John Newbery was one of the earliest publishers to produce books expressly written for the entertainment of children. The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes is one of the most important children’s books of the 18th century, being perhaps the first really successful children’s novel. It tells the story of two orphans, (Margery Meanwell and her brother Tommy) and their escape from the poverty into which the death of their parents has cast them. Dressed in rags and having only one shoe, Margery is given two shoes by a charitable gentleman. Through hard work she becomes a schoolmistress, before making a good impression on the local landowner and marrying him. She inherits his wealth when she is widowed, although in fact her brother had returned from overseas with a fortune just in time for her wedding, providing Margery with a dowry. Margery’s wealth enables her to help the poor just as she herself had been helped. She remains adamant that money is to be used for the good of others less fortunate than oneself, not for personal benefit.
Despite the obvious moral dimension, with many lessons about the usefulness of moral virtues such as education, honesty and rationality, Goody Two-Shoes was clearly written to entertain. On the title page Newbery, with characteristic humour, jokes: ‘See the Original Manuscript in the Vatican at Rome, and the Cuts [i.e. woodcuts] by Michael Angelo’. The book was popular well into the 19th century, and the writer Charles Lamb remembered it with great fondness.
It has been suggested that the text was by Oliver Goldsmith, author of The Vicar of Wakefield and one of Newbery’s writers, but there is no decisive evidence to confirm or refute this.