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  • Fairy Tales, Telemachus, and Young Misses Magazine:Moderns, Ancients, Gender, and Eighteenth-Century Children's Book Publishing
  • Ruth B. Bottigheimer (bio)

Culture Wars

A culture war between the Moderns and the Ancients marked the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, particularly in France and England. One side held up modern stories such as fairy tales with their simple diction and their ethical moralities as a superior ideal; the other admired the noble content, elegant style, and aesthetic values of the ancient world's literature and art.

In France, heated polemical, and often personally abusive, partisan exchanges took place, until the Moderns—ed by Charles Perrault—carried the day. Perrault's ideological victory, together with a longstanding predilection among historians of children's literature to privilege the history of fairy tales within the history of children's books, led to erroneous conclusions about the importance of Perrault's tales as recreational reading between 1729 and the 1760s. At that time their real success was not as recreational reading, but as a dual-language textbook for schoolboys that was printed four times in eighteenth-century England: 1737, 1741, 1750, 1764=1765 (Bottigheimer "Misperceived").

Perrault's tales comprised one of many French-English texts for eighteenth-century English schoolboys. There were also editions of fables (1732 and 1741);1 the 1757 Young Ladies Geography [sic], a dual-language volume, which—despite its title—was also meant for boys;2 natural histories;3 national histories;4 and Bible histories.5

English girls did indeed read about fairies in the early eighteenth century: we know from the oft-cited quotation in Richard Steele's Tatler6 that the goddaughter of "Isaac Bickerstaff" preferred fairies to the knightly heroes favored by her brother. The goddaughter's "fairies" might perhaps denote the supernaturals of Mme d'Aulnoy's newly, and turgidly, translated narratives in the unwieldy thick volumes published the previous year,7 but it is more likely that they stood for the bawdily humorous English chapbook imps and fairies against whom John Locke had so recently inveighed in his Thoughts on Education (1693).

Around the middle of the eighteenth century, some English girls of refined taste began reading in earnest what we think of as fairy tales. Old copies of Arabian Nights—printed eight times between 1706 and 1728—were lying around and so were newly printed ones (1748, 1753). Mlle L'Héritier's outrageously immoral Discreet Princess was also on the market. Then, in 1753, Mary Cooper brought fairies to the fore in the d'Aulnoy tales in The Court of Queen Mab; the book's design suggests that she probably intended it more for adult than for child readers,8 but such books often fell into children's hands. In 1754 much the same material was directed at the "Ladies of Great Britain" (as its title stated) in History of the Tales of the Fairies published by a London consortium.9

Shortly afterward, Mme Leprince published her Magasin des Enfans (1756), soon translated as Young Misses Magazine.10 The fairy tales she included came not from Perrault's little collection, and certainly not from Mlle L'Héritier, but were instead thoroughly edited and moralized reworkings of other French authors' fairy tales. Mme Leprince patently disapproved of fairy tales, which she identified pejoratively as "untrue stories." Nonetheless, she included such tales in her Magazine, interleaving them with "true [Bible] histories," little lessons on geography, and other schoolroom subjects (1756, 16).

Fairy Tales in Historical Context

In France of the 1690s fairy tales represented modernity: modernists such as Perrault used them as a vehicle for modern visions and versions of personal morality to counterbalance and to replace what they regarded as an anachronistic and oppressive reliance on Greek diction and Roman virtue as educational and artistic models. Their own century, as Perrault argued in La Siècle de Louis le Grand, offered equally valid models for civic grandeur and personal morality.11

Sixty years later, in 1750s England, fairy tales were a marker of a different kind. The utility of Perrault's fairy tales as a language-based educational reading for boys was fading away; however, in mid-eighteenth century England, fairy tales became...


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