Dating from the beginning of the 19th century, The Happy Family; or, Winter Evenings’ Employment (1801) is a book of moral tales for children. Unconventionally, the tales are not presented by an omniscient third-person narrator. Rather, they are exchanged and developed in conversations between three lively, inquisitive siblings – Eliza, Edward and the ‘Eldest Boy’ – who get together over a series of cold, dark evenings. The children are depicted in the frontispiece illustration (facing the title page) by renowned engraver Thomas Bewick.
Given that this period of morally instructive children’s literature is often criticised for being conservative, the radical political content of The Happy Family may surprise readers. In ‘The Second Evening’ the eldest brother explains the practice of human slavery to his younger siblings, who are ignorant of its reality and horrors; he urges a boycott of the sugar that keeps the slave trade thriving. In the British Empire, the selling and trading of slaves was abolished in 1807 – 6 years after the publication of this book. Slavery was not fully abolished in British territories until 1833.
This particular edition of The Happy Family is notable because it still has its original cover, featuring a multi-coloured floral design.