Link to previous posts on Bewick’s Aesop:
The history of the intended audience of my pet book Bewick’s Fables of Aesop and Others is quite muddled. Nowhere on or within the book itself is the intended audience written out in plain language like it is in some others, and as I investigated, I seemed to often bring up more questions than answers. Nonetheless, though, there are certainly many discoveries I made in terms of audience.
Let’s start with the binding. As I have discussed in my previous blog posts, the binding is done by Riviere & Son, a binding company famous for their intricate and beautiful (as well as expensive) work.
Riviere & Son bound books for a variety of elite patrons, from the Duke of Devonshire to the Queen of England herself. Robert Riviere even won a medal in the Great Exhibition of 1851 for the beauty and skill of his bindings– something that was not lost in the binding of Bewick’s Aesop, as you might glean from the pictures above. However, as easy as the binding might be on the eyes, it’s not so easy on the wallet. In 1893, the book sold for 10 pounds and 10 shillings. This might not seem like that much, but today that is equivalent to roughly 1300 pounds, or $1800, according to measuringworth.com. This tells me that the intended audience of this book were likely members of the wealthy elite (continuing in the tradition of Riviere & Son’s other patrons) who saw the book as a status symbol, of sorts, of a prized and luxurious object to put on display. Riviere & Son were famous, after all, and in displaying this book the elite could also display their power and status.
Yet, despite the soundness of this answer, other questions began to arise in my mind about the intended audience of this book. What about before it was rebound? As I elaborated on in my previous post, this book was rebound by Riviere & Son quite a while after it was published. What did the binding look like then? Was it simple, or ornate like it is now? How might the old binding inform us of who the intended audience could be?
I was also stumped by the disparate nature of the text and the physical book. I understood that the value of a book as a physical object is not necessarily tied to the text– but why take a text as ordinary and accessible as Aesop’s Fables and place it in such an extraordinary and exclusive object? The fables, after all, are about as commonplace as one can get. They were already widely distributed at the time, in much cheaper copies, and written in plain language that seems made for a child to read. Yet, they are presented in this mammoth of a book, in such a grandiose manner. Why?
Obviously, many of the questions about the binding are unanswerable. There is no way for me to know what the original binding looked like, or its connection to the intended audience. Besides, considering I am studying my pet book as the object it is today, it isn’t the most productive line of thought.
However, propelled by my curiosity on the separation between the fables and the book itself, I began to look into Thomas Bewick’s intentions in creating the text. I found that when he created the original edition of Aesop’s Fables (my pet book being the third), he had intended it for children; yet as his fame as a woodblock engraver grew, so did the age (and socioeconomic) range of his audience. In producing his second and third edition of Aesop’s Fables, Bewick kept this in mind and catered to a wider variety of readers. Upon discovering this, a lot of things seemed to click for me in regards to the intended audience of my pet book. By the time Bewick finished the text for my book, it was no longer solely meant to be a children’s book, passed around by small, grubby hands. Rather, his fame had transformed the significance of the text and the audience with it, thereby forcing the physical presence of the book to shift to the fantastical object it is today.
Studying the audience of Bewick’s Aesop definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things about not only the book but the way the text as well as the physical book itself interact with the intended audience. It also showed me the way both Riviere & Son as well as Bewick’s so called “brand” influenced the value of the book as an object and therefore impacted the intended audience. In my next blog posts, I am especially excited to further explore Bewick’s illustrations and the ways in which they make my pet book what it is today.