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  • The Good Mother:Language, Gender, and Power in Ann and Jane Taylor's Poetry for Children
  • Sharon Smulders (bio)

Ann and Jane Taylor, the authors of Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804-1805) and Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), stand immortalized as girls of ten and eight in the likeness of them that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Painted in 1792 by their father, Isaac, the picture shows the sisters in the garden at Lavenham, Suffolk, where "they were wont, before the eldest was six years old, to pace up and down the green walks, hand in hand, lisping a simple couplet of their joint composition" (I. Taylor 5). Dressed in identical white gowns with pink sashes, the girls gaze inquisitively at some object just beyond the edge of the canvas. In her right hand, the younger, Jane, holds a small bouquet of flowers suggestive of youth's transient beauty. Lightly clasping the other hand, her sister Ann prepares to turn back toward the rest of the family who, grouped in and around a distant gazebo, serve to countervail the impression of girlish vulnerability that dominates the foreground of the work. With its charming evocation of feminine naivety and familial harmony, however, Isaac's painting presents an image of childhood at odds with that found in the poetry written by his daughters, grown to adulthood; for in Original Poems for Infant Minds and Rhymes for the Nursery, they pose the rational experience of womanhood as necessary to the eradication of juvenile vice and the transformation of bad daughters into good mothers. While their work thus propagates a disciplinary code aimed at controlling female behavior, the Taylor sisters simultaneously extol the expressive power of adult femininity, incarnate in the good mother. Innovators in the field of Romantic-era verse, they find in the good mother—often affectionate, sometimes angry, but always articulate—a voice capable of joining pedagogic authority to poetic ambition, moral necessity to verbal ingenuity, and social significance to domestic responsibility. As a result, their work offers a means of exploring how nineteenth-century children's poetry validates and, at the same time, challenges contemporary assumptions about women's place in literature, education, and society.

The Taylors' influence on children's literature notwithstanding, their critical stature has declined over the last century for two main reasons: their reputation as girl poets, innocently perpetuated in their father's portrait of them, and their specialization in moral verse. Writing in 1896, E.V. Lucas described Original Poems as an ageless classic; but in his elevation of entertaining over improving literature, he located the appeal of the Taylors' poems in "their dramatic interest [rather] than their didacticism" ("Some Notes" 404). In the introduction to the centenary edition of their work, moreover, he asserted that the sisters owed their continuing popularity to having "chose[n] their subjects from the daily life of normal children..., and not only described them in language such as children would use, prettily decked with rhyme, but also imagined them very much as a child would have done" (Original Poems xvii). Later, in Children's Books in England, F.J. Harvey Darton effectively repeated Lucas' assessment. Similarly contemptuous of their "rhymed moralities," he admired the originality of those poems in which the Taylors "talk[ed] lovingly and naturally to real flesh-and-blood middle-class children whom they knew: almost to themselves" (182). Indeed, "they were still too close to become prigs when they started writing" (183). Sadly, since Darton's landmark 1932 study, historians of children's literature have become increasingly perfunctory in acknowledging the Taylors' achievement. Dismissing their work as unoriginal and unimaginative, Gillian Avery and Margaret Kinnell observe, for example, that only "something of the sisters' reputation has survived" (68). At the same time, however, critics like Morag Styles have argued that the Taylors deserve attention because, as among the first poets to give expression to maternal love, they developed a "child-centred poetry" ("Lost" 181).1 Despite its intense affective qualities, the Taylors' verse is not so much child-centered as it is oriented to the complex ambitions of adult women who, appropriating maternity to poetry, sought a rapprochement between cultural expectation...


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