Reading Children/Children Reading: The Problematic Nature of Eighteenth-Century Children's Literature in Locke, Rousseau and Day
- Thomas Day's The History of Sandford and Merton: A Work Intended for the Use of Children, first published in three parts between 1787 and 1789, was the most reprinted children's book of the eighteenth century and remained popular throughout the nineteenth century, "running through a hundred and forty editions before 1870" (Uglow 322). One of its main points of interest from the point of view of children's literature is its attempt to introduce Rousseau's radical theory of education to English readers in a book designed for children. As such it was a pioneer text in the development of the kind of rational education in late eighteenth-century Britain that was inspired by Locke and Rousseau and promulgated by writers such as the Edgeworths, Mrs Barbauld and Mary Wollstonecraft. The emergence of rational education reminds us that there was more than one view about children, education and children's literature in the Romantic era. Although the Romantic conception of the child owed a lot to Rousseau, Romantic writers in Britain had little sympathy for the kind of rational education that was promoted in the educational treatises and children's books produced by Rousseau's British followers (see Richardson).
- But rather than considering the Romantic critique of rational education, I want to read Sandford and Merton as an attempt to get round a difficult problem that Emile poses for children's literature: Rousseau's exclusion of all books&emdash;apart from Robinson Crusoe&emdash;from Emile's education. As well as imitating Emile (and Robinson Crusoe) by giving Harry Sandford and Tommy Merton a practical education, Sandford and Merton's fictional tutor, Mr Barlow, also encourages the boys to read from, listen to, and discuss stories taken from books. Books, then, are used to supplement the boys' natural education&emdash;a strategy that would appear to betray the fundamental principles of Rousseauean pedagogy. Yet Mr Barlow's use of books serves to highlight the paradox of trying to present a Rousseauean practical education in a children's novel in the first place (a paradox that is not resolved but reiterated in the fact that Emile "already took the form of a fictional narrative or romance" (Rose 43). As we will see, this paradox is played out in Sandford and Merton as a continually shifting tension between the novel's overarching narrative&emdash;which traces Tommy's re-education&emdash;and the numerous readings from books that at once contribute to and lead away from the main plot. The novel as a whole downplays its fictional nature by minimising plot and presenting itself as a "real" history. The telling of stories within the main narrative serves to enhance this effect, particularly through the use of narrative devices that foreground the stories' status as stories and their subservient role with regard to Mr Barlow's larger educational project. Yet the stories consistently interrupt the main narrative trajectory and are, in turn, repeatedly interrupted by the interjections of characters from the main narrative&emdash;particularly Tommy, whose responses to the stories illustrate the course of his own re-education and foreground the process of reading, responding to and interpreting narrative fiction.
- Sandford and Merton can therefore be situated within the larger debate in the eighteenth century about the propriety of imaginative fiction for children. This debate begins not with Rousseau, however, but with Locke. As I will attempt to demonstrate, Locke both established the principles for a revolution in children's literature and brought into question the very possibility of such a literature. (In what follows, there is some overlap with Jacqueline Rose's discussion of Locke and Rousseau in The Case of Peter Pan: Or, the Impossibility of Children's Fiction (Rose 42&endash;65), though I would take issue with the psychoanalytic premises of her larger argument.)
- In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) Locke adapts the empiricist account of human development in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) in order to advise parents about the upbringing and education of young gentlemen. His central assumption is that an individual's character is not determined at, or by, birth but is largely shaped by environment, experience and education. The most important aim of education, according to Locke, is summed up in Juvenal's ideal of "A Sound Mind in a Sound Body" (Locke 83). For Locke, of course, a sound mind is a rational and virtuous mind, while a sound body is not only strong and healthy but also able to comply with the mind's governance. In order to produce a self-governing, physically robust young gentleman, Locke devises a system of education that breaks with some of the givens of educational practice in seventeenth-century Britain. Above all, Locke stresses that rationality and virtue cannot be instilled by physical punishment or indulgence but by treating children "as rational Creatures", by forging good habits, by awakening their desire for esteem, and by practical examples (115, 143).
