Children's Fiction 1765-1808: John Carey; Margaret King Moore, Lady Mount Cashel; Henry Brooke
The study of eighteenth-century children's literature poses peculiar difficulties, as Peter Opie has noted, and one of these is access. Texts of children's books are not always readily available outside of the archive, what with the genre underrepresented on ECCO and the microform series of the Bodleian's Opie Collection owned by only a handful of libraries. Facsimiles traditionally have helped to fill the gap, but they, too, can be difficult to get, as many were produced as keepsakes for library friends' groups or in series published in Japan. Even better than facsimiles for the contextualization of seemingly simple texts are full-dress editions, but few have been published since the short-lived Oxford University Press series under Brian Alderson's editorship back in the late 1960s.
Things have been looking up, though, with the appearance of the Broadview editions of Sarah Fielding's The Governess and Thomas Day's History of Sandford and Merton, and now this anthology of fiction for children in Open Court's series "Early Irish Fiction c.1680-1820." It features three works in English by Carey, [End Page 633] King, and Brooke that were in circulation for decades, but which have rarely figured in critical discussion of the period's children's books; they also foreground issues that continue to figure in criticism of modern Irish children's literature. As regional or children's fiction, none of the three is going to knock the great Maria off her pedestal, but editor Anne Markey makes a good case for their relevance to historians of children's books or scholars in Irish studies.
Learning Better than House and Land (1802) by John Carey, the son of a wealthy Dublin Roman Catholic baker, who was schooled in France in defiance of the Irish Penal Laws, fits the series' rubric best, and receives the most attention. Markey argues that although the story is set in England and America (Carey lived in both places), Learning reflects late eighteenth-century Irish concerns and anxieties about educational opportunities. Carey reconceived the Hogarthian progress of a good and a bad boy from the same social class as an emigration tale about the intertwined fortunes of two Yorkshire lads—Harry the squire's son and Dick the cow herder's son—hailing from the same village. Orphaned en route to America, they must make their way in a society that unlike Ireland rewards merit without regard to religion or social class. Dick, who studies his book with what Charlotte Yonge would have called "Irish eagerness," rises thanks to his skills and work ethic, while Harry slides down the social ladder and ends up a barber, having never acquired basic competencies. Given the story's political subtext, highlighted by its illustrations, it may be no coincidence that Learning was first published by Benjamin Tabart, an associate of Sir Richard Phillips the radical bookseller.
Phillips's competitor William Godwin hoped to incline his young readers to virtue through the cultivation of the imagination, a central idea in this volume's second work, Stories of Old Daniel (1808), which deserves a higher profile in discussions of Romantic children's fiction. Its author, Margaret King, was an Irishwoman who had been a pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft and the model for one of Mrs. Mason's charges in Original Tales for Children. In Old Daniel, which seems meant primarily for boys, King tried to gratify the love of adventure and marvels in acceptable, even positive ways through her hale nonagenarian narrator. Part Münchhausen and part Scheherazade, Daniel the veteran of foreign wars holds a flock of village boys spellbound every Sunday with ghost stories, Schilleresque tales of encounters with robbers, and accounts of crossing the Pyrenees in winter without glorifying derring-do at the expense of the life lesson. In fact, he implies that virtue, rather than bravery, kept him alive. While Daniel was based on an old Irish storyteller King remembered from her childhood, he is no Thady Quirk, as "great improvements" were made in "his mode of expression." He does, on the other hand, tell stories described as based on actual incidents in Ireland, such as "The Bog-Trotter," "The Little Pedlar," and "The Boy who was Forgot at School," as well as "Little Dog Trusty's Ancestor," a tribute to King's countrywoman, Maria Edgeworth.
The inclusion of Henry Brooke's fable of the three trout is something of a stretch, except as a fine example of lively writing by an Irishman. The pert speeches to God of the two naughty trout that seal their doom are quite funny, thanks to Brooke's ability to make them sound like spoiled little fishes—which, as Goldsmith observed to Johnson, was not as easy as it looked. Brooke's fable originally appeared in the second chapter of The Fool of Quality and was tailor made for recycling in children's books, a widespread phenomenon during this period usually assumed to be without literary interest. Markey reprints two different retellings: one in which the story is cleverly recast as a fairy tale (perhaps to downplay the Methodist overtones); and the other as the centerpiece of an early nineteenth-century pamphlet [End Page 634] for children about Sunday observance. The transformation of the frame story in the second example would be clearer had Markey cut some of the general remarks on fable and devoted more space to the frame story in The Fool; the account of Henry Moreland's first five years is surely one of the most unusual depictions of childhood in the English novel, but is still not particularly well known.
By making available interesting new works by Anglo-Irish writers, Markey has made a very welcome contribution to the field of historical children's literature, in which the rarity of original editions, combined with the high incidence of anonymous works, has encouraged the tendency to riff on a handful of famous books instead of striking out into less familiar territory.