The Appeal of the Fantastic and the Improbable in Late Eighteenth Century Children’s Literature: Part Two

By Maryam Khorasani and Hossein Nazari

Read part 1 of this blog series.

Much Ado about Witchcraft in The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes

Often cited as the earliest example of a children’s novel, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes[i], written by an anonymous author and published by John Newbery in 1765, is usually referred to as Cinderella’s eighteenth century counterpart (Grenby, ‘Introduction’ xxi). In the narrative, Margery (soon to become Goody and eventually earning the honorific Lady Jones) gets her happy ending with the revered Sir Charles Jones not, like Cinderella, because of beauty, but by virtue of possessing an exceptional talent in book-learning, to be followed by imparting her knowledge to her plebeian students. At one point, she gets locked up in the village church and later lectures the villagers about how she does not believe in ghosts once they realise it was she, and not the ghost of Lady Ducklington, who made the church bells jingle at midnight. Given her commitment to preaching on the necessity of contentment as well as her incredulous attitude towards the existence of preternatural beings, it is noteworthy how the villagers’ belief in witchcraft leads to the unfolding of plot events in a manner that eventually results in Goody’s receiving a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor.

In an attempt to help the farmers predict the weather, Goody invents a barometer only to be later accused of exercising witchcraft by her fellow country people. She is then brought to a meeting of Justices. There, she draws the attention of the Justices to the absurdity of such an accusation by stating ‘I never supposed that any one here could be so weak, as to believe there was any such Thing as a Witch’ (chap. 6). Eventually, she is redeemed through the help of a Justice who also regards those villagers who believe in the existence of witches as ‘Fools’. The Justice then goes on to assert that ‘It is true [that] many innocent and worthy People have been abused and even murdered on this absurd and foolish Supposition; which is a Scandal to our Religion, to our Laws, to our Nation, and to common Sense’ (chap. 6). He then proceeds to enumerate the many virtues of Mrs Margery, leaving the gentlemen present in the court in a state of great admiration for her, which later culminates in her receiving a marriage proposal from Mr Jones. Once again, it can be observed how the author appeals to a pattern of sudden elevation in fortunes typical of fairy stories to render his message all the more compelling – a practice that is not unlike the actual workings of the ‘improbable’ rags-to-riches success stories. Moreover, it would be reasonable to claim that had it not been for the narrative’s emphasis on the country people’s deep-seated faith in the feasibility of witchcraft (which the text is designed to help eradicate), it is unlikely that Goody would have been given a chance to leave such a favourable impression on the country gentlemen. Goody’s identity is formed ‘in terms of’ a preternatural phenomenon, namely, her not being a witch. To a large extent, the advancement of the story’s plot relies on an act of expelling superstition, making the supernatural an integral part of Goody Two-Shoes. The curious relationship between realism and fantasy renders Goody Two-Shoes a story that taps simultaneously into the two different worlds of the realist narrative and of superstition, defined by a modern, secular ideology and the plebian culture of the fairy tale, respectively.

Read on for part 3.

[i]The book was originally published under the title of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes; Otherwise called, Mrs. Margery Two-Shoes. The references in this essay are made to another version of the book; that is, Goody Two-Shoes: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Edition of 1766.

International Research in Children's Literature journal cover

International Research in Children’s Literature is essential reading for scholars in the field of children’s literature. The journal primarily focuses on applications of cultural and literary theories, comparative literatures, and the production and reception of children’s literature as a world literature. Widely international in scope, the journal addresses the diverse intellectual currents of this constantly expanding subject area.

Teri Williams
Teri Williams
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