Enlightenment for beginners
- Thomas Day's novel Sandford and Merton (1783-9) is enlightenment for beginners: enlightenment because it offers a course of education which is as much about the correction of decayed or corrupt assumptions (principally about class and race) as it is about inculcating facts; for beginners because its procedures assume the learner's need for help, protection, guidance or supervision as s/he reads. The young protagonists may be bullied or humiliated as they learn to enjoy reading and this implication may press as much on the reader of the novel as it does on them.
- The novel's two six-year-old protagonists are from different social classes: the robust farm-boy Harry Sandford is the repository of good sense while Tommy Merton, the spoilt brat from the big house, is delicate and accustomed to luxury which, it is suggested, may be a product of the slave plantations where he has grown up to that point. Tommy has to learn to prefer what is simple and natural while Harry just behaves right, as though this is innate: it is Tommy, "naturally ... good-natured" but who has been "spoiled by too much indulgence", who has to learn (Day 1783-9, I,1), so his is a re-education. The local curate, Mr. Barlow, is on hand to draw the lesson from everything through a form of catechism based as much on Rousseau as on "the Gospel and the purity of its primeval doctrines" (Day 1783-9, I, 12). Before he accepts the job of tutor to the boys, Barlow attacks the upper classes and subjects Tommy's father to the same kind of interrogation to which he subjects them. Tommy's education breaks down his assumptions, about race as well as about class. The child may participate in as well as model anti-racist and anti-colonial debates. Although Mary Wollstonecraft praises the novel in her Vindication for its attack on upper-class effeteness (Wollstonecraft, 1975, 81), gender is a different case. Sandford and Merton is clearly concerned with the construction of gender, offering an alternative education in masculinity through exemplary narratives of stoic fortitude, patriotism or charity, often in the colonies, where these virtues are more likely to be possessed by "savage tribes" than by the upper classes of Britain. Equally clear, however, is the blankness of its view of femininity, which will be contrasted here with Elizabeth Inchbald's superficially similar novel Nature and Art. Day sub-titled Sandford and Merton "a work intended for the use of children", just as book historians tend to talk about "users" rather than "readers" of children's books. So this paper considers first the alternative criterion of "use" and second the way the novel does all the things it does through the media of anecdote and interrogation.
- Day does not extract from Robinson Crusoe but the story of four shipwrecked Russian sailors on Spitzbergen in the first volume is similarly to do with the triumph of their useful abilities in unpromising circumstances. In the story of the conquistador Pizarro and his brother also in Volume I, the former takes gold, the latter sows seeds. Bread comes from corn by way of sowing, harvesting, milling and grinding. There is a sequence of cause and effect which rather than being providential is itself utilitarian, to do with reward and punishment. "A good turn is never lost" and people you help will turn out to be able to help you; conversely, those whom you ill treat will ill treat you.
- So these stories are actually parables. Indeed Christianity is entirely congruent with this apparently democratic turn because it is psychologically relevant, releasing those enslaved by "sensuality" (Day 1783-9, I, 22). Christ too is a utilitarian:
What then could the wisest legislator do, more useful, more benevolent, more necessary, than to establish general rules of conduct, which have a continual tendency to restore moral and natural order, and to diminish the wild inequality produced by pride and avarice? (Day 1783-9, I,28-9)
- The clergyman Barlow at first turns down the chance to educate Tommy because of the divisions between "persons of fashion" and "the vulgar" and his rejection of the very "principles upon which those distinctions are founded" (Day 1783-9, I, 19-20). The insistence on "use" makes a class point:
I see, says Mr. Barlow, that though gentlemen are above being of any use themselves, they are not above taking the bread that other people have been working hard for. At this, Tommy cried still more bitterly than before. (Day 1783-9, I, 41)
- From early in its second volume the novel represents a scaled-down version of fashionable society. Harry observes of his betters at a ball:
instead of their being brought up to produce any thing useful, he found that the great object of all their knowledge and education was only to waste, to consume, to destroy, to dissipate what was produced by others. (Day 1783-9, II, 266)
- That this excoriation of the upper classes applies to the present in which the novel is written is clear from Day's use(s) of the present tense. He writes of "that superficial address upon which too many of the upper classes pride themselves" (Day 1783-9, I,15) or the similar syntax of "The gentleman was filled with joy for his escape, and gratitude to his valiant deliverer; and learned, by his own experience that appearances are not always to be trusted, and that great virtues and good dispositions may sometimes be found in cottages, while they are totally wanting among the great" (Day 1783-9, I, 56-7). The kind of education appropriate to the upper class child in the present ought to be reforming rather than accretive: it ought, that is, to revise or take away from pernicious assumptions that are already there.