- But although Locke's epistemology is based on the assumption that the mind contains no ideas before sensory experience, this does not mean that a child enters the world without any character traits and is wholly malleable by the educator: "We must not hope wholly to change their Original Tempers, nor make the Gay Pensive and Grave, nor the Melancholy Sportive, without spoiling them. God has stampt certain Characters upon Mens Minds, which, like their Shapes, may perhaps be a little mended; but can hardly be totally alter'd, and transformed into the contrary" (122). Parents do not start with a blank sheet as far as a child's character goes, and need to adapt their educative methods according to that character. Education, then, begins with reading the character(s) that God has stamped upon the child's mind through closely observing the child when he least expects it: "Begin therefore betimes nicely to observe your Son's Temper; and that, when he is under least restraint, in his Play, and as he thinks out of your sight. See what are his predominant Passions, and prevailing Inclinations ... For as these are different in him, so are your Methods to be different" (163).
- For Locke, the best education&emdash;like ideas in general&emdash;comes from direct experience and observation of the world rather than from reading (Some Thoughts 155). This is not to say that Locke neglects the importance of reading. On the contrary, he makes a number of suggestions (some of which were later taken up by John Newbery) for making learning to read into a kind of game so that children might not develop an aversion to it (208&endash;11). He also makes influential comments about the kind of reading that is suitable for young children:
When by these gentle ways he begins to be able to read, some easy pleasant Book suited to his Capacity, should be put into his Hands, wherein the entertainment, that he finds, might draw him on, and reward his Pains in Reading, and yet not such as should fill his Head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of Vice and Folly. To this purpose, I think Æsop's Fables the best, which being Stories apt to delight and entertain a Child, may yet afford useful Reflections to a grown Man. ... If his Æsop has Pictures in it, it will entertain him much the better, and encourage him to read, when it carries the increase of Knowledge with it. For such visible Objects Children hear talked of in vain, and without any satisfaction, whilst they have no Idea's of them; those Idea's being not to be had from Sounds; but from the Things themselves, or their Pictures. ... Reynard the Fox, is another Book, I think, may be made use of to the same purpose. And if those about him will talk to him often about the Stories he has read, and hear him tell them, it will, besides other Advantages, add Incouragement, and delight to his Reading, when he finds there is some use and pleasure in it. These Baits seem wholly neglected in the ordinary Method: And 'tis usually long before Learners find any use or pleasure in Reading ... What other Books there are in English of the kind of those above-mentioned, fit to engage the liking of Children, and tempt them to read, I do not know. (211&endash;12)
- In this passage, Locke establishes the principles for a revolution in children's literature that would be spearheaded by Newbery, particularly in his A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) (see Thwait 121&endash;24). By stressing that reading should be pleasurable as well as useful to children and that reading matter should be suited to their understanding, Locke links a new idea of childhood with a new idea of children's literature. In doing so, he implicitly rejects both the Augustinian view of the sinful child that had dominated seventeenth-century Puritanism and the books that such an outlook had deemed suitable reading for children&emdash;principally, the Bible and Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but also Puritan children's books such as Thomas White's A Little Book for Little Children (c.1671), James Janeway's A Token for Children (1671/1672), and John Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls (1686) (later entitled Divine Emblems).
- But if Locke lays the foundations for a new account of childhood and a new kind of children's literature, he is also worrying at a problem with children's reading that arises out of his philosophical account&emdash;in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding&emdash;of the arbitrary relationship between words and ideas:
...it often happens that men, even when they would apply themselves to an attentive consideration, do set their thoughts more on words than things. Nay, because words are many of them learned, before the ideas are known for which they stand: therefore some, not only children, but men, speak several words, no otherwise than parrots do, only because they have learned them, and have been accustomed to those sounds. (366)
- This inherent imperfection of language leaves it open to various kinds of abuse and prompts Locke to suggest a number of remedies, at least for philosophical discourse. Philosophers should speak of things as they are and hence make their words stand for real ideas; they should also define their terms and use them consistently. He even proposes the creation of a picture dictionary or vocabulary in which "words standing for things, which are known and distinguished by their outward shapes, should be expressed by little draughts and prints made of them" (464).
