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“The Delight of Our Earlier Days”: Character, Narrative, and The Village School

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 19-40 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0006

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In 1870, Charlotte Yonge published an anthology of children’s tales entitled A Storehouse of Stories. The “golden age of children’s literature” was well under way by this time, and Yonge’s anthology would have had to compete with works like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Rather than publish original tales, though, Yonge thought back to her own childhood:

the class of books which worthy mothers recommended to the exclusion of the fairy tale in the last decades of the eighteenth century has, it seems to us, met with somewhat unmerited contempt. Judging from our own childhood, we find that we preferred the inherited books of the former generation to any of our own.


A Storehouse of Stories reprints tales from these “inherited books,” tales which Yonge felt were “the delight of our earlier days” (vii). Critics, however, have not always found these tales so delightful. Scholars initially dismissed these books as merely didactic predecessors to the more imaginative children’s literature of the Victorian period. In last two decades, more historically minded critics have challenged the “Whiggish historical model of progress from quotidian instruction toward the escapist delight of fairy tale and fantasy” that had obscured scholars’ “ability to read Georgian moral tales from within their own discourse, code, cultural system, or ideology” (Myers 97–98). Although many critics now read eighteenth-century children’s tales from within their own discourses, codes, cultural systems, and ideologies, their arguments typically emphasize systems and ideologies over the formal properties of the works themselves. Jerome McGann’s remarks about sentimental poetry could, I think, still be applied to the reception of early children’s literature: critics “tend to have little interest in the art of this writing, which is interrogated for its social, or moral, or ideological significance” (McGann 96, emphasis original).

In this article, I will explore some of the narrative techniques found in the books that Yonge recalls reading as a child. The usual strategy when approaching these books is to base one’s claims on cursory readings of numerous texts. Such a strategy, though, can lead to paradoxical statements about narrative. In Moral Instruction and Fiction for Children, 1749–1820, for example, Samuel F. Pickering, Jr. discusses an impressive array of texts. He begins by stating that “few rounded characters of ‘mingled virtue and vice’ appeared. The overwhelming majority of characters were flat allegorical representations of either virtue or vice” (Moral Instruction 2–3); he then later claims that these books promote middle-class values and challenge the aristocracy: “Education and industry formed character and were responsible for success. Along with the inherited wealth or position, even the gifts of fortune, those of heredity itself were suspect” (John Locke 88). These are incompatible conceptions of character: if education and industry form character, then characters change—they cannot be “flat allegorical representations of either vice or virtue.”

Pickering’s study investigates how early children’s books reflect the political, social, and gender ideologies of their authors, readers, and publishers, and scholars like Mitzi Myers, Andrew O’Malley, and Beverly Lyon Clark have continued this line of inquiry, bringing serious critical attention to early children’s literature. But if we wish to understand the narrative conventions of these stories, a different approach is necessary. I hope to avoid Pickering’s paradoxical claims by focusing on only one text: Dorothy Kilner’s The Village School; Or, a Collection of Entertaining Histories, for the Instruction and Amusement of All Good Children (ca. 1783). This text, which went through at least three editions before 1831 and is included in Yonge’s A Storehouse of Stories, is fairly typical of late eighteenth-century moral tales, both in its didactic intent and in its narrative. In the dedication, Kilner tells readers that the story should “help to increase your love of goodness, and your abhorrence of every thing that is evil” (1: vii). She expects her readers to love and imitate the good characters, and to abhor, or be disgusted by, the wicked characters—a notion of fiction similar to that which Samuel Johnson promotes in his Rambler 4 essay. Johnson privileges realism over romance because “what we cannot credit we shall never imitate...

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