The Legacy of the Moral Tale: Children’s Literature and the English Novel, 1744–1859 by Patrick C. Fleming
Patrick C. Fleming’s The Legacy of the Moral Tale: Children’s Literature and the English Novel, 1744–1859 speaks to scholars and students of children’s literature, nineteenth-century literary studies, and the histories of authorship and reading. Fleming’s carefully researched study explores the Victorian afterlife of an early genre of children’s literature, the eighteenth-century moral tale, by delineating the formal and aesthetic characteristics of these tales and how they were read by young readers of the Romantic era. Indeed, Fleming claims that the modern, critical conversation about moral tales has privileged ideological over formal analysis, arguing that “scholars have either been uninterested in moral tales, or read them only for their ideological significance” (141). He focuses, therefore, on how the “narrative structures and patterns” of these tales enabled “a particular kind of participatory reading” in child readers, inviting them “to glean moral lessons through the experience of reading the text” (2). The Legacy of the Moral Tale then examines ways that these conventions were adopted and adapted by early Victorian novelists such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, who as children had “read and internalized these tales” (1). Recognizing and recovering this relationship between Victorian novelists’ childhood reading practices and their adult writing, Fleming argues, enables us to understand and appreciate the moral tale as a “major force in British literary culture” (15) during the first half of the nineteenth century and beyond.
The Legacy of the Moral Tale also argues for the “narrative complexity” of a genre that Fleming rightly asserts has “suffered from neglect and dismissal” (5) both from contemporary writers such as Sir Walter Scott (who observed in 1823 that reading moral tales put children’s “minds…into the stocks”) and Catherine Sinclair (who in 1839 asserted that “the very mind of youth seems in danger of becoming a machine” from such tales), as well as at the hands of modern critics who have dismissed moral tales as unworthy of scholarly consideration. Fleming, for instance, cites Harry Stone’s Dickens and the Invisible World, which echoes Scott’s and Sinclair’s indictments in referring to the “regimented platoons of moral tales” that typified childhood reading in the early nineteenth century (141).
In the first section of the book, Fleming seeks to define the moral tale “more precisely in order to take it seriously as a genre, with its own characteristics and its own legacy as it relates to other genres,” such as the fairy tale, the evangelical tale, and [End Page 131] the novel (18). Fleming thus begins by emphasizing the formal features of the moral tale, highlighting its “aesthetic importance, not just its ideological significance” (12). Chapters one and two outline the history of the genre and perform close readings of a number of popular tales by writers such as Sarah Fielding, Thomas Day, and Maria Edgeworth. Fleming reads and historicizes what he identifies as key texts, elaborating predominant narrative conventions of the genre: mimetic and emetic characters “eliciting imitation or disgust” (27), a structural emphasis on action and consequence, and an authoritative narrative voice that guides or encourages readers’ interpretation of the story. Such a narrator “makes the experience of reading part of the learning process” by explicitly asking readers to reevaluate their previous judgments of specific characters (13).
The remaining chapters explore the relationship between childhood reading of moral tales and adult authorship, as the first generations of children who read them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries grew up to establish Victorian literary culture. Chapter three focuses on the legacy of the moral tale in “Newgate Novels” of the 1830s—particularly Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, and Thackeray’s Catherine—and chapter four focuses on ways that Dickens’s childhood reading of “moral tales continued to influence his narrative style” (135). Fleming concludes in chapter five by surveying works in a variety of genres published after 1859—such as Samuel Smiles’s Self Help, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss—which reveal literary, political, and pedagogical changes “that, for both children’s literature and the novel, led to an abandonment of the central ethos of the moral tale” (179).
While The Legacy of the Moral Tale is a useful and often fascinating book, I was occasionally taken aback by questionable claims. Children’s literature scholars working in the field for the past few decades may be surprised to read that “[o]nly in the last decade has literary criticism begun to take children’s literature seriously” (4, my emphasis). A clearer explanation of why and how Fleming selected the “particular moral tales” and novels to make his arguments (6) would also have better defined the historical and theoretical frameworks of his method. Ultimately, however, this meticulously researched and engaging study (if intentionally limited in its scope and aims) brings to light fascinating and under-studied connections. If Fleming does not ultimately make what Samuel Taylor Coleridge described in 1808 as the “goodyness” of moral tales appealing, his book does present a compelling case that these works are worthy and productive objects of study. Perhaps most importantly, The Legacy of the Moral Tale indeed “opens doors not only for studies of children’s literature, the novel, and nineteenth-century British literature, but also perhaps for inquiry into how we bridge the gap between moral instruction and reading” (205). In this way, Fleming’s study indicates further opportunities to consider how the aesthetics of early didactic literature for children, and children’s aesthetic reading practices, served to shape Anglo-American literary and narrative conventions in the nineteenth century and beyond. [End Page 132]