- Locke, in other words, distrusts language, and especially reading. Inexpert readers, such as children, often encounter words before their associated ideas but nonetheless use those words as if they understood them. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education he therefore stresses the importance of illustration in children's books, since ideas are "not to be had from Sounds; but from the Things themselves, or their Pictures". Illustration, then, supplies visual images&emdash;ideas, in Locke's terms&emdash;to go with the words. Locke also advises, in the passage quoted above, that children should be encouraged to read out loud and in the presence of adults, who ought to enter into dialogue with them about what they read. One of the advantages of supervising a child's reading in this way is that it will "add Incouragement, and delight to his Reading, when he finds there is some use and pleasure in it". Social reading and the use of illustration, then, are "Baits" to encourage children to read. Such baits "seem wholly neglected in the ordinary Method"&emdash;which suggests that children in the period, at least the children of gentlemen, were tending to read in private and probably silently. One of the "other Advantages" of reading out loud in a supervised setting, then, is that it circumvents, or at least supplements, such private reading. It ensures that writing is turned into speech and allows adults to correct mistakes in the way the child reader connects words with ideas and to supply ideas that the child may not yet have encountered. Supervised reading thus enables adults to monitor and correct the child's interpretation of what he or she reads. (For a useful account of children's reading practices in the period, and the way these were affected by class, see Jajdelska; oddly, though, she argues that Locke encouraged children's unsupervised reading.)
- But if Locke provides a philosophical basis for the use of illustration in children's books and for supervised reading, his assumption that the only legitimate use of language is to speak of things as they are means that he is especially suspicious of literary uses of language. In the Essay, Locke claims that figurative language, for example, is a mode of lying for pleasure:
if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow, that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat (452).
- Earlier in the Essay, Locke celebrates the analytical operations of rational judgement and simultaneously condemns the figurative strategies of its opposite&emdash;wit:
[Judgement] is a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and allusion, wherein for the most part, lies that entertainment and pleasantry of wit, which strikes so lively on the fancy, and therefore so acceptable to all people; because its beauty appears at first sight, and there is required no labour of thought, to examine what truth or reason there is in it. The mind without looking any further, rests satisfied with the agreeableness of the picture, and the gaiety of the fancy: and it is a kind of affront to go about to examine it, by the severe rules of truth, and good reason; whereby it appears, that it consists in something, that is not perfectly conformable to them. (153)
- The pleasure of reading can therefore inhibit its use value. The problem with wit is that its payload of pleasure can lure the mind into seeing or accepting similitude between ideas that have no connection in reality. There is thus a disturbing connection between wit and the false association of ideas that Locke later refers to as a "disease" and as a species of "madness" beyond the power of reason to overcome (Essay 354, 356). Children are particularly vulnerable to the false association of ideas, one source of which are the fictions and fairy tales told to them by lower class female servants: "The ideas of goblins and sprites, have really no more to do with darkness, than light; yet let but a foolish maid inculcate these often on the mind of a child, and raise them there together, possibly he shall never be able to separate them again so long as he lives" (357). It is vitally important, then, for Locke, that the stories children encounter should not import false ideas and associations into their minds. This is why he warns parents in Some Thoughts Concerning Education against letting a child read anything "as should fill his Head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of Vice and Folly".
