One of the things that perplexes the dreamer–for, in spite of the realists, there are dreamers still–is the almost complete extinction of the early editions of certain popular works. The pompous, respectable, full-wigged folios, with their long lists of subscribers, and their magniloquent dedications, find their permanent abiding-places in noblemen’s collections, where, unless–with the Chrysostom in Pope’s verses–they are used for the smoothing of bands or the pressing of flowers, no one ever disturbs their drowsy diuturnity. Their bulk makes them sacred: like the regimental big drum, they are too large to be mislaid. But where are all the first copies of that little octavo of 246 pages, price eighteenpence, “Printed by T. Maxey for Rich. Marriot, in S. Dunstans Church-yard, Fleetstreet” in 1653, which constitutes the editio princeps of Walton’s Angler. Probably they were worn out in the pockets of Honest Izaak’s “brothers of the Angle,” or left to bake and cockle in the sunny corners of wasp-haunted alehouse windows, or dropped in the deep grass by some casual owner, more careful for flies and caddis-worms, or possibly for the contents of a leathern bottle, than all the “choicely-good” madrigals of Maudlin the milkmaid. In any case, there are very few of the little tomes, with their quaint “coppers” of fishes, in existence now, nor is it silver that pays for them. And that other eighteenpenny book, put forth by ” Nath. Ponder at the Peacock in the Poultrey near Cornhil ” five and twenty years later,– The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That which is to come,–why is it that there are only five known copies, none quite perfect, now extant, of which the best sold not long since for more than L1400? Of these five, the first that came to light had been preserved owing to its having taken sanctuary, almost upon publication, in a great library, where it was forgotten. But the others that passed over Mr. Ponder’s counter in the Poultry,–were they all lost, thumbed and dog’s-eared out of being? They are gone,–that is all you can say; and gone apparently beyond reach of recovery.
These remarks,–which scarcely rise to the dignity of reflections–have been suggested by the difficulty which the writer has experienced in obtaining particulars as to the earliest form of the Parent’s Assistant. As a matter of course, children’s books are more liable to disappear than any others. They are sooner torn, soiled, dismembered, disintegratedsooner find their way to that mysterious unlocated limbo of lost things, which engulfs so much. Yet one scarcely expected that even the British Museum would not have possessed a copy of the first issue of Miss Edgeworth’s book. Such, however, seems to be the case. According to the catalogue, there is nothing earlier at Bloomsbury than a portion of the second edition; and from the inexplicit and conjectural manner in which most of the author’s biographers speak of the work, it can scarcely–outside private collections–be very easily accessible. Fortunately the old Monthly Review for September, 1796, with most exemplary forethought for posterity, gives, as a heading to its notice, a precise and very categorical account of the first impression. The Parent’s Assistant; or, Stories for Children was, it appears, published in two parts, making three small duodecimo volumes. The price, bound, was six shillings. There was no author’s name; but it was said to be “by E.M.” (i.e. Edgeworth, Maria), and the publisher was Cowper’s Dissenter publisher, Joseph Johnson of No. 72, St. Paul’s Churchyard. Part I. contained “The Little Dog Trusty; or, The Liar and the Boy of Truth”; “The Orange Man; or, the Honest Boy and the Thief”; “Lazy Lawrence”; “Tarleton”; and “The False Key”; Part II., “The Purple Jar,” “The Bracelets,” “Mademoiselle Panache,” “The Birthday Present,” “Old Poz,” and “The Mimic.” In the same year, 1796, a second edition appeared, apparently with, some supplementary stories, e.g.: “Barring Out,” and in 1800 came a third edition in six volumes. In this the text was increased by “Simple Susan,” “The Little Merchants,” “The Basket Woman,” “The White Pigeon,” “The Orphans,” “Waste Not, Want Not,” “Forgive and Forget,” and “Eton Montem.” One story, “The Purple Jar” at the beginning of Part II. of the first edition, was withdrawn, and afterwards included in another series, while the stories entitled respectively “Little Dog Trusty” and “The Orange Man” have disappeared from the collection, probably for the reason given in one of the first prefaces, namely, that they “were written for a much earlier age than any of the others, and with such a perfect simplicity of expression as, to many, may appear insipid and ridiculous.” The six volumes of the third edition came out successively on the first day of the first six months of 1800. The Monthly Reviewer of the first edition, it may be added, was highly laudatory; and his commendations show that the early critics of the author were fully alive to her distinctive qualities, “The moral and prudential lessons of these volumes,” says the writer, “are judiciously chosen; and the stories are invented with great ingenuity, and are happily contrived to excite curiosity and awaken feeling without the aid of improbable fiction or extravagant adventure. The language is varied in its degree of simplicity, to suit the pieces to different ages, but is throughout neat and correct; and, without the least approach towards vulgarity or meanness, it is adapted with peculiar felicity to the understandings of children. The author’s taste, in this class of writing, appears to have been formed on the best models; and the work will not discredit a place on the same shelf with Berquin’s Child’s Friend, Mrs. Barbauld’s Lessons for Children, and Dr. Aikin’s Evenings at Home. The story of ‘Lazy Lawrence'”–the notice goes on–“is one of the best lectures on industry which we have ever read. “The Critical Review, which also gave a short account of the Parent’s Assistant in its number for January 1797, does not rehearse the contents. But it confirms the title, etc., adding that the price, in boards, was 4s. 6d.; and its praise, though brief, is very much to the point. “The present production is particularly sensible and judicious; the stories are well written, simple, and affecting; calculated, not only for moral improvement, but to exercise the best affections of the human heart.”