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Stephen Bygrave (University of Southampton), Enlightenment for beginners: Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton summary

Thomas Day's durably popular novel for children 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 guidance and supervision as s/he reads. Day sub-titled Sandford and Merton "a work intended for the use of children". 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.
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 and the slave plantations, is delicate and accustomed to luxury, 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". 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 is set against the corruptions the gentleman represents but Tommy's education breaks down his assumptions about race as well as class. Although Mary Wollstonecraft praises the novel in her Vindication for its attack on upper-class effeteness, gender is a different case. Sandford and Merton offers an alternative education in masculinity through exemplary narratives of stoic fortitude or charity of the kind more likely to be displayed by "savage tribes" than by the upper classes of Britain. Equally clear, however, is the blankness of its view of femininity, which is here contrasted with Elizabeth Inchbald's superficially similar novel Nature and Art.
Seen in the context of histories of children's literature, Day's novel can seem a curiosity, Day himself a grotesque half-monster, half-clown, entirely lacking in irony, whose Rousseauvian experiments even led to his own death. Rather than proposing a recuperative reading of Day's Sandford and Merton, this paper contends that the use of the novel may be in its struggle with the virtues it wants formally to teach.

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