The literary history of the Anecdote carries us back to the classic ages; though this form of composition was scarcely employed by the ancients in the sense in which we now use it. Anecdote is derived from a Greek word, and the Greeks called an unmarried lady an Anecdote. Cicero speaks of a book of Anecdotes on which he was engaged; but which he talks of confiding to a single friend only, as if it was not intended to be ever published; and the earliest book of the kind which has come down to us is the 'anecdotes of Procopius,' an English translation of which, under the title of 'The Secret History of the Court of Justinian,' was published in London in 1674.
Dr. Johnson seems to have taken his definition of the word from Cicero; for our lexicographer describes it as 'something yet unpublished; secret history;' giving, as an example of its use in this sense, Prior's lines:-'Some modern anecdotes aver,
He nodded in his easy chair.'
Johnson adds, however, 'It is now used, after the French, for a biographical incident, a minute passage of private life;' to which Melmoth has added, 'A narration of a particular incident or event.' And it seems to promise that kind of information which Sir Walter Scott has somewhat grandiloquently described in the opening sentence of his paper on Pepys's 'Memoirs,' in the Quarterly Review: 'There is a curiosity implanted in our nature which receives much gratification from prying into the actions, feelings and sentiments of our fellow creatures.'
Such collections, or Ana, have been made in all ages, and in every country where literature has been cultivated. In modern times, Ana has been used to denote collections, either of remarks by celebrated individuals in conversation, or of extracts from their note-books, letters, or even published works - or generally, of particulars respecting them. Of these collections Voltaire has said, in his wicked way, that we are indebted for them, for the most part, to those bookmakers who live on the follies of the dead.
Well-considered Anecdote, however, take higher ground than the French Ana, one of which was suppressed for its malicious scandals, and deserved to be 'set down in the list of printed lies, and, above all, of lies in which there is no wit.' Of our English Ana, by far the most celebrated is the Walpoliana of the conversational remarks of Horace Walpole; which, in curious information and liveliness of manner, may be favourably compared with the best French publications of the same class. Still, its Anecdotes scarcely reach the star card of excellence which Walpole himself characterized, in speaking of certain Memoirs published in his day, as 'worthy of being inserted in the history of mankind; which, if well chosen and well written, would precede common histories, which are but repetitions of no uncommon events.'
It is to Anecdotes of this class that the compilers of the PERCY collection directed their attention when they set about producing their work of many volumes, which is known to have received the encomium of Lord Byron, himself one of the most agreeable anecdotical letter-writers of his day. The object of the Brothers Percy was 'to combine instruction with amusement; with scrupulous regard to truth, to probability, and to morals;' paramount aims in a work for family reading. Hitherto, collections of Anecdotes had scarcely been compiled with sufficient regard to the character and tendency of their contents. The Brothers Percy, however, aimed at the improvement of the heart, as well as of the mind; and this they sought to secure by rejecting everything profane or impure; thus adding to the recreative character, as well as the higher value of their collection, by keeping in mind Roscommon's oft-quoted couplet,-Immodest words admit of no defence,
For want of decency is want of sense.'
In the PERCY ANECDOTES, intended for the innocent tastes of a large class of readers, while the art of telling a story has been studied, the narrator has not been allowed to stray into diffuseness, or the chronicle of small beer, or tales made up of 'the drowsy syrups of the world.' These faults have been eschewed in the present collection, while the historical gossip, which in a literary feast corresponds with the sauces, the savoury dishes, and sweetmeats of a splendid banquet, has not here been lost sight of. A popular writer has well characterized this enjoyment: 'We, who do not know our next-door neighbour's name, nor exhibit the least curiosity to pry into affairs which do not concern us, are delighted with the tattle of Boswell and Horace Walpole, read Cowper's letters as if they were written to ourselves; and like nothing better than to peer over little Gurney's shoulder, as she indites her Diary. We know how many cups of tea Dr. Johnson used to take of a night; wonder what he did with his collections of orangepeel; laugh at Gibbon, as he makes a declaration of love upon his knees, and can't get up again; and can see Pitt distinctly, eating his raw beefsteak, and drinking his bottle of port, before he enters the House of Commons to enact another page of history. If it is unsafe to indulge a curiosity of this kind when the objects of it are living, we are under no such restraint with regard to the dead. We cannot offend them with our impertinent curiosity. Their movements are not hampered by our prate. Their friends are not compromised by our revelations.'
Meanwhile, as the PERCY ANECDOTES were specially intended for family circles of readers, the compilers have sought to invest their narratives with a domestic interest and character, and thus to add to the happiness of home and local attachments. There is much to be learned from domestic annals, which, it has been said, 'illustrate the state and progress of society better than could be done by the most elaborate historian.'
A few words as to the origin and success of the work here reproduced may be acceptable to the reader. The PERCY ANECDOTES, published in forty parts, in as many months, commencing 1820 were compiled by 'Sholto and Reuben Percy, Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery of Mont Benger.' So said the title-pages; but the names and the locality were suppose, or de plume. Reuben Percy was Mr. Thomas Byerley, who died in 1824: he was the brother of Sir John Byerley, and the first Editor of the Mirror, commenced by John Limbird, in 1822. Sholto Percy was Mr. Joseph Clinton Robertson, who died in 1852: he was the projector of the Mechanics' Magazine, which he had edited from its commencement to his death. The name of this collection of Anecdotes was not taken from the popularity of the ' Percy Reliques,' as was generally supposed; but from the Percy Coffee House, in Rathbone Place, where the idea of the book was first started by Byerley and Robertson, who were accustomed to meet from time to time to talk over their joint work.
The idea was, however, claimed by that clever author/publisher, Sir Richard Phillips, who stoutly maintained that it originated in a suggestion made by him to Dr. Tilloch and Mr. Mayne, to cut the anecdotes from the many years' files of the Star newspaper, of which Dr. Tilloch was then editor, and Mr. Byerley assistant-editor; and to the latter overhearing the suggestion, Sir Richard contested, might the PERCY ANECDOTES be traced. Such, it is believed by the writer, was the origin of the Work, one of the best compilations of its day, which enjoyed a very large sale: the working out of the plan, especially the clasification of the Anecdotes under special heads, and the very careful selection of the materials of most unexceptionable character - is due to the compilers, who, we are informed, were assisted in their labours by contributions from the purchasers of the Work, in its progress of publication. The worth of such aid from family note-books and private collections generally, when placed in judicious hands, may have greatly assisted the originality of the narratives in this celebrated library, for such it deserves to be called.
The PERCY ANECDOTES here presented to the public is, as stated in the title-page, 'A verbatim Reprint of the original Edition,' commenced in 1820 and completed in 1823. It is without note or comment; the Publishers deeming the well-earned popularity of the Work the best recommendation of this cheap reproduction.
A glance at the annexed List of Contents will convey some idea of the variety and attractiveness of these volumes; and induces the belief that for the leisure half hour, at home or abroad; in the railway carriage or the steamer; by the fireside; or during those intervals of business when the mind seeks relaxation in reading of the varieties of life drawn from unhackneyed sources, the PERCY ANECDOTES may be safely recommended to all classes of readers.