Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn


The eighteenth century


Animal stories have, as we have seen, a history distinct from that of children’s literature. But, with a few exceptions, a genre of animal stories written specifically with children in mind does not really appear until the late eighteenth century. In the 1740s, the period that is generally recognised as marking the start of publishing for children, animal books are fairly scarce. Exceptions would be John Newbery’s use of animals in his volumes A Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses or Tommy Tripp’s History of Beasts and Birds (c. 1748), Goody Two-Shoes (1765) and The Valentine’s Gift (1765). There was also the emblematic use of animals in the pious works of Bunyan and Watts. Beyond this, perhaps the most influential fictional animals, for nearly fifty years, were those in Aesop’s Fables and the fairy tales of Perrault and Mme D’Aulnoy, both published in 1697.

Perhaps the first major children’s writer of the eighteenth century to use animals in her work was Mrs Trimmer. As the editor of an influential journal, The Guardian of Education, Trimmer was concerned with children’s pedagogical and moral development. She consistently used a position of some authority to oppose fairy tales and the fantastic as lacking in the requisite moral instruction. Ironically, her reputation was made by her most significant work, entitled Fabulous Histories Designed for the Instruction of Children Respecting Their Treatment of Animals but more popularly known as The History [or Story] of the Robins (1786). This book consists of a dual narrative, as we follow the daily life of the Benson family. Mrs Benson, a saintly proxy for the authoress, endlessly lectures her children, particularly her thoughtless but well-meaning son, Frederick, on the correct treatment of other species. A parallel strand to the novel is offered by the adventures of a family of talking robins who come under the patronage of the Benson children.

Given Trimmer’s ambivalence towards fantasy, it is perhaps not surprising that she prefaced the first edition of the novel with a declaration to her readers reminding them that the book was not meant to be read as ‘containing the real conversations of Birds ... but as a series of FABLES’ (Trimmer quoted in Darton 1932/1982: 158).

The History of the Robins fully exploits the possibilities of its dual narrative in order to deliver a double dose of moral guidance. Both the Benson children and the young robins provide possibilities for ‘identification’. Parallelism is evident throughout, as scenes in which Frederick is censured for gluttony are echoed by similar instructions to Dicky Robin. The explicit identification of child and animal (or bird in this case) is established when Mrs Benson, in order to condemn children who maltreat animals, equates their equal degree of dependency. But such moral parallelism is also used in a more subtle way in regard to the possibilities of anthropomorphism. The lessons from the bird world, for example, the fate that befalls the eldest nestling, Robin, when he fails to heed his father’s advice and seriously injures his wing, sends out a much graver warning than anything that could be included in the human narrative.

Christine Kenyon-Jones usefully sums up the messages from the book’s narratives, when she notes:


Trimmer’s History of the Robins ... alternates between twin animal themes: one, concerned with how children should be brought up to treat animals - ‘neither spoil[ing] them by indulgence nor injur[ing] them by tyranny’ ... and the other using a story of animals (or, bird) life as a fable to teach children how to behave correctly in life in society at large.

(Kenyon-Jones 2001: 56)


But although the novel sets out to teach its reader to be more humane to animals, its moral agenda encompasses a good deal more than this. At a number of points, Frederick’s mother reminds him that feeding birds is all very well, but ‘it is not right to cut pieces from a loaf on purpose for birds because there are many children who want bread, to whom we should give the preference’ (Trimmer n.d.: 4). Trimmer’s novel is underpinned, therefore, by a hierarchical structure that sees animals as less worthy of our benevolence than fellow humans. Such a consideration even extends to the moral lesson the book teaches about kindness to animals. In the novel, the fate of the Bensons’ friend, Master Edward Jenkins, who spends his childhood cruelly torturing animals and birds, is used to provide a cautionary example for young readers. In an epilogue, we learn that the grownup Jenkins is eventually killed by being thrown from a horse that he has been beating. But the lesson of Edward Jenkins is only partly about compassion for animals; it can also be seen as a matter of social responsibility. As Harriet Ritvo argues:


In stories of this genre kindness to animals was a code for full and responsible acceptance of the obligations of society, while cruelty was identified with deviance. The need for compassion was intertwined with the need for discipline.

(Ritvo 1987: 132)


Trimmer’s writing needs to be seen, therefore, as part of competing discourses about children’s educational and moral development at the end of the eighteenth century. Her ideological agenda is one in which humanity’s superiority and the need to care for animals is partly a displaced lesson for middle-class children about their responsibilities in the existing social order. At both the animal and the human levels, Trimmer’s book offers a social model that endeavours to maintain the hierarchies, distinction and ranks of that order. With such a view of society, it is no wonder that she was staunchly opposed to calls at the end of the eighteenth century for ‘the rights of animals’ (Jackson 1989: 168). For her, such a view could only seem like an affront to the divine order of creation.