Wally the Wordworm
The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus
How to Catch a Crocodile
How the Whale Became
Tom and Tabby
Elisabeth the Cow Ghost
The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn
The King Who Loved Candy
Meeting with a Stranger
The Takula Tree
Children of Africa
The Letter on the Tree
A Day Without Wind
Harriet the Spy
I Go by Sea, I Go by Land
Save the Khan
The Burning of Njal
The Book of Three
To Catch a Spy
“Damn them!” wrote Lamb to Coleridge in 1802. “I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.” Lamb was in a temper because, having gone to Newbery’s bookshop to buy “the old classics of the nursery,” he had been fobbed off with “Mrs. Barbauld’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense”; and he was sure that the “knowledge insignificant and vapid” that they conveyed would only serve to give a child an absurd conceit of himself—
when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such-like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men.
Coleridge was just as down on the improvers:
Give me the Arabian Nights Entertainments, which I used to watch till the sun shining on the bookcase approached it, and glowing full upon it gave me courage to take it from the shelf. I heard of no little Billies, and sought no praise for giving to beggars, and I trust that my heart is not the worse, or the less inclined to feel sympathy for all men.
Lamb and Coleridge had good reason to be so cross. Mrs. Barbauld and the other improvers—John Day and Mrs. Trimmer in England, Samuel Goodrich in New England—were intolerably prosy as well as moral. “Happy would it be for the animal creation,” so Mrs. Trimmer spells out the message of her History of the Robins, “if every human being, like the good Mrs. Benson, consulted the welfare of inferior creatures.” Worse still, the Barbauld crew actively campaigned against everything that (in retrospect, at least) had lit up Lamb’s and Coleridge’s imaginations in childhood. They condemned fairy-tales as “useless” or “prejudicial nonsense,” smelt corruption even in Robinson Crusoe, and judged the most harmless of old-wives tales to be a potential “engine of mischief.” Yet where did their passion for instruction lead? To harmless enough books like Crusts in Soak for Children to Peck, but also to appalling books by early Victorian Strangeloves, like The Art of Making Fireworks, Detonating Balls etc. “containing Plain and Easy Directions for Mixing and Preparing the Ingredients and Making and Finishing the most simple Devices in the Ingenious Art; by Christopher Grotz, Real Engineer.” Better trolls and hobgoblins than such explosive knowledge!
Today we think better of fairytales and old wives’ fables. Yet the Mrs. Barbaulds are still hard at it. They go to work more slyly than their originals; morals are implied, not rammed home; instruction is given a livelier disguise. They cast their net wider, eager now to condition the reader’s feelings as well as his behavior, to implant healthy social attitudes as well as correct morals. In their view, children must learn about ants …
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