- Locke's critique of wit, figurative language and fiction added up to a condemnation of literary uses of language that could not be ignored, prompting Joseph Addison's and Alexander Pope's later attempts to rewrite Locke in order to re-admit literariness to the republic of letters (see Addison 1&endash;25 and Pope 26&endash;29). Locke's writings on human understanding and education left a similar problematic legacy for writers of children's literature. Nonetheless, as Richardson stresses,
the children's book became a principal vehicle through which his educational theories were disseminated, and Lockean psychology was textualized by a host of writers providing instructive, entertaining books for parents eager to increase their children's stock of cultural capital. (109)
- Two of the key books in this process were Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) and Sarah Fielding's The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749). Yet Locke's critique of the appropriateness of imaginative fiction as a vehicle for children's education could not be ignored. The challenge of recuperating Locke for children's literature was taken up most prominently in The Governess, which is often cited as the first novel written for children. Fielding adapted Locke's empiricist educational theory and ethical values in order to supply "up-and-coming middle-class parents with a model for the upbringing of their daughters" (Grey 44). In order to do so she confronted the problem of reading head on. The Preface addressed to "My young Readers" presents a lesson in reading: "Before you begin the following Sheets, I beg you will stop a Moment at this Preface, to consider with me, what is the true Use of Reading; and if you can once fix this Truth in your Minds, namely, that the true Use of Books is to make you wiser and better, you will then have both Profit and Pleasure from what you read" (Fielding 91). Fielding then proceeds to illustrate this moral through a fable and a story. Although these fictional narratives are thus subordinated to the moral about reading, they none-the-less represent a celebration of the profit and pleasure that children might derive from reading narrative fiction. Indeed, although the main body of the novel itself is structured by the pedagogic project of providing a Lockean education for the nine girls at Mrs Teachum's academy (and for the novel's intended readers), a good deal of that education proceeds through the telling of stories, including fairy stories and oriental tales (supervised by Mrs Teachum or by her pupil assistant, Jenny Peace). As Grey points out, Fielding's "inclusion of fairy-stories and oriental tales (though vehicles to convey her moral purpose) was a novelty to children starved of imaginative stories" (Grey 81). Yet the use of imaginative stories was a novelty that ran against the grain of Lockean conceptions of education and the proper development of the human mind. In fact, as Richardson reminds us, in the second half of the eighteenth century, such stories were increasingly seen as problematic reading material for children (Richardson 113).
- The second major source, after Locke, for the rationalist school of education and the new literature for children that emerged in Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century was the translation of Rousseau's Emile, or On Education in 1762. It is often said that in &LEacute;mile Rousseau invented the modern conception of childhood, or at least its Romantic version. Rousseau claims that a child comes into the world with intrinsic good qualities that need to be nurtured by a "natural education" that maintains the child's innocence and freedom and protects it from the corruptions of society. The aim of education should not be to mould the child in a Lockean way but to cultivate or nurture the child like a plant so that it reaches maturity in its proper season:
Nature wants children to be children before being men. If we want to pervert this order, we shall produce precocious fruits which will be immature and insipid and will not be long in rotting. We shall have young doctors [docteurs&emdash;learned men] and old children. Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it. Nothing is less sensible than to want to substitute ours for theirs, and I would like as little to insist that a ten-year-old be five feet tall as that he possess judgment. (90)
- Yet it is precisely this proto-Romantic conception of childhood that is generally absent in the rational education promoted in the children's books inspired by Rousseau. Nonetheless, the reading of Emile as a sourcebook for a theory of rational education did not need to do violence to that text. Despite taking issue with certain of Locke's assumptions (such as the advice that children are to be treated as rational beings), Rousseau's concept of natural education and his educative method do not represent such a big break from Locke as Rousseau claimed. In fact, his goal is the same as Locke's&emdash;to produce "strength of body and strength of soul; a wise man's reason and an athlete's vigor" (110). Furthermore, Rousseau reiterates Locke's account of the development of human understanding in order to indicate the proper way in which children should be enabled to develop their reason:
Since everything which enters into the human understanding comes there through the senses, man's first reason is a reason of the senses; this sensual reason serves as the basis of intellectual reason. Our first masters of philosophy are our feet, our hands, our eyes. To substitute books for all that is not to teach us to reason. It is to teach us to use the reason of others. It is to teach us to believe much and never to know anything. (125)
- Like Locke, then, Rousseau's empiricist assumptions about the early development of ideas leads him to see books as a disabling substitute for direct experience. His Lockean insistence that children's early education ought to consist of the direct experience of objects and examples forms the basis of a critique of the role of reading in education that echoes and amplifies Locke's:
if nature gives the child's brain the suppleness that fits it to receive all sorts of impressions, it is not in order to engrave on this brain the names of kings, dates, terms of heraldry, globes and geography, and all those words without any sense for the child's age, ... with which his sad and sterile childhood is burdened. ... The kind of memory a child can have does not, without his studying books, for this reason remain idle. Everything he sees, everything he hears strikes him, and he remembers it. He keeps in himself a record of the actions and speeches of men, and all that surrounds him is the book in which, without thinking about it, he continually enriches his memory while waiting for his judgment to be able to profit from it. (112)
- By extrapolating Locke's account of the proper relationship between words, ideas and objects, Rousseau explicitly rejects the use of books in the teaching of practical subjects such as history and geography. Education ought to consist not in selecting books for the child to read but in stage-managing the child's encounter with objects. Yet this encounter is itself figured as a textual process: the child is a kind of book that records the impressions of his or her senses, and the world of objects is also a kind of book whose contents get transferred to the child's inner book through experience.
