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  • Acting out Crusoe:Pedagogy and Performance in Eighteenth-Century Children's Literature
  • Andrew O'Malley (bio)

Well before Robinson Crusoe and the robinsonade became dominant features of the children's fiction landscape in the Victorian period, eighteenth-century writers for children explored the pedagogical utility of Defoe's most famous novel with a mix of enthusiasm and caution. Victorian robinsonades were, as many critics have remarked, primarily boys' adventure tales, championing empire, colonial expansion, and the masculine ideal of rugged, self-sufficient individualism.1 Eighteenth-century pedagogical writers tended to consider Robinson Crusoe in terms of its value to the promotion of the emerging middle classes' ideals, singling out in the novel the moral qualities they thought most necessary to inculcate in the rising generation: thrift, perseverance, industry, and piety, for instance. Many of these authors, however, expressed reservations about the kinds of impressions the soft wax of the child's mind might take from a story of sea-faring adventure. Eighteenth-century pedagogues regarded Crusoe as admirably independent, yet the children whom they would have become like him had paradoxically to be dissuaded from aspiring to an independence that threatened parental authority and social order.

Sarah Trimmer's somewhat mixed feelings about Robinson Crusoe were undoubtedly shared by many of her contemporaries. Reviewing the book for her Guardian of Education, Trimmer praised it for "shewing what ingenuity and industry can effect, under the divine blessing" and for acting as "a stimulus to mental and bodily exertion, and patient perseverance" (298). It was a book, however, that required parental supervision or at least a child reader with a "mind and temper [that] have been properly regulated," in other words, one who had already been successfully interpellated as the type of self-regulating subject that much eighteenth-century pedagogy [End Page 131] was geared toward producing. Trimmer's famous anecdote of the two boys who "in consequence of reading the History of Robinson Crusoe, set off together from their parents' houses, in order to embark on some ship, with the hope of being cast on an uninhabited island" demonstrates the period's anxiety over the child's insufficiently mediated consumption of Defoe's narrative (298). The mother of one of these boys dies from the "anxiety of mind" his departure causes in her.

While Defoe's novel rightly demonstrates "the misery that follows the breach of filial duty," this valuable lesson, it seems, is "commonly overlooked, when the curiosity of the mind is strongly excited, and the feelings powerfully engaged, by the circumstances of the story" (298–99). The concerns Trimmer expresses in her review of Robinson Crusoe are revealing on a number of counts, and point to two issues that were central to didactic writing in the late eighteenth century. The first has to do with a kind of experiential, and I would suggest theatrical, exemplarity: a preferred didactic method in the period, but one that presented certain challenges to educators. Behavioral and textual models for children needed to excite a desire for emulation, but emulation could easily go astray if not properly moderated. The second issue concerns the lessons children were expected to learn from stories such as Robinson Crusoe, specifically how to negotiate between the desirable individualism and independence exhibited by a solitary man on an island and the potentially radical rejection of authority and proper subordination this figure could imply. This concern had particular urgency for readers in the necessarily dependent state of childhood, and required that children's adaptations render the story compatible with the dictates of social and familial hierarchy. Such eighteenth-century adaptations of Defoe's novel as Joachim Campe's The New Robinson Crusoe and Madame de Genlis's "The Children's Island" both employ performance in their versions of Crusoe's story, which strengthens its pedagogical effects, while yoking the story's individualism and independence to social and familial well-being. In so doing, they provide insights into why and how their source novel became so successful as to generate the countless adaptations and robinsonades that would claim a central place in the canon of children's literature.2

Trimmer expresses in her review a desire, on the one hand, to see...


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pp. 131-145
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