“Improving” literature

   Posted by: rring   in Uncategorized

[Posted by Molly Curry (’12), a student in Zak Sitter’s English course, “1816: A Romantic Microcosm”]

Elegant Extracts in Prose: Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons, published in London and printed for F.C. and J. Rivington [etc.] by G. Woodfall & H. Bryer was edited by Vicesimus Knox and published in the tenth edition 1816 (originally in 1783). The publication—composed of four sections, called “books”—is compiled in two separately bound books (anthologies): Prose I and Prose II. Each of the two prose books contains two parts—in Prose I) Book I, Moral and Religious; Book, II Classical and Historical and in Prose II) Book III, Orations, Characters, and Letters; Book IV Narratives, Dialogues. The books belong to a three-part educational anthology series, which gives a sense of the different kinds of late 18th and early 19th century English texts. As evident in the titles of each of the four books, several different types of texts are exhibited in the series, all with some sort of educational service to “young persons,” or students.

The books are in moderate physical condition. They are bound very typically for books of that era—in basic brown leather with hard front and back covers adorned by decorative engravings and gold detailing along the borders. The books are clearly used, with the front and back covers of each either loose or detached completely (but still kept with the pages) from the leather spine. Each book is about an inch to an inch and a half in width, measuring slightly under 8×10 inches across the covers. According to these conditions, it appears as though the books were frequently used. The hard cover binding suggests a sense of quality of text, yet neither the finest nor the most ornate bindings were used. This type of binding seems to propose the notion that this anthology was a part of a respectable series, used by school students in this era.

Vicesimus Knox, a headmaster and writer, was a renowned member of a long line of family invested in education. He was a well-educated and religious man, who led a highly accomplished existence. He took over the position of Headmaster at Tonbridge School in Kent (an preparatory school in England for boys) only one year upon graduation from St. Johns College in Oxford, at age twenty-six. The young, zealous, and highly educated young man drew a large increase in admissions. This increase was also partly to do with his writing. Within the first few years of being headmaster, he gained much notoriety from his publications Essays Moral and Literary, published in 1778, and Liberal Education, or, A Practical Treatise on the Method of Acquiring Useful and Polite Learning, published only a few years later, in 1781. He was clearly very passionate about the education of young pupils, which is comprehended through this publication and even further reiterated in several others to follow.

Then, finally, late in his career (shortly after retiring as Headmaster, but still displaying an unyielding fervor for educating the youth), he published Elegant Extracts in Prose: Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons. The publication focused on his profound knowledge of English literature. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his aim was to compile an anthology of English literature (found important, moral, educational, virtuous, and worth-while by him) that would serve to “[improve] …youthful and middling readership.” He focused more on modern literature (of the time) and less on classical. The anthology also showcased several non-fiction essays (mainly selected from Addison, Johnson, Richard Steele, and Hugh Flair) in additional to modern fictional pieces of literature. What was particularly progressive about this publication was its attention to eighteenth century female writers (such as Anna Aiken, Hester Chapone, and Catherine Macaulay). He believed in and wanted to see an increase the education of girls/women. Knox has cast a lasting influence on the Tonbridge School’s library. It is said in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “Knox’s own literary tastes and their influence, are clearly reflected in the coverage of the Tonbridge School library during his mastership.” A vast selection of the library’s literature was written by authors of the various prose chosen by Knox for this very anthology (and others in its series). Although the anthology was first actually published in 1783, one of its later editions (of which there are several) dates to 1816.

Based on both the physical condition and the knowledge behind the editor’s creation of the books as well as its lasting impact, it can safely be presumed that these books were used a great deal in English upper schools in the late 18th and early 19th century. The anthology series was costly and well known around the time of its publication; hence why they were referenced in novels such as Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1815. Robert Martin, the character in Emma that reads from the anthology is insinuated to be a man who has money and is learned (simply because of his reading of the anthology, perhaps among other factors). The implications provided by novels such as Emma, which reference the anthology, attest to its esteemed reputation and stature. The anthology, as illustrated by the four books of which it is composed, offers English texts which emphasize religion, classical literature, historical literature, public speaking, use of characters, letters, narrative, and dialogue between characters. These topics were and are still, today, the foundations of English literature.

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