- The fact that Rousseau's rejection of books is followed by an account of "natural education" that figures the child's supposedly unmediated experience of nature and human behaviour in textual terms highlights the paradoxical, oxymoronic structure of the notion of natural education itself. In Emile, the intrinsically cultural process of education somehow preserves the child's original nature while at the same time adding to or cultivating that nature so that the child develops into a rational agent in the socio-cultural world. A cultural process supplements the child's nature in order to prevent that nature's corruption from the degenerate culture of modern civilisation. Good culture counters bad culture. Yet the every need for education in the first place, albeit a "natural" education, indicates that the child's original nature is either flawed or deficient. The ludic complexities of this strange Rousseauean logic have been most revealingly explored by Jacques Derrida:
all education, the keystone of Rousseauist thought, will be described as a system of substitution [suppléance] destined to reconstitute Nature's edifice in the most natural way possible. The first chapter of Emile announces the function of this pedagogy. ... It is indeed culture or cultivation that must supplement a deficient nature, a deficiency that cannot by definition be anything but an accident and a deviation from Nature. (145&endash;46)
- "Natural education", then, is a supplement to nature that seeks to disguise its artificial status. Natural education is brought in to supply a deficiency in nature in order to restore nature to itself. The child is natural, but its nature needs to be cultivated in a natural way if it is to be armed against the corruptions of modern culture.
- Derrida shows how the logic of supplementarity structures and drives Rousseau's anxious, inventive thinking about a wide range of issues throughout his oeuvre. In Emile, it complicates Rousseau's account of childhood and natural education in ways that would be repeated in the children's writing and the concept of childhood that were inspired by Rousseau. The notion of childhood has a particular place in Rousseau's thinking: "Childhood is the first manifestation of the deficiency which, in Nature, calls for substitution [suppléance]. Pedagogy illuminates perhaps more crudely the paradoxes of the supplement. How is a natural weakness possible? How can Nature ask for forces that it does not furnish? How is a child possible in general?" (Derrida 146). Such questions and problems haunt Rousseau's prescriptions for natural education. For example, in the second book of Emile Rousseau stresses that education ought to proceed not by "verbal lessons" but by the pupil imitating the tutor's exemplary actions (92, 104). But the problem with imitation is that it is impossible to tell if the pupil is merely imitating (aping) or imitating in a way that indicates true knowledge and virtuous feelings. In imitating the tutor's acts of charity, for example, the child may be authentically generous or merely imitating the signs of generosity (see 103&endash;4). Good imitation comes from the heart; bad imitation is merely outward show&emdash;mere imitation: the child "may always content himself with giving signs" (Derrida 205). In other words, imitation raises the general problem about the relationship between sign and thing/idea, representation and represented. This problem is the same one that Locke worried about when thinking about the child's initiation into the arbitrary system of language. But in Rousseau, this problem propagates itself into all aspects of his thought, especially about childhood and education. In order to avoid the corruption that is the human condition wherever it has strayed from nature, the child should always engage with things in themselves rather than their signs and symbols: "In general, never substitute the sign for the thing except when it is impossible for you to show the latter, for the sign absorbs the child's attention and makes him forget the thing represented" (Rousseau 170). Thus the natural child prefers "real" goods to the coins that might purchase them, imitates the tutor's heart not merely his outward actions, begins by expressing himself in the language of nature (e.g., crying) before substituting it with human speech, and prefers direct experience to reading and speech to writing (103, 65, 77, 196). In other words, as Derrida suggests, "For Rousseau the concept of the child is always related to the sign. More precisely, childhood is the non-relation to the sign as such" (204). Whenever the child contents himself with giving signs, then, there is a fall away from natural childhood into corrupt adulthood. But even if it were possible for a human being to have a non-relation to the sign as such, education and culture necessarily involve the initiation of the child into the realm of signs. This is the irresolvable paradox of natural education.
