By Colette Slagle with Jacqueline Reid-Walsh
Jacqui first became intrigued by the method of descriptive bibliography when sitting in on a rare books class at McGill. She notes that she was both struck and flummoxed when her mentor, Dr. Richard Virr, told everyone to turn the object over to see what we could learn. At the time, she could deduce nothing. Since then she has learned more about analyzing objects, and we spent some time turning objects over while sitting in Rare Books.
This skill has become crucial to understanding the Metamorphic books. Analyzing the Metamorphic books as both an object and a text is imperative to make meaning from them due to their turn-up book format. Upon examining the versos of the various Metamorphic books (1810, 1811, 1814, 1817, 1831), we made a few observations—and had even more questions.
One observation was that the title page is part of the verso. The first panel without flaps serves as a title page and includes the title and publishing information. When the strip is folded into a pamphlet format, this appears on top. However, when opened it is clear that the title page is actually the back of the first flapped panel of Adam and Eve. Furthermore, when the strip is turned over and laid flat, the title page clearly becomes part of the verso.
Back of the 1811 version. The image of the man sitting under the tree acts as the title page, but when laid flat it is part of the verso. (Bodleian Library, Oxford University Vet. K6 f.92)
Similarly, the final set of verses (numbered 21 except the 1811 edition) always appear on the back of the final flapped panel which features a man turning into a skeleton. The middle panels without flaps on the back vary the most. The images change frequently, and bear no resemblance to the content of the verses or to the flaps. They are random and decorative, some are colored, some not, but they all provide different contexts to the rest of the text. For example, some woodcuts are reused. In the 1810 version, the image on the back of the second flapped panel (featuring the lion and eagle) is of a provocative woman in chains, her dress colored in a deep blue. According to D’Alte Welch, the image “was used for a frontispiece to portray Maria Martin in The History Of The Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by Joseph Rakestraw, 1809” (392).
1810 version featuring image of a woman in chains (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)
Once the note to the reader is introduced in the 1814 edition, its location remains the same in other editions—i.e., on the back of the heart and money bag flapped panel. The question that arises is when the note is meant to be encountered by the reader. Because of the many possible ways to fold the pamphlet, and the immense difficulty of knowing for sure how the text was meant to be folded, the note to the reader can appear in different positions within the text. For instance, when folded accordion-style, the note is hidden inside the booklet.
Amateur facsimile of 1831 version folded accordion style (Bodleian Library, Oxford Dep. f.135)
When folded inward upon itself, the note appears next to the first flapped panel with Adam and Eve. In this case, the image on the back of the flapped panel with the lion and eagle becomes the end page.
Amateur facsimile of 1831 version with panels folded inward (Bodleian Library, Oxford University Dep. f.135)
However, when laid out as a strip, it subverts the typical notion of front and back in a conventional book or codex format. We’ve come to realize that recto and verso are a more useful way to think about how the Metamorphic books are structured as they attend to the physical object rather than the content of the text. According to Wikipedia, “The terms are shortened from Latin rectō foliō and versō foliō, translating to ‘on the upright side of the page’ and ‘on the turned side of the page,’ respectively.”
Verso of 1817 version (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)
“Recto and Verso.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recto_and_verso.
Welch, D’Alte A. A Bibliography of American Children’s Books Printed Prior to 1821. American Antiquarian Society, 1972.