The Legacy of the Moral Tale

The Legacy of the Moral Tale: Children’s Literature and the English Novel, 1744-1859 (University of Tennessee Press) Buy on Amazon.

When Amelia Sedley, in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, wanted to purchase a treat for her son Georgy, she “ran on amazed and flurried with her riches to Darton’s shop in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and there purchased the ‘Parents’ Assistant’ [sic], and the ‘Sandford and Merton’ Georgy longed for.” Thackeray is writing in 1847 but thinking back to the period of the Napoleonic Wars (and his own childhood). When he considers what a boy of that period might “long for,” he comes up with Maria Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant (1796) and Thomas Day’s Sandford and Merton (1783-9). Both were popular during the period Thackeray writes about and remained so throughout the Victorian period: Charles Dickens remembers reading Sandford and Merton as a child, and Queen Victoria was reading Edgeworth’s tales just three months before her coronation; Elizabeth Gaskell alludes to The Parent’s Assistant in several of her novels, and near the end of the century Bram Stoker could still expect readers to recognize Tommy Merton and Harry Sandford in Harry Merford and Tommy Santon, the protagonists of his satirical short story, “The Dualitists” (1886).

What were these books, so well-known to the Victorians but unlikely to be found on children’s bookshelves today? The Parent’s Assistant and Sandford and Merton belong to the genre of the moral tale, which was foremost among the new genres of literature for children that emerged during the late eighteenth century. The moral tale has mostly been neglected by literary critics. Scholars interested in Victorians’ childhood reading focus on fairy tales and eighteenth-century novels, rather than texts written expressly for children, while children’s literature scholars emphasize works published during and after the “Golden Age,” which began about 1860 and saw the publication of children’s classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Treasure Island (1883).

The Legacy of the Moral Tale brings the moral tale into focus by considering the genre’s nineteenth-century readers. These books were published during the Romantic period, but as William St Clair notes, the Victorian period “is when we should expect the effects on mentalities of romantic-period reading to be most visible.” Scholarship that follows St Clair in focusing on what was read during a period, rather than only on what was written, has coincided with a recent departure from the transgressive criticism that prevailed in the last decades of the twentieth century. Ideologically-inflected criticism brought the moral tale into critical discourse, as scholars like Mitzi Myers, Beverly Lyon Clark, and Andrew O’Malley proclaimed the genre’s historical significance by emphasizing the ways in which these tales reveal, sustain, or disrupt the gender and class ideologies of their authors, readers, and publishers. But moral tales are significant aesthetically as well as ideologically. I demonstrate this aesthetic significance by examining both the narrative conventions of moral tales themselves and the ways in which these conventions were adopted by Victorian novelists who had read and internalized these tales as children.

My first chapter takes Sarah Fielding’s The Governess as a prototype, exploring the origins of the moral tale by distinguishing the genre from the burgeoning novel form and from other eighteenth-century narrative genres, including fairy tales, chapbook stories, children’s miscellanies, and evangelical tales. To demonstrate the genre’s proliferation in the closing decades of the century, I focus on the publisher John Marshall, who developed a marketing strategy that promoted the formal conventions Fielding had introduced. As a result of such promotion, by the early nineteenth century, when the Victorians were growing up, child readers would have encountered these conventional narratives in various instantiations. My second chapter addresses the two authors whose moral tales had the most influence in the Victorian period. In Sandford and Merton, Thomas Day attempts to incorporate Rousseau’s pedagogical theories into a work for children, but fails to reconcile his children’s book with Rousseau’s claim that children learn only from experience, not from reading. Maria Edgeworth found a solution to this seeming paradox, integrating the experience of reading into her pedagogy.

The rest of the book traces the history of the moral tale into the Victorian period, as the children who grew up reading these tales became adult readers and writers. I begin with the Newgate novels, which portray the lives of criminals and were extremely popular in the 1830s. As Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish, both the justice system and the educational system require subjects to internalize a “disciplinary machinery” that regulates their behavior. Narrative conventions designed to portray this machinery were available in the moral tale, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens, William Harrison Ainsworth, and Thackeray drew on those conventions in their novels about criminals. Chapter four looks more closely at Dickens, who read (and remembered) moral tales: looking back on his childhood, he calls Mr. Barlow, the indomitable tutor from Sandford and Merton, an “irrepressible, instructive monomaniac.” As he wrote the Christmas stories in the late 1840s Dickens began to see something of the “instructive monomaniac” in himself, and he hoped to eradicate this feature of his writing in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield. In Hard Times and Great Expectations, I argue, he began to develop a more sympathetic didacticism. My final chapter begins with the year 1859, when the impact of the moral tale began to wane. Taken together, works like George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Samuel Smiles’s Self Help, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and George Eliot’s novels reveal changes that had been building over the previous half-century – changes that led to an abandonment of the central ethos of the moral tale. Yet this abandonment becomes meaningful only once we have recognized the conventions of the moral tale, and how these conventions affected adult writing and reading.