This collection of linked stories is set in a school run by the aptly named Mrs Teachum. At the time the book was published, literary works for children (particularly those directed at middle-class readers) were often instructional. Sarah Fielding’s (1710–68) aim was to provide moral instruction in an enjoyable way. At the beginning of the book, Mrs Teachum catches her nine girl pupils having an undignified squabble over a basket of apples. Over nine days they tell each other about their lives before arriving at the school and reading stories together (including, unusually for the time, fairy stories). By the end of the book the girls’ characters have improved – they are now obedient to adults and loving to their companions.
The book is an early example of a continuous, novel-length narrative for young readers. It is also perhaps the first school story. It was re-written in 1820 by Mary Martha Sherwood, an Evangelical writer, who omitted the fairy tales – fantasy writing, she felt, might have an ill effect on young and impressionable minds.
Sarah Fielding’s brother was the satirist Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones (1749), but she herself was also a successful novelist. Indeed, the writer Samuel Richardson considered Sarah to be a better writer than her brother.
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From Jane Eyre to Vanity Fair, the governess is a familiar figure in Victorian literature. She is also a strange one: not part of the family, yet not quite an ordinary servant. Kathryn Hughes focuses on the role and status of the governess in 19th century society.
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- M O Grenby
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Professor M O Grenby looks at the ways in which children’s literature of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to improve its young readers, combining social and moral instruction with entertainment.