- If Rousseau would banish reading from natural education, he is even more hostile to the use of imaginative fiction in the education of children. More insistently than Locke, Rousseau undermines the very possibility of children's literature. If Locke singles out Aesop's Fables as one of the few books suitable for children in his time, Rousseau rejects the very assumption that children might find fables readable:
How can people be so blinded as to call fables the morality of children? They do not think about how the apologue, in giving enjoyment to children, deceives them; about how, seduced by the lie, they let the truth escape ... Fables can instruct men, but the naked truth has to be told to children. ... I say that a child does not understand the fables he is made to learn, because, no matter what effort is made to simplify them, the instruction that one wants to draw from them compels the introduction of ideas he cannot grasp; and because poetry's very skill at making them easier for him to retain makes them difficult for him to conceive, so that one buys delight at the expense of clarity. (112&endash;13)
- Echoing Locke, Rousseau argues that literature lies, that the poetic generates "delight at the expense of clarity". Yet Rousseau does make one exception to his embargo on books by allowing Emile to read Robinson Crusoe:
Since we absolutely must have books, there exists one which, to my taste, provides the most felicitous treatise on natural education. This book will be the first that my Emile will read. For a long time it will alone compose his whole library, and it will always hold a distinguished place there. (184)
- But Emile will not learn merely from reading Robinson Crusoe but by identifying with and imitating its central character in order to re-enact his empiricist (Lockean) practical education on the island:
This novel, disencumbered of all its rigmarole, beginning with Robinson's shipwreck near his island and ending with the arrival of the ship which comes to take him from it, will be both Emile's entertainment and instruction throughout the period which is dealt with here. ... I want him to learn in detail, not from books but from things, all that must be known in such a situation; I want him to think he is Robinson himself, to see himself dressed in skins, wearing a large cap, carrying a large saber and all the rest of the character's grotesque equipment (185).
- On the one hand, such reader-character identification reflects (or offers a blueprint for) the way children read and gives a central role to imagination and play. On the other hand, natural education here is carried out through encouraging the child to imitate what he (or she) has read about in a book. In other words, the child is exposed both to the risks involved in reading (especially reading fiction) and the risks involved in imitation. Rousseau seeks to minimise these risks by censorship and supervision. He would disencumber Robinson Crusoe "of all its rigmarole" in order to reduce it to the account of Crusoe's period on the island, and hence, as far as possible, transform it from a novel into "the most felicitous treatise on natural education". He would also supervise his pupil's imitation of the novel's protagonist:
I want him constantly to be busy with his mansion, his goats, his plantations; ... I want him to worry about the measures to take if this or that were lacking to him; to examine his hero's conduct; to investigate whether he omitted anything, whether there was nothing to do better; to note Robinson's failings attentively; and to profit from them so as not to fall into them himself in such a situation. ... What a resource this folly would be for a skilful man who knew how to engender it solely for the sake of taking advantage of it. The child, in a hurry to set up a storehouse for his island, will be more ardent for learning than is his master for teaching. (185)
- Rousseau, then, would oversee his pupil's imitation of Robinson Crusoe's hero in order to make sure that it is not mere imitation and to enable him to criticise and profit from his hero's failings and practical mistakes. By stressing that the pupil's practical imitation of a fictional character is a "folly", Rousseau distances himself from the pupil's absorption in imaginative identification with a fictional character. But in doing so, he reveals that natural education, in this instance (as in others), is quite capable of resorting to deception - playing tricks on the child, manipulating the child's propensity for imaginative play and the imitation of fictional characters.
