this is why you should read eighteenth-century children’s literature

I’ve been a very delinquent blogger, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.  I predict that I’ll be more attentive once I’ve gotten through round one of the application process.  (I’m still hopeful that round one followed by many, many more rounds that lead blissfully to a desirable tenure-track professorship.)  But, despite my scatter-brainedness, I have managed to update my weekly picks by carrots AND update my “currently reading” and “currently watching,” which I haven’t done in some time.

In between job market shenanigans, I’ve been trying to cobble together the introduction to my dissertation.  I saved the introduction until last because I wanted to have a clear idea about the majority of my project before I had to, you know, introduce it.  But this also means that I have saved until last a discussion of early children’s literature, a genre

Janeway's A Token for Children

that is either (a) mind-numbingly boring or (b) violent, offensive, and a little funny.  Perhaps the most famous of the latter is Mary Martha Sherwood’s The History of the Fairchild Family (1818), in which a father, troubled by his children’s disobedience, takes them all into the woods to show them a rotted corpse hanging from a gibbet.  “See!” he implies.  “Your childish bickering will lead to nothing but death death death!

There’s also A Token for Children by James Janeway, published in 1672.  Janeway’s book is meant to address the problem that children were “not too little to go to Hell,” and inside he provides many examples of the “joyful deaths” of good little Puritans.

And then there’s Henry Sharpe Horsley, whose The Affectionate Parent’s Gift (1828) includes “Scared Straight” didactic poems for children, including  “A Visit to Newgate,” in which two fathers take their sons to stare through the jail-bars at a young thief who is crying, hungry and depressed, and “A Visit to the Lunatic Asylum,” where a young boy learns that wow — it’s great to be sane!  I also love Horsley’s poem “School,” which includes a stanza exhorting the young reader that children who neglect to learn “must be whipt and scourg’d / They don’t deserve to eat.”

This particular trend in children’s literature also inspires some weird literary reviews and criticism. For example, I ran across this sentence in a nineteenth-century essay by a critic named Alexander Innes Shand–a sentence summarizing, apparently, a story by a Miss Fraser Tytler:

“When the ill-found ship was delayed by baffling winds, and all the passengers were generously sharing their shanty stores and resigning themselves to short rations, we well remember the incident of the greedy girl who feloniously swallowed a Bologna sausage, and was blighted before the hungry company by her aunt’s reproachful gaze.”

How often to you get to read a sentence like that?

And how can you read a sentence like that and not consider just how appropriate this story could be for kids — a story that involves “feloniously” swallowing an entire Bologna sausage?  I need to work that sentence into a conference presentation, just to hear the questions it inspires.


2 thoughts on “this is why you should read eighteenth-century children’s literature

  1. I think I beat you on the negligent blogger prize. I now have count them two entries on my blog. I love the distasteful dark humor of children’s literature. It reminds of brother’s Grimm and Cinderellas stepsitter self-mutilation

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