Dr Shafquat Towheed discusses Edward Lear's The Book of Nonsense.
Dr Shafquat Towheed:
Books were expensive in the mid-19th Century, so most people couldn’t actually afford to buy them. Just to give you an example, the Book of Nonsense in its 1846 version costs three shillings and six pence per volume, so that’s seven shillings in total to buy this book.
An average weekly wage for an unskilled labourer in the 1840s would have been three shillings and nine pence. That’s for a sixty hour working week. Four shillings would be enough to provide you with basic accommodation for a week and even a sort of junior clerical officer, for example, would be earning about three pounds a week.
So seven shillings is a very considerable expense. Now books do become cheaper through the 19th Century. So by the time we get to 1861 and the first Routledge mass market production of the Book of Nonsense, that’s priced at three shillings and six pence. So it’s about half the price of the 1846 edition. But books are still quite expensive.
In today’s terms, it would be like spending perhaps £150 on a very luxury coffee table book or something with gorgeous illustrations, it’s not a small expense, and so clearly a Book of Nonsense would have been aimed at the gift market, a perfect Christmas gift. Routledge actually launched the 1861 edition to coincide with Christmas. It’s clearly designed to be given as a gift.
We tend to forget that most 19th Century reading actually happened within the family circle, that it was often shared, and a book, like a Book of Nonsense for example, would have been read within the family group. Perhaps read out aloud by a parent or an older sibling or by a governess that this would have been a shared reading practice that people would be listening to the words, I guess, and looking at the illustrations and be doing that within a family group, within a family environment.
Victorian editions of Edward Lear’s verse were expensive items marketed as gifts for children, so many copies would have been given away by the people who bought them. Even the children who received copies might not have read them themselves. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have enjoyed them. Books were commonly read aloud in Victorian households and many recipients would have known Lear’s verses though hearing a sibling, parent, or perhaps a governess, read them aloud. A book like Lear’s first collection of verse, A Book of Nonsense, wasn’t something to necessarily enjoy alone and in silence as a purely visual object. It could be shared as part of a group who would listen to the poems being read out aloud and who could look at the pictures together.
When the novels of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens were published in serial form, customers would queue for the latest instalment. Copies would be shared, either by being read aloud or passed from reader to reader. Reading was a public event, carried out with other people and experienced at the same time by many thousands. Edward Lear’s poetry seems to belong in the nursery but it, too, had a public element. Children would experience the book together with other members of the household. Meanwhile, hundreds or thousands of children all across the country would have first received copies at the same time as Christmas presents. Iconic children’s books are iconic partly because we all share memories of them from our childhoods. When we talk about them, we share our nostalgia with each other and, when we give them to our own children, we ensure that they too will grow up with the same recollections. Collections of Lear’s nonsense verse, like Nonsense Songs or A Book of Nonsense became books which triggers these common memories of childhood because of the way they were marketed and the way in which they were first read.
More about Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs
Graphic books: Learn how Edward Lear’s books were printed using the then-innovative technique of lithography.
Learn some nonsense by heart: Go on an adventure to find a nonsense alphabet of animals and learn some nonsense by heart.
The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series.