Reviews 2011

Children's Fiction, 1765-1808: By John Carey; Margaret King Moore, Lady Mount Cashell; And Henry Brooke

Children's Fiction, 1765-1808: By John Carey; Margaret King Moore, Lady Mount Cashell; And Henry Brooke. Anne Markey (ed.). Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011. 189 pages. £19.95 (hardback).

This is a volume in a series of reprints of early Irish fiction by the Dublin publisher, Four Courts Press. It features works by the three writers mentioned on the cover: John Carey’s Learning Better than Home or Land (1808); Margaret King Moore’s Stories of Old Daniel (1808); and The Fable of the Three Fishes, which is a short extract from Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality or the History of Henry Earl of Moreland (1765). There are also two contemporary recastings of Brooke’s fable, one anonymous, from The History of Master Billy Friendly, and his Sister Miss Polly Friendly: to which is added, the Fairy Tale of the Three Little Fishes (n.d. possibly 1787?) and one by John Clowes. The Clowes version waspublished (1801) as The Three Little Fishes, A Story Intended for the Instruction of Youth, together with two other works by him that also appear here: An Exhortation to the Right Observance of the Sabbath Day and A Discourse on the Benefit of Sunday Schools. The editor, Anne Markey, provides an introduction, notes to the texts and a select bibliography.

One of Markey’s aims is to draw attention to little known texts by Irish authors writing in English in the eighteenth and early nineteen centuries. In her introduction, she also refers to the much better known Maria Edgeworth, whose Irish origins are often ignored.I am not familiar with children’s literature in this period, so I cannot comment on how typical these texts are. Certainly the general tone of moral instruction in these works, ofpiety, honesty and good works being rewarded, and of thoughtlessness, duplicity and selfishness being punished, fits with my preconceptions of writing for young people at this time. But, in her introduction, Anne Markey makes a case for two of these works in particular, those by Carey and Moore, as exceptional.Firstly because, unlike many contemporary works of children’s fiction, they are not set in the home and, secondly, because, beside the familiar morality, they may have encouraged someless conventional attitudes in young readers. And she connects this to their Irish origin.

John Carey (1756-1829), the son of a prosperous Dublin baker, was educated in France, worked as a schoolmaster in Dublin and a bookseller in Philadelphia, and as a private tutor and classical scholar in London. His time in America, where he edited George Washington’s correspondence for publication, is pertinent to the text reprinted here, for it is in the infant USA that diligent poor scholar Dick Hobson becomes a rich merchant and member of Congress; while Harry Johnson, the idle son of a landowner, has to be content to work as a barber. Markey argues that Learning Better than Home or Land is essentially an emigration narrative with political undertones and, in support of its political intent, quotes a comment added to the fourth edition of the work, commending the American Constitution’s separation of church and state, allowing the “highest offices in the republic equally accessible to men of every persuasion” (Markey 178). Carey was a Catholic. Yet it is also easy to see how contemporaries could have missed any political undertones. Rather than being “a valorization of American meritocracy over the English system of inherited privilege” (Markey 14), which contemporaries would surely have noticed (even if, American or British, they may have had difficulty imagining a meritocracy) it can just as well be read as a warning to gentlemen to make sure their sons stick to their studies or they could end up as a barber to the former son of a labourer, particularly in a place like America.

Margaret King Moore’s life (1772-1835) is even more interesting. The daughter of an Irish Viscount, she had the benefit of Mary Woolstonecraft as a governess, if only for a year. She married and subsequently separated from the Earl of Mount Cashell, supported the United Irishmen in the uprising of 1798; and travelled on the continent, eventually settling in Pisa. Her Stories of Old Daniel was published by William Godwin’s Juvenile Library in 1808, but not properly ascribed to her until 1958. The distinctive features of this collection are its intent, as Moore reveals “to indulge the love of the wonderful so natural to children” (Markey 18); its encouragement of foreign travel; its incorporation of some of Moore’s own travel experiences; and its kinship with gothic literature in its fascination with hermits, bandits and hauntings. All of this isbarely contained by old villager’s tales whose avowed purpose is to warn against failings like procrastination, unkindness and dishonesty.

In Markey’s comments on the remaining texts, she draws attention to the subtly different ways in which the fable of the three little fishes is presented:here focussing on the extent to which the authors allow their young readers freedom to interpret its meaning for themselves. The freedom of young people (and of Ireland) is her concern in her final thoughts in the introduction, where she argues that the blatant intention of these authors to shape the moral development of children was “a subtle repudiation of parental authority” (Markey 28). A claim, I think, that requires rather more development and explanation than it gets here. I have even more misgivings about her final assertion that this repudiation (should it be proved)can be applied to the “mother/child” relationship of England and Ireland, so that “as a result of their shared displacement of parental authority, the stories in the present volume implicitly engage with contemporary debates on Anglo-Irish relations” (Markey 29).

Markey’s notes on the texts are full and helpful. Although, given her likely readership, she perhaps could have spared herself the trouble of giving the present day equivalents of words like “seised” and “doated”, which are clear enough in context. It might be worth pointing out, too, that the note on the slave plantation system in Virginia (p 172) seems to suggest that plantation slavery ended with the official prohibition of the African slave trade in 1808. Not so, of course.

Clive Barnes
Independent Scholar, UK