the Old and New Testaments, ancient and modern geography, and Roman and Greek history. There are some homonyms, one of which – ‘account = esteem’ distinguished from ‘accompt = reckoning’ – must have been passing out of use when the book was written. Then a brief introduction to the arts and sciences, outlines of geography, a chronology of epochs in history, a brief survey of the Universe, and ‘select poetry’, including a metrical version of Psalm 23, Addison’s ‘The spacious firmament’, and an extract from Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’.
An ‘appendix’ contains rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, figures and numbers (including Roman numerals), arithmetical tables of coinage, weights, measures and volumes, and a list of foreign (mainly French) words and phrases in common use. At the very end is the Church catechism, a Q & A section on who was who in the Bible – ‘Who was Gehazi?’ – and an outline of British history ‘from the termination of the Empire in the West, 476, to the arrival of William the Conqueror’, with Kings and Queens of England from 1066 onwards. The very last items are prayers, for use at school and home, in public and in private, and the final page is ornamented with a cut showing two children letting a caged bird fly free – an appropriate image for a charming little book whose aim is ‘to teach the young Idea how to shoot’.