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In 1982, the Library acquired a collection of 55 English character books.
The ‘character book’ was a popular English literary form: ‘a brief, usually satirical, invariably conventional, often riddling or punning, and occasionally ribald, portrait of a social or ethical type: The Drunkard, The Lawyer, The Farmer’s Daughter’ (Paul Schaffner in his review of Character Books of the English Renaissance [Pegasus Press, 2008]).
The character book first appeared in England at the beginning of the 17th century, in the form of multiple characters in an octavo or twelvemo format; the best known were those of Sir Thomas Overbury and John Earle.
At the onset of the English Civil War, "controversial" characters appeared in quarto format, usually as eight-page pamphlets. Hitherto such characters were "type" portraits rather than those of real personages, but from 1660 the latter began to appear, sometimes as straight (i.e. adulatory) portraits, sometimes as controversial or polemical portraits. The subjects of the former were named; the latter left unnamed. From 1660 onwards, the format was broadside or quarto.
In 1675, there was a small and successful outrush of quarto "type" single characters, but these were submerged (though a few were reprinted) by a wave of "controversial" broadside and folio characters in 1680-83. These were directly related to the Popish Plot, religious controversy and political in-fighting.
Thereafter the character book declined in frequency. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 inspired a brief outburst (1688-91), and in the early 18th century Ned Ward reverted to the multiple "type" character book with works on the army and navy which were as frequently reprinted as Overbury and Earle.
The "multiple" character book in book format had a reasonable survival value; despite the small formats, frequent and fair-sized reprints ensured this happening. The ephemeral quarto, broadside, and folio character inevitably had a tenuous survival value and, today, tend to be moderately to extremely scarce.
The 1982 purchase has been catalogued and forms part of the General Rare Book Collection (Ex). This group supplements the Library's present holdings. For particulars refer to: Gwendolen Murphy. Bibliography of English Character Books 1608 - 1700 (Oxford, 1925) [(ExB) Z2014.C5.M9q and (F) Z2014.C5.M9q. This (ExB) copy is marked for Princeton's holdings.]