Reading with Rose: Defoe’s Crusoe

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The Wonderful Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

We have a special treat to explore in this month’s Reading with Rose: Robinson Crusoe. Considered by some to be the first modern novel [1], Daniel Defoe’s isolation epic is a touchstone of childhood reading the world over. That was certainly the case in New England in 1809, as evidenced by this month’s special book from Rose’s library. This object is special not only for its physicality, but perhaps even more so for its home: the Nichols House Museum’s archives. This book, part of Rose’s collection left to the museum at our matriarch’s behest, is so precious that it must be housed in our archives in order to ensure its preservation.

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Interior of Robinson Crusoe.
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Child’s primer, 1806.

This edition of Robinson Crusoe looks very similar to children’s primary schoolbooks of the early nineteenth-century. We can compare this edition of Crusoe to one of those schoolbooks–called primers–thanks to their shared ownership. Both of these books belonged to Charles Nichols.

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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his schoolbook.
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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Charles Nichols (1808-1885) was Rose’s great-uncle; Arthur Howard Nichols’ uncle. Both of these books are dated within the first few years of Charles’ life, lending to the probability that they were used to teach him literacy. Coincidentally, Robinson Crusoe could have done more than merely teach Charles to read.

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Charles Nichols, n.d.

After working as a painter and furniture maker, and in daguerreotype galleries, Charles gave up his work and devoted his life to the study of religion and became a missionary. While Robinson Crusoe is today remembered as an adventure story, Daniel Defoe imbued his classic with his own fervent religious sentiments–a fact which can be said about most of his works.

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Daniel Defoe, from a 1900 edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731) was not merely an expert at writing fictional adventures–he lived them, too. When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, Defoe was fifty-nine. In the years between Defoe’s birth and the birth of his legendary literary figure, the author had been involved in numerous altercations with the law. Defoe was a known dissenter, which would have earned him a reputation even without his writing religious pamphlets arguing for religious freedom. He knew the dangers of writing such works, which were confirmed when the anonymous author of the pamphlets was caught. Defoe was arrested for seditious libel, put in the pillory and subsequently imprisoned for his writings. Upon his release, he was endlessly threatened with arrests, and eventually became a “master spy” for the government. Continuing his writing career, Defoe authored novels, conduct books, and geographical books; he also raised corn and bred cattle. Defoe’s final years were full of debts and debt-collectors. He died in 1731. [2]

While Charles Nichols did not spend decades marooned on an island, he did write down his inner most thoughts. Nichols kept a diary from 1861-1878; he wrote about his thoughts on the Civil War, his religious sentiments, and his daily activities. Today, this diary lives next to his schoolbook edition of Robinson Crusoe–which may have inspired many of his own adventures.

Notes

[1] Allen, Walter Ernest. Six Great Novelists. H. Hamilton, 1955.

[2] Paula R. Backscheider, ‘Defoe, Daniel (1660?–1731)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008.

 

By Victoria Johnson

Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

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Reading with Rose: Winnie-the-Pooh

90 Years in the Hundred-Acre Wood

The most recognized book in Rose Standish Nichols’ library is, without a doubt, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Few visitors have passed through its home on the second shelf of the third floor landing bookcase without noticing its bright pink spine. For those of you who have—and those of you who will—you may be interested to know that this year marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of the first Winnie-the-Pooh book.

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First published in 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh was the first of Milne’s stories that officially introduced readers to Winnie. The inspiration for this lovable teddy bear came from a stuffed-animal, bought at Harrods luxury department store, that belonged to Milne’s son. Milne’s stuffed-animal collection soon grew to include the inspirations for Pooh’s friends, and they now live permanently in the New York Public Library. Christopher Robin Milne—the namesake for the boy who travels with Pooh in the Enchanted Forest—named his stuffed teddy bear ‘Winnie’ after a black Canadian bear he had seen in at the zoo. Winnie-the-Pooh was so successful that it overshadowed much of A.A. Milne’s other work (including adult fiction), but he did appreciate that his stories resonated with children and adults. His son, Christopher Robin Milne, became a successful bookseller and writer. [1]

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A.A. Milne; Christopher Robin Milne by Howard Coster, 1926. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Rose’s edition of Winnie-the-Pooh is the 203rd, printed in 1950 in New York and published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. If you have come for a tour with us, you might wonder how Rose came to acquire this book. Unfortunately, this will remain a mystery for visitors and staff, as we have no record of how or why Rose acquired it. She would have been aged 78 in 1950, well past childhood. Perhaps Rose was one of those readers whom Milne was referring to when he said:

“These stories are about these good companions having wonderful times getting in and out of trouble. It is all very exciting and, really, quite thrilling, no matter how young or how old you may be.” [2]

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One of the book’s illustrations by Ernest Howard Shepard.

[1] Thwaite, Ann. “Milne, Alan Alexander (1882–1956).” Ann Thwaite In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, January 2012.

[2] Milne, A.A. Winnie-the-Pooh. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.1950.