Educational theorists and children’s books - Texts in English used by children, 1550-1800 - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


17. Texts in English used by children, 1550-1800


Margaret Evans


Educational theorists and children’s books


John Newbery’s output was largely dependent on the school and home tutoring market, with his educational items selling to the proprietors of the increasing numbers of academies and private schools springing up throughout the country and to parents eager to enhance their children’s education. The education of the young was becoming of increasing significance as social expectations developed, and the middle classes - including women - had more time for the leisurely pursuit of reading. Good schooling was becoming a necessity. The hallmark of a gentleman, and increasingly a gentlewoman, was not only a thorough grounding in basic reading and writing skills but also a knowledge of the classical or modern languages, arithmetic, geography - even a little science such as astronomy or mechanics. John Locke was not offering new ideas in Some Thoughts Concerning Education when he recommended a carefully judged curriculum designed to meet the needs of pupils on the basis that knowledge should be impressed on young and untouched minds: the tabula rasa or blank sheet principle. His argument, which he had begun in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), was, however, hugely influential. At least fourteen editions of his educational treatise were published between 1693 and 1772 and provided a focus for writers and publishers in their provision of a literature to feed the demand from schools and parents (Pickering 1981: passim).

His emphasis on a carefully judged and rational approach to writing for children was echoed in one of the first books to expound upon schooling for girls: Sarah Fielding’s The Governess: or Little Female Academy (1749), in which her aim was ‘to endeavour to cultivate an early inclination to benevolence and a love of virtue in the minds of young women’. Ellenor Fenn, writing towards the end of the century, was also intent on controlling and containing the natural behaviour of children and impressing virtues upon them, although a lightness of touch was also evident in her work. In Cobwebs to Catch Flies (c. 1783) she appealed to parents as much as to children: ‘if the human mind be a tabula rasa - you to whom it is entrusted should be cautious what is written upon it’. Lady Fenn also produced books and ‘schemes for teaching under the idea of amusement’. One of these, The Infant’s Delight, was sold with ‘a specimen of cuts in a superior stile for children: with a book containing their names, as easy reading lessons [sic]’.

Sarah Trimmer, hugely influential as a critic as well as a writer of children’s books and who credited Locke with inspiring the increase in books published for children at the end of the eighteenth century, was especially concerned with the moral impact of writing for children. Her Fabulous Histories. Designed for the Instruction of Children, respecting their Treatment of Animals (1786), later better known as The History of the Robins, aimed to teach children their duty towards brute creation. In Prints of Scripture History (1786) and numerous other pious works, she provided children with a grounding in sound religious teaching. Her Little Spelling Book for Young Children (2nd edn, 1786) and Easy Lessons for Young Children (1787) were also popular and went into several editions.

The relationship between religious principles, morality and a child-centred literature, which had begun with the Puritan writers, continued in the eighteenth century through the impact of a number of female authors. Like Sarah Trimmer, they considered that reading matter should improve young minds while making the reading light and easy: another of Locke’s dictums. Anna Barbauld, whose Lessons for Children from Two to Three Years Old (1778) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781) expressed a sensitivity for her readers which was quite remarkable, nevertheless aimed mainly to ‘inspire devotional feeling early in life’. Evenings at Home (1792-6), a collection of amusing tales, moral pieces and verse, compiled in collaboration with her brother, John Aikin, similarly mixed morality with amusement. In common with many of the writers of this period she was herself deeply involved in educating children; following her husband’s untimely death she ran a small school.

Mary Pilkington, who worked as a governess and wrote around fifty books for children, also combined a firm didactic line in her work with more amusing and adventurous material. Her Biography for Girls and Biography for Boys, both published in 1799, contained cautionary tales of children whose later lives were fixed through their youthful misdeeds, while New Tales of the Castle (1800), modelled on Madame de Genlis’s Tales of the Castle (1785), featured a French noble family fleeing the Revolution - altogether a more thrilling storyline.

Mary Wollstonecraft had also worked as a governess before turning to writing as a career; her publisher, Joseph Johnson, made something of a specialism out of didactic literature for children. In Original Stories from Real Life (1788) she used the setting of a girls’ school for her series of moral tales, but was rather less inspiring than Sarah Fielding. Her contemporary Dorothy Kilner’s Anecdotes of a Boarding School; or an Antidote to the Vices of those Useful Seminaries (c. 1783) set out the dangers of boarding schools even more explicitly, but only served to make them exciting places for her readers: ‘we all get out of bed, and play blindman’s buff, or dance about in the dark: then if we hear any noise, and think anybody is coming, away we all run helter-skelter, to get into our beds’. Dorothy Kilner also wrote about less privileged education in The Village School (c. 1795) and produced simple lesson books for children which included Short Conversations (c. 1785). Her most entertaining story was The Life and Perambulation of a Mouse (c. 1783-4), where play again featured: ‘After the more serious employment of reading each morning was concluded, we danced, we sung, we played at blind-man’s buff, battledore and shuttlecock, and many other games equally diverting and innocent.’

Her sister-in-law, Mary Ann Kilner, was also a popular writer, although less prolific. The Adventures of a Pincushion (c. 1780) and The Memoirs of a Peg-Top (c. 1781) went into many editions; the combination of sound common sense, amusing detail and imaginative writing seems to have appealed to parents.

Locke was not the only influential theorist; his emphasis on the impression of virtue on young minds and the need to treat children as rational creatures was only one strand of thought. Following the translation of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile into English in 1763, in which it was judged that children’s (or rather boys’) education should be related to their status as reflective creatures of the natural world, writers adopted new methods of imparting morality. Children had to learn rationality through experience. Maria Edgeworth, whose best-known story - ‘The Purple Jar’ - first appeared in The Parent’s Assistant (1796), was one of Rousseau’s most faithful disciples in imparting this ideology. Rosamund is offered a gift by her mother, and instead of choosing the sensible pair of new shoes opts for a purple jar in the apothecary’s shop. Her old shoes let her down and she finally has to acknowledge that mother knows best and to ‘hope, I shall be wiser another time’. The idea that children learn best through acting out a lesson was one which many writers adopted from Rousseau. French writers from this school were imported and achieved a wide readership, including Rousseau’s friend the Marquise D’Epinay whose Conversations of Emily was published in English in 1787.

Another English Rousseauist was Thomas Day; his Sandford and Merton (1783-9) became one of the most popular sets of tales for boys during this period and was widely adapted and reissued well into the nineteenth century. Harry Sandford and Tommy Merton have a series of largely unconnected adventures in the original version, unexciting material by later standards, but one of the first attempts to depict recognisably real boys exploring a friendship through active incident. Day’s Little Jack (1788) was equally firm in its Rousseauism, with its depiction of the hero’s natural upbringing in his ‘little hut of clay’ and allusions to the Crusoe tale of survival through ingenuity and tenacity.