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  • The Radical Education of Evenings at Home
  • Michelle Levy (bio)

Sarah Trimmer, in her single-handed attempt to secure child readers "from the corruptions of the age" by acting as the "Guardian of Education," shrewdly discerned the radical ambitions of Evenings at Home (1792–96), the widely read and much beloved six-volume miscellany that Anna Barbauld compiled with her brother John Aikin. Trimmer wrote: "It is therefore very wrong to endeavour to inspire children with a prejudice, which will, in all probability, lead them when they become men, not only to be discontented with the government they live under, should the nation be engaged in war; but to arraign even the Almighty himself as the instigator of the very crime he has expressly forbidden. For has not God commanded, saying, Thou shalt do no murder?"1 Within the pages of Evenings at Home, the authors encouraged children (and of course their parents) to be "discontented with the government ... should the nation be engaged in war," demanding that they become critical observers of and, where necessary, vocal resisters to authority. For Aikin and Barbauld, public remonstrance was all the more necessary during times of war when citizens were asked to support and even to celebrate "the art of war [which] is essentially that of destruction, and ... murdering and ruining one's fellow-creatures."2 [End Page 123]

If "war was a primary poetic preoccupation" of the period 1793–1815, as Betty T. Bennett has demonstrated in her collection of popular verse, British War Poetry in the Age of Romanticism: 1793–1815, in Evenings at Home we see how the topic also pervaded many prose genres, and how children were increasingly brought into the struggle.3 Throughout their careers, both Aikin and Barbauld alternated between various genres and audiences, publishing works for adults and children, male and female readers, and often, as in Evenings at Home, refusing to discriminate between readerships of various ages and genders. This refusal to specify readership became increasingly provocative in an age when critics sought to erect and then police boundaries of gender- and age-appropriate literature.4 We are now most familiar with the way this affected Barbauld's five-decade career as a professional author. She was derided by Samuel Johnson after her decision to marry, and then to teach and write for children: Johnson disdainfully remarked that, by "marrying a little Presbyterian parson, who keeps an infant boarding-school, so that all her employment now is, 'To suckle fools, and chronicle small-beer,'" she had made a "voluntary descent from possible splendour to painful duty."5 By declaring that if Barbauld had been his daughter he "would have sent her to the Congress" rather than see her degraded by such a marriage, Johnson clearly viewed her educational exertions (as a mother, teacher, and author) as inferior to poetic authorship. Moreover, Johnson seems to have understood her educational work [End Page 124] as utterly distinct from the important national concerns that she had addressed in her verse. Four decades later, the problem for the arch-Tory John Wilson Croker is Barbauld's return to serious (what he calls "satiric") poetry, but if he had taken a closer look at Evenings at Home, he would never have recommended her writing for children as "something better than harmless."6 Still, both men agree that the world of domestic education is inevitably a lesser one, though Croker will depart from Johnson in claiming that this is the only sphere in which women can be useful; hence his biting remark, "we had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author."7 Arguably, these prejudices still exist, and may be seen in the relative lack of scholarly interest in John Aikin, a man who wrote both for adult and child readerships.8

The belief voiced by both Johnson and Croker—that education, though "respectable and useful" in its own way, had little to do with the future of nation and empire—was one that brother and sister vigorously and emphatically refuted in their long careers in print. Barbauld would later make the wry observation that the problem was quite the opposite...


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pp. 123-150
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