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

By Maryam Khorasani and Hossein Nazari

Read part 2 of the blog series.

Maria Edgeworth’s Lucky Orphans

As the century moved forward, the belief in the rags-to-riches narratives gradually started to give way to the significance of retaining social hierarchies, with the educationalist authors putting even greater emphasis on the importance of contentment and rational morality in children’s books. An implication of this paradigm shift was that hostility towards the fairy story grew in extremity since such tales, as indicated by Favell Lee Mortimer, were perceived to make children ‘tired of home, impatient of restraint, indifferent to simple pleasures, and averse to sacred institutions’ (10). Even the books published by Newbery were not exempted, as their fairy-tale ‘residue’ was deemed to render the books simply ‘inadequate’ (Lang, Marjory Louise 47). Nonetheless, the idealistic agenda of fairy-tale discourse, namely that of poetic justice, continued to serve as a rhetorical device for a number of ‘realist’ authors in the late eighteenth century.

Penned by one of the most critically acclaimed children’s authors of her time, Maria Edgeworth’s ‘The Orphans’ thematises the virtues of contentment, diligence, and honesty through giving such qualities ostensible superiority over placing one’s faith in the notion of good luck. Upon the death of their widowed mother, Mary, Edmund, Peggy, and Nancy are turned out of their home by their landlord’s obnoxious agent and are forced to continue living in the ruins of a nearby castle. Despite setting their minds to showing great diligence, the favourable concatenation of events eventually depends on a stroke of good fortune. ‘It happened’ that one day, as the children were grieving on their mother’s grave, Isabella and Caroline, two women of noble origins, take notice of them. Due to the favourable accounts given about the children by those who knew them, the women decide to give the children a helping hand with their small knitting business. The children’s sense of scrupulous honesty and frugality is foiled by the excessive greed exhibited by Goody Grope, a wacky old woman who has wasted her life ‘groping’ for treasure in the approximate neighbourhood. While the children’s virtuous qualities affect the positive impression they leave on their benefactors, the development of the story’s plot remains, to a considerable extent, contingent upon the notion of serendipity, with Edgeworth disrupting the rules of probability. After coming across an iron pot filled with coins of great value, the children resolve to inform their landlord, a Mr Harvey, about their discovery, whom they recognise as the rightful owner of the coins. Although the landlord’s agent contrives to sell the coins and later accuse the children of stealing, with the help of Isabella and Caroline, they are able to disclose the agent’s lies and ruses. Mr Harvey, because of the children’s honesty, proceeds to make a gesture of extravagant generosity as he arranges for the children to live freely in a house of their own choice, ‘under the care of ladies Isabella and Caroline, as long as Mary or her sisters should carry on in it any useful business’. While the story makes it clear that no promise of a sudden rise in social status is offered to the children, the claim that happenstance did not play a role in giving ‘The Orphans’ a happy finale sounds far from cogent. Is it not true that Mr Harvey’s reward for the children was, in fact, a favourable outcome produced by a concatenation of improbable events? Indeed, would the children still have been subject to their landlord’s munificence had they not found the pot of coins in the very first instance? What would have happened had the children not made the acquaintance of Isabella’s family at all? In spite of the narrative’s ostensible ‘negation’ of good luck, a series of favourable events becomes the driving force behind the story’s plot. The collective desire for an albeit improbable ‘happy ending’ allies the eighteenth-century middle-class readers with the child heroes of ‘The Orphans’, rendering the fairy-tale language a familiar ground for the implementation of moralistic instructions. The stark contrast between pure instruction and frivolous entertainment loses its sharpness, with Maria Edgeworth utilising two of the most significant functions of fairy-tale discourse, namely ‘luck’ and ‘the unnatural incident’, to create narrative devices that help her engagingly impart her moralistic teachings to her young readers.

Conclusion

Often cited as the century associated with the rise of children’s literature, the eighteenth century was also the era in which the newly risen middle class undertook to consolidate their social position as an independent and, in many senses, superior social class. In so doing, they made serious attempts to formulate a set of exclusive (albeit ‘universal’) values that were ascribed neither to the slothful, superstitious lower classes nor to the decadent, superficial aristocrats. In order to fulfil such an aim, the blank sheet of children’s minds was conceived as an excellent site to host the middle class’s ideology. Despite their ostensible hostility towards the irrationality of fairy tales The children’s authors of the mid-to-late eighteenth century remained indebted to the rhetorical influence of the improbable elements of folk and fairy tales as a means to drive home their moralistic instructions, thereby managing to complicate the antithetical relation between dry rationality and the ‘preposterousness’ epitomised by the devices typically implemented in the stories of ‘spirits and goblins’.


Works Cited in this Blog Series

Anonymous. Goody Two-Shoes: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Edition of 1766 [1765]. London: Griffith & Farran Successors Newbery & Harris, 1881. Project Gutenberg ebook.

—. The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes; Otherwise called, Mrs. Margery Two-Shoes. London: The Bible and Sun, 1765.

Aristotle. Rhetoric [4th century BCE]. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Chelmsford: Courier Corporation, 2012.

—. ‘The Orphans’. The Parent’s Assistant. The Literature Network. 17 May 2020. <www.online-literature.com/maria-edgeworth/parents-assistant/1/>

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin [1791]. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888.

Grenby, M. O. ‘Introduction’. Little Goody Two-Shoes and Other Stories: Originally Published by John Newbery. Ed. M. O. Grenby. London: Red Globe Press, 2013.

—. ‘The Origins of Children’s Literature’. The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Ed. M. O. Grenby and Andrea Immel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Lang, Andrew. ‘Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper’. The Blue Fairy Book [1889]. London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 2007.

Lang, Marjory Louise. ‘Children and Society in Eighteenth-Century Children’s Literature’. Master’s thesis, University of British Columbia, 1976.

Mortimer, Favell Lee. Far Off; or, Asia Described. London: Hatchards Picadilly, 1882.

Newbery, John. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book [1744]. Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2009. Project Gutenberg ebook.


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.

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