(Yes, it’s almost that time again.)
The image above is taken from Caroline Maxwell’s Feudal Tales (published in London around 1810*). The illustration is hand colored, and follows page 94 in our copy, accompanying the poem titled “Insanity”, which is not, as you might expect, a ballad about a man eaten by a shark. Instead, it’s a poem about a woman who loses her mind because her lover is thrown overboard from the ship he was sailing on. (The illustration faces a page of text describing his “wat’ry grave”.)
Feudal Tales is available online, from the engraved title page, to “Insanity“, with many interesting illustrations scattered throughout. But if you’re browsing this online copy (digitized from a copy at a University of California library) you won’t find the shark image after page 94. In fact, it won’t be anywhere near “Insanity”; instead it’s found after page 76, the conclusion of the poem “Port Royal Shore: A Ballad”, which outlines the story of William, a man missing his love so badly after a 6 month voyage that he jumps overboard as soon as the ship is in sight of land:
Ah, fatal haste, a shark unseen,
In wat’ry ambush lay;
Who, fast his dreadful teeth between,
Seiz’d William for his prey.
William dies within sight of Janet, his love, of course.
It seems that this poem is a better match for the image, and placing it next to “Insanity” is a mistake, but our copy is a useful reminder that books and their illustrations were often separate, and the binder or the purchaser decided what images and text corresponded.
As it turns out, the wandering shark attack illustration seems to be only one of many such instances in this copy of Feudal Tales. Images are given new and unusual contexts throughout the book, and whoever originally owned and read this copy might have had an experience unlike that of any other reader.
* 820.7 M465f SpecColl