- Rousseau's educational theory&emdash;couched in a hybrid form somewhere between treatise and novel&emdash;thus presented a number of problems for the many writers who sought to inculcate Rousseauean ideals and principles in novels intended for children. Rose refers to "the obvious paradox that Locke and Rousseau should be seen as the founding fathers of children's fiction in England given their shared suspicion of writing" (47). Rousseau's English followers sought to override this paradox by taking advantage of the exception of Robinson Crusoe&emdash;and, indeed, the example of Emile itself&emdash;in order to produce children's novels involving protagonists who learn through direct experience of the object world. Novels such as Sandford and Merton can be read as Robinsonnades that place their child protagonists not on desert islands but in situations where they are required to learn from experience and example. Child readers are thereby presented with a vicarious, textually mediated version of natural education. Such a compromise could not, of course, bridge the gap between direct experience and imaginative identification, between things and words, or between true and false ideas (in a Lockean sense). Nonetheless, as Richardson points out, "the fictionalized 'object lesson', however theoretically inconsistent, came to shape the moral tales of many children's authors of the period, including those who, like Trimmer and Sherwood, held Rousseau's writings in anathema" (132).
- Sandford and Merton is a pioneering example of this strategy. Its overarching plot, such as it is, concerns Mr Barlow's attempt to re-educate Tommy Merton, the arrogant son of a local gentleman, into a virtuous character exhibiting the qualities and values of the English yeoman class as exemplified by Harry Sandford, the son of a local farmer. The novel is therefore predicated upon Lockean and Rousseauean assumptions about the education of character. Tommy's mis-education has come about through excessive wealth and privilege, together with the corrupting effects of living on his father's sugar plantation in Jamaica where he got used to lording it over black slaves and servants. Now he is back in England, the question the novel explores is whether his originally good nature can be recovered from the distorting effects of his cultural experience: "Tommy Merton, who at the time he came from Jamaica, was only six years old, was naturally a very good-tempered boy, but unfortunately had been spoiled by too much indulgence" (I: 11&endash;12). The urgency of Tommy's re-education is driven by a relentless Rousseauean critique of the dangers of aristocratic luxury and the need to inculcate in young readers the values of an English native primitivism updated for the modern world as a practical and scientific education and embodied in the productive, ennobling labour of independent farming. As such, Sandford and Merton constitutes an important episode in the eighteenth-century critique of luxury and in the rise of a certain kind of English nationalism traced respectively by John Sekora (1977) and Gerald Newman (1997). The task of Mr Barlow, then, is to reprogram Tommy by subjecting him to a thoroughgoing natural education, which includes the imitation of Robinson Crusoe in projects such as the building of a wooden house through trial and error and carrying out each stage in the production of bread.
- It is important to stress, however, the equally central role that reading and stories play in the education of the novel's child protagonists and, hence, of the novel's child readers. Indeed, in the Preface to Sandford and Merton, Day claims that the original impulse for the novel was the felt need to put together a collection of suitable stories for children:
All who have been conversant in the education of very young children, have complained of the total want of proper books to be put into their hands, while they are taught the elements of reading. I have felt this want in common with others, and have been very much embarrassed how to supply it. The only method I could invent was to select such passages of different books as were most adapted to their experience and understanding. The least exceptional that I could find for this purpose were Plutarch's Lives and Xenophon's History of the Institution of Cyrus, in English translations; with some parts of Robinson Crusoe, and a few passages in the first volume of Mr. Brook's Fool of Quality. (I: iii-iv)
- One of the striking things about this passage is the way it echoes Locke's suggestion about a century earlier that there are almost no suitable books for children. This is, of course, to reject the significant expansion of children's literature in the second half of the eighteenth century pioneered, in their different ways, by Fielding and Newbery. Children's literature, then, continues to be a problem&emdash;at least in terms of supply. Equally striking, of course, is the very fact that this prominent English champion of Rousseau should embark upon a project designed to present children with an anthology of suitable reading material (drawn from a much wider range of sources than Day admits, containing "a mass of tales, from Androcles and the Lion to the conquest of Mexico and the Arabian Nights" (Uglow 322). Indeed, the Preface goes on to imply that the narrative plot of Sandford and Merton, and hence the