Eighteenth-Century Life 30.2 (2006) 48-73
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"To Root the Old Woman out of Our Minds":
Women Educationists and Plebeian Culture in Late-Eighteenth-Century Britain
At the first dawn of reason, nurses instill notions which are scarcely ever entirely laid aside; at least it causes us some trouble to "root the old woman out of our minds."
Old wives' tale (also old wives' story, old wives' fable), an unlikely story; a widely held or traditional belief now thought to be incorrect or erroneous. Cf. earlier old woman's tale s.v. OLD WOMAN n. 1b.
English Romantic poets' (and Victorian critics') distaste for the improving literature of their youth guaranteed a lasting bad reputation for the women educationists who wrote for children in the last decades of the eighteenth century, "that cursed Barbauld crew" as Charles Lamb famously called them in a letter to Samuel Coleridge, referring to the latter's onetime mentor, Anna Laetitia Barbauld.1 Well into the twentieth century, late-eighteenth-century children's literature received little attention except as a foil to what was seen as the truly imaginative literature for children that followed it. The classic history of British children's literature, F. J. Harvey Darton's Children's [End Page 48] Books in England (reprinted in a new edition as late as 1999), tells of the "Fairy Tale wars" of the eighteenth century, wars between dull, earnest reformers (mostly women) and a few visionary souls like John Newberry and the young Romantic poets, who spoke up for the value of imagination and wonder in children's books.2 This "Whiggish view of children's literary history" has been called into question by recent scholarship; perhaps even more importantly, the history of children's literature, once a sort of "hobby" field, has come into the mainstream of cultural and literary history.3
It has done so primarily through two key analytical concepts, class and gender. The genre's not-so-subtle messages about class-appropriate behavior have inspired interpretations emphasizing the significance of children's literature in the formation of the middle-class identity. Andrew O'Malley's work, which may perhaps be seen as marking the coming-of-age of children's literature as a serious topic of study, fully develops this interpretation.4 The work of feminist scholars on the genre, notably Mitzi Myers's on late-eighteenth-century women's pedagogy, directly addresses the issue of gender. Myers demonstrates that writing for and about children gave women an acceptable outlet for their intellectual and literary skills, and an effective platform for their efforts to improve the lot of women and reform the education of girls.5 For Myers, such writing expresses a "female tradition" of "benign and powerful maternal governance" directed not only towards children, but also towards the improvement of society as a whole ("Impeccable Governesses," 54). Recognizing the similar aims of women writers across the "political" spectrum of the late eighteenth century, Myers includes everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft to Hannah More in this favorable assessment, seeing in More's didactic writings for children and for the lower classes "a woman's brand of bourgeois progressivism" that "reproved the rich and improved the poor," a "maternal thinking oriented to needs and duties."6
Interpretations based on either class or gender have helped to show the broader significance of children's literature and educational thinking in late-eighteenth-century Britain, but little effort has been made to bring together the insights of the two approaches. Myers's work is compelling, both as a contribution to the recovery of long-ignored women thinkers, and as an interpretation of eighteenth-century children's literature that recognizes individual agency, rather than attributing cultural change to impersonal economic and societal forces.7 Her views of More, in particular, are a refreshing counter to commentary that can only see the supposed arch...