- Reconstructing Dorothy Kilner:Anecdotes as Antidotes
In recent essays Mitzi Myers has begun rehabilitating early writers of children's literature: she sees this literature that emphasizes rationality and didacticism as countering demeaning stereotypes of female passivity and sentimentality.1 Yet another way in which we can find value in some of these early works is to borrow some of the insights of poststructuralist criticism—to find value in a work not just because it measures up to some presumably objective aesthetic standard but because it raises key questions, to read not so much for artistic unity as to revel in disjunctions and contradictions.2 Particularly fruitful for such an examination are the works of Dorothy Kilner, especially her school stories, including Anecdotes of a Boarding-School; or, An Antidote to the Vices of Those Useful Seminaries (1790), a book to whose anecdotes she keeps supplying antidotes. [End Page 58]
Not surprisingly, the fiction by Kilner that least lends itself to a deconstructive reading, the fiction that draws least attention to gaps and contradictions, is probably what has come to be her best-known, best-regarded work, the one that has been reprinted in a volume of Masterworks of Children's Literature (1983): The Life and Perambulation of a Mouse (1783-84). The story is episodic, as we follow the mouse Nimble through various households and overhear a variety of conversations—and thus any inconsistencies in what is preached as we go from one house to the next is not particularly troublesome to a twentieth-century reader. This episodic, even picaresque, form effectively naturalizes—defuses—potential inconsistency.
Kilner's three school stories, however, are much richer in inconsistency, in slippage and deferral of meaning, perhaps in part because the genre had not yet solidified—or ossified—as it would after Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), when the school story became the chronicle of how a new boy wins acceptance at public school by fighting the school bully, scoring a winning run, refusing to tell tales though wrongly accused of stealing. At least all recognized school stories follow some such pattern—though others following other patterns were also being written, in particular, British girls' school stories and American stories for both boys and girls. Stories like Kilner's, outside the canonical mainstream, can shed light on the assumptions of the mainstream—as well as on our own latterday assumptions about genre and unity and consistency.
Kilner's first school story, The Village School; A Collection of Entertaining Histories, for the Instruction and Amusement of All Good Children (c. 1783), set at a village school for laborers' children, both boys and girls, seems at first a fairly straightforward—if heterogeneous and imperfectly unified—account of how good children are inevitably rewarded and naughty children inevitably punished. Yet several incidents start to unravel the plausible facade—especially the catastrophic ending, where Kilner's didacticism becomes self-immolating. The kindly and virtuous schoolteacher Mrs. Bell has taken a poor sick woman into her house and stays up nursing her, and also making a shirt for a neighbor. How is Mrs. Bell's virtue rewarded in this book that so meticulously rewards the virtuous and punishes the naughty? Does she live to a ripe old age, beloved by all her former scholars, increasing in wealth as she increases in wisdom? Hardly. Her house catches fire and she dies, her flesh "so entirely consumed as to make it impossible to distinguish Mrs. Bell from the poor woman she had charitably assisted" (88). Thus Kilner provides "a convenient conclusion to the otherwise endless tale" (Carpenter and Prichard 558), with a catastrophe that undermines the book's own premises, as it undermines Mrs. Bell's.3 Yet maybe, just possibly, the conflagration also illuminates the arbitrariness of our narrative expectations, our insistence on only certain kinds of closure.
In Kilner's last school story, First Going to School; or The Story of Tom Brown, and his Sisters (1804), a story (partly) set at an upper- to middle-class boys' school, the main site for thematic slippage is in the interface between animal and human: there is a continual questioning of what it means to be...