- One final instance of the use of use, more directly to do with the way the novel may have been read, is from a passage in which the children are warned how to recognise poisonous berries:
At last, Harry, who had observed some very pretty purple berries upon a plant that bore a purple flower and grew in the hedges, brought them to Mr. Barlow, and asked whether they were good to eat. It is very lucky, said Mr. Barlow, young man, that you asked the question before you put them into your mouth; for had you tasted them they would have given you violent pains in your head and stomach, and perhaps have killed you, as they grow upon a plant called nightshade, which is a rank poison. Sir, says Harry, I take care never to eat anything without knowing what it is; and I hope, if you will be so good as to continue to teach me, I shall very soon know the names and qualities of all the herbs which grow. (Day 1783-9, I, 39-40)
- A reader of the Bodleian Library's copy of the second edition has struck out "purple" from "purple berries" in this passage and written, in an adult hand, "red". This suggests both that the novel was read by children who could take its advice, and that such readers therefore needed to be protected. They should not encounter it all for themselves. The novel places its mediator, its instructor, within it, to point the moral. This is an instance of the continued mediation and refraction of the text by policing its reading. If this is to be consumed by the child reader s/he can't be left to form a judgement unaided. The etymology of "educate" is from educere, to lead out—or to take in. To be taken in is also of course to be deceived, so the question of children's literature is necessarily a question of ideology. Two questions in particular can be posed here.
- First is the expulsion not only of sexuality from the concerns of a novel for children (Rose, 1993) but the disavowal of gender. Elizabeth Inchbald's Nature and Art (1796) seems schematically similar: a "natural" Henry is opposed to his "well-bred" brother William and this opposition is recapitulated by the next generation. The younger Henry returns from America possessed of an enlightened self-education which dismays his uncle, who thinks it rather a "want of education": "He would call compliments, lies—Reserve, he would call pride—stateliness, affectation—and for the words war and battle, he constantly substituted the word massacre" (Inchbald, 28). This repeated antinomian lesson is similar to Day's, but Inchbald's young hero needs no counterpart of Barlow to confirm these radical impulses, or perhaps concurs only with his absent father. Formally, Inchbald's better-written novel does not rely on dialogue to anything like the degree of Sandford and Merton; where it most differs though is in its heroines. In Day's novel a parallel female pair is a secondary, late variant of the masculine pair; in Inchbald's, Rebecca and Hannah are through most of the novel would-be partners of Henry and William respectively and are alike distanced from economic and sexual fulfilment, but it is Hannah who is abandoned by her rich lover before the birth of her child and eventually executed for theft, the child dying soon after. This tragedy of sexual betrayal, showing economic and gender exploitation to be homologous, is beyond the scope of Day's novel for children but does point up the way its repeated insistence on lower-class utility is blind to difference rather than repetition.
- Secondly, the disavowal of the aesthetic as itself luxurious leads to paradox. In a visit to the theatre represented in the second volume, Harry's good sense is shown not only by his good behaviour, but also by his opinion of the play when it is asked for: that it was dissimulation, lying, cheating, deception and so on. (Significantly enough, the play is The Marriage of Figaro.) The attitude to the theatre and to music in the novel exemplifies a Protestant anti-aesthetic and Harry's judgement seems to apply to the means of representation as much as to the play represented (Day 1783-9, II, 250-1). So if the novel is going to escape the closed circle of didacticism—stimulus and response, cause and effect, anecdote and moral—it would seem to have to do so despite itself. The paradox that ensues from novel's insistence on its own usefulness leads to a more significant paradox that leaves what would otherwise merely be leaden didacticism in question.
- The novelty and one reason for the success of Sandford and Merton at the time (there were nine British editions by 1812 and forty-three by 1883) surely is not because of the daring of its own pedagogic practice but because of the boldness of the claims made on behalf of the young learners. That is to say, the undoubtedly authoritarian relation of teacher to pupil in the fiction is at odds with the anti-authoritarian or even democratic claims continually drawn from the fictions within the fiction. This can be shown by briefly comparing the dialogic practice of the novel with another contemporary work.
