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Nursery Rhymes and Alphabets. 0696: R.R., The Invited Alphabet

Author: R. R.
Title: The invited alphabet; or, address of A to B; containing his friendly proposal for the amusement and instruction of good children. ... By R. R.
Cat. Number: 0696
Date: 1809
1st Edition: 1809
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: B. Tabart and Co.
Pages: 1 vol., 64pp.
Size: 13.5 x 12.5 cm
Illustrations: 25 engravings
Note: Inscription on inside front cover: 'Ellen [Ethan?] Christian Co[...] / Given him by his Godmother / Miss Harwich / 1811' and on title-page: 'Ann Ashby'

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0696

Introductory essay

'R.R.' produced both The Invited Alphabet (0696) and The Assembled Alphabet (0695) for Benjamin Tabart in the same year. Though they both ostensibly fulfilled the same function, namely teaching young children their letters, they contained simple narratives, with each of the letters personified and playing a part. In the earlier book, A and B were to be seen calling on all the other letters to invite them to join the alphabet. In the second book, the letters accept the invitation. Because they were cast as narratives, The Assembled Alphabet could be, as its title-page made clear, a sequel to the earlier work. Clearly, then, it was intended that the consumer should buy both books, though for the simple purpose of teaching the alphabet only one would be necessary. These books might together be taken to represent the final, full commodification of even the most basic of children's books, the abcedarium.

ABC books cast as simple narratives had existed since the seventeenth century. The most common were 'A was an apple pie, B baked it...' and 'A was an archer'. 'R.R.' went much further in the quest to enliven the process of learning the alphabet. Some of the developments make sound pedagogical sense; others might be thought to have complicated, and perhaps impeded, the basic purpose of the books. A cynic might suggest that these refinements were added only to justify a higher price per unit, or the purchase of multiple books designed to achieve the same thing. On the other hand, both books are attractive and entertaining.

In both books, every letter is presented on a single page (save only A and B in the earlier work, which are introduced together). In The Invited Alphabet each letter is shown in as a Roman, Italic, Old English, German and hand-written character, and depicted, in an engraving, in sign-language. As the preface proudly notes, sign language (or 'dactylology', as it had been called by the Abbé de l'Epée: p.6n.) forms a useful lesson for two distinct reasons. First, it will facilitate communication with the deaf. Second, it cannot fail to help cement the alphabet in the mind of any child who learns his or her letters in this way. The gimmick of the later book was that the letters were displayed phonetically.

Both books offered much more to the reader though. 'R.R.', of course, did not aim for strict narrative coherence or excitement. Rather, he or she seems to have hoped the characterisations of the letters would appear droll. Children are 'very capable of relishing a witty point or allusion', he or she wrote in the preface to The Invited Alphabet (p.4), and both text and image were supposed to provide this kind of gratification. The verses included words beginning with the letter they accompanied, and could comment rather sardonically on the role of the letter in normal usage. Thus the reader was told that 'C came as call'd; though he, 'tis thought, / Contributes nothing as he ought; / But out of mere officiousness, / Competitor to K or S' (0695: p.9). A note at the end of the volume glosses this, in case the reader has not picked up on the fact that 'C has no sound peculiar to itself', but generally takes the sound of K or S (0695: p.35). The engravings also included allusions to the letter they depicted. In the earlier book, though they nominally showed the same boy signing each letter, he sometimes appeared in different costumes to add a visual dimension to the lesson. The boy illustrating 'S', for instance, has a snake poking out of his helmet, alluding to both the shape and sound of the letter ('S'). The second book included several silent, visual puns. 'N' was depicted at night ('N'), for example, and 'U' holds an umbrella ('U'), but these attributes are not mentioned in the text. A final inducement to buy the book was the 'Glee for three voices' - those of the child, the mother and the father (or pupil, mistress and master) - printed at the end of the second volume (p.37). It set the alphabet to music, symbolically showing the power of the letters to bring unity and harmony.

These two alphabet books were a significant advance on traditional abcedariums then. However much they may have commercialised the genre, they were also engaging and entertaining works in their own right. They resembled most closely, in fact, not ABC books, but titles like William Roscoe's Butterfly's Ball (1806: see 0836A-0836B) and the host of imitations which followed almost immediately. The Invited and Assembled Alphabets used a similar theme to Roscoe - unlikely guests invited to a social occasion - and used similarly winsome verse accompanied by finely detailed and rather witty engravings. 'R.R.' simply applied this format to the alphabet, creating charming works, even if they were not especially well suited to their supposed purpose. The era of the utilitarian ABC book was not over, but there was at least a rival product available.

The identity of 'R.R.' has remained a mystery. Marjorie Moon considers speculation that either R. Ransom or Richard Roe, a stenographer, writer and singer, might be responsible, but concludes that there is no evidence to support either claim (Moon 1990: 101).

Moon, Marjorie, Benjamin Tabart's Juvenile Library. A Bibliography of books for children published, written, edited and sold by Mr. Tabart, 1801-1820, Winchester, Hants. and Detroit, 1990