- The Preceptor (1748) went through seven editions to 1783. Boswell called it "one of the most valuable books for the improvement of young minds that has appeared in any language" (Boswell, I, 192). The book is addressed by its compiler Robert Dodsley to the young Prince George and in its first volume a privilege leaf from George II signed by Chesterfield describes the book as "a Practical Book for the Use of Schools". A sub-title explains that in it "the first principles of polite learning are laid down in a way most suitable for trying the genius, and advancing the instruction of youth." Prefacing Part IV of The Preceptor (Chronology and History) there is this dialogue between a Governor and Pupil:
G. HITHERTO, my young Pupil, I have confined myself to such Instructions as may be stiled Preliminary, and were intended to prepare you for Studies of a higher Nature. It now remains that I enter upon the more important Part of my Task; to principle your Mind with sound Knowledge, to form you to Wisdom and Virtue, and guide you thro' the Paths of Learning and the Sciences. May I flatter myself with the same ready Attention here, the same desire to learn and improve, as I have all along experienced in the Course of the Lessons already given you?
P. Doubtless you may; for in our several Conversations together, you have frequently intimated, that the Subjects then handled, tho' useful in themselves, yet chiefly merited Attention, as preparatory to other Things of greater Moment and Consequence. This Consideration made me listen to you with Pleasure, and I have waited impatiently for the time when I was to enter upon more serious Studies.
G. I am pleased to find you so well disposed. You discover a Judgment and Understanding much above your Years, and as I plainly see that my past Instructions have not been wholly unprofitable, I proceed with the greater Chearfulness. (Preceptor, 233)
- The pupil is to be "principled", "guided" and "instructed" by a "governor". The title of preceptor is reserved for the book itself. The ideal relationship represented here is one to which the bosoms of all academics return only an ironic echo. Its method looks to have the openness of a Platonic dialogue—and even Wollstonecraft suggests that religion, anthropology, history and politics "might be taught by conversations in the Socratic form" (Wollstonecraft, 287)—but this dialogue is clearly scripted, with the pupil responding as in a catechism.
- That double implication of the dialogic method—that it is both free and constrained, both open and foreclosed—will be exploited definitively by Rousseau within a few years. In Émile Rousseau will describe a process of education in which the course of nature is actually stage-managed by the tutor experience because not all experiences exist in nature and therefore it may be necessary to fabricate them. The tutor is to wait to be appealed to, to draw the moral from what as much as possible is the child's experience of nature and as little as possible is from reasoning. Throughout Émile it is insisted that reason is the end and cannot be the means of education.
- Finally the Preceptor will resign his pupil "to the Commerce of Mankind" but furnished with lessons in how to attain "happiness" (Preceptor, 513). The passage from The Preceptor can be juxtaposed with many of the exchanges between the tutor Barlow and his young charges in Sandford and Merton. This one comes early in the novel. Reading aloud the story of Androcles and the Lion, Harry Sandford interrupts himself to cry out at the situation of the slave. Tommy Merton replies that the black slaves he remembers from the West Indies were "only born to wait upon me" and this exchange ensues:
And pray, young man, said Mr. Barlow, how came these people to be slaves? T. Because my father bought them with his money. Mr.B. So then, people that are bought with money, are slaves, are they? T. Yes. Mr. B. And those that buy them have a right to kick them, and beat them, and do as they please with them? T. Yes. Mr. B. Then if I was to take you and sell you to Farmer Sandford, he would have a right to do what he pleased with you. No, sir, said Tommy, somewhat warmly; you would have no right to sell me, nor he to buy me. Mr. B. Then it is not a persons being bought or sold that gives another a right to use him ill; but one person's having a right to sell another, and the man who buys having a right to purchase? T. Yes, sir. Mr. B. And what right have the people who sold the poor negroes to your father, to sell them? or what right has your father to buy them? Here Tommy seemed to be a good deal puzzled; but at length he said: They are brought from a country that is a great way off, in ships, and so they become slaves. Then, said Mr. Barlow, if I take you to another country, in a ship, I shall have a right to sell you? T. No, but you won't sir, because I was born a gentleman. Mr. B. What do you mean by that, Tommy? Why, said Tommy, a little confused, it is to have a fine house, and fine clothes, and a coach, and a great deal of money, as my papa has. Mr. B. Then if you were no longer to have a fine house, nor fine clothes, nor a great deal of money, somebody that had all these things might make you a slave, and use you ill, and beat you, and insult you, and do whatever he liked with you?--T. No, sir, that would not be right either, that anybody should use me ill. Mr. B. Then one person should not use another ill[?] T. No, sir. Mr. B. To make a slave of anybody, is to use him ill, is it not? T. I think so. Mr. B. Then no one ought to make a slave of you? T. No, indeed, sir. Mr. B. But if no one should use another ill, and making a slave is using him ill, neither ought you to make a slave of any one else. T. Indeed, sir, I think not; and for the future I never will use our black William ill; nor pinch him, nor kick him, as I used to do. Then you will be a very good boy, said Mr. Barlow.—But let us now continue our story. (Day 1783-9, I, 66-8)
- The first thing to be noticed here is that there is no essential difference between Day's didactic fiction and the barely fictionalised representation of didactic exchange in The Preceptor. The generic difference is perhaps only in the degree of explicitness with which those didactic ends are pursued. However the agenda of political reform here is consistent with a view of education as reform rather than accretion. The interspersed narrative is interrupted, again in order to correct the child's assumptions rather than fill him with what he needs to know. Therefore it is largely negative: the result will be that Tommy will not enslave others and henceforth "never will use our black William ill; nor pinch him, nor kick him, as I used to do." The aim of overturning false assumptions suggests the method of Rousseau rather than Locke, but the way Tommy's responses are often reduced to assent or provisional dissent to the teacher's questions also shows how the Rousseauvian model of dialogue—like the Socratic on which it is based in turn—is essentially authoritarian. Barlow's questions only invite a response of "yes" or "no" from his pupil; they are designed to elicit the principle of which he is the infallible spokesman. Here too then, the dialogue is essentially a catechism.
- Rousseau returns to the catechism in Émile, if only to mock the prevailing forms of religious education: "If I had to depict sorry stupidity," he writes, "I would depict a pedant teaching the catechism to children. If I wanted to make a child go mad, I would oblige him to explain what he says in saying his catechism." The stupidity of the catechistic method for Rousseau derives from the way it does not fulfil an organic criterion: by reproducing rather than innovating the child will be encouraged to lie or repeat what she doesn't understand, which will lead to "impiety or fanaticism" (Rousseau, 257; 378). Such secular versions of the catechism reveal adult reason to mask adult desire that may be coercive in pursuit of its ends (Richardson, 1994, 64-77). Tommy's assumptions however are derived from his parents. Implicitly, then, such a method may bring parental and pedagogic authorities into conflict. In Blake's Songs, parents may represent an alternative source of authority to priests, nurses, beadles and teachers (the speaker of "The Schoolboy" makes a direct appeal to his parents to free him from the bondage of school), but Day's novel only allows this explicitly to happen near the end; more usual is a kind of collusion between the adults to humiliate the errant child (as with that between Mr Merton and Mr Barlow on Tommy's change of heart near the end of the novel [Day 1783-9, III, 256-7]). Throughout however, passages such as the dialogue interpolated in the Androcles story do allow an ironic perspective upon either source of authority that readers are not vouchsafed upon the "Governor" in the passage from The Preceptor.
- In a familiar paradox, while what is taught is egalitarian or democratic the teaching depends on the repeated abjection of the child learner. It may be that a paradox familiar to us—radical or progressive in one area, authoritarian or even reactionary in another—is also one visible only from our standpoint, not that of Day and his early readers. Does the (adult) reader then learn something that the fictional pupil does not? Do we ask from fiction a perspective separate from, even superior to those of any protagonist or might such a desire be anachronistically based on expectations drawn from fictions with wholly other conventions? The point is not just that the fiction attempts to replicate the controlling or mediating function of the private tutor or teacher in the classroom, but also that it points up the authority from which such control or mediation must proceed.
- Seen in the context of histories of children's literature, Day's novel can seem a curiosity, Day himself a grotesque. Barlow is not a quixotic figure like Fielding's Parson Adams. Day however is seen as quixotic, by Jenny Uglow for instance: "at school at Charterhouse he gave his pocket money to the poor, was ostentatiously kind to animals and learned to box but refused to continue the fight if he was winning" (Uglow, 2002, 183). Geoffrey Summerfield, for whom the novel exemplifies a continual return to the alternatives offered by Locke and Rousseau (who are not so discursively opposed in educational works as they appear to us), sees Day as half-monster, half-clown, entirely lacking in irony, whose Rousseauistic experiments even led to his own death: "he had made the mistake of training a colt on Rousseauesque principles and, in October 1789, it threw him and then kicked him. He died almost immediately" (Summerfield, 1984, 159). The source of this anecdote is Day's friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth in his Memoir. It represents Day as idiotic as much as saintly, fatally deluded by a certainty about enlightened reform in a way that is unintentionally comic. There would be no point proposing a recuperative reading of Day's Sandford and Merton, but the use of the novel is in its struggle with, even resistance to the virtues it wants formally to teach.
University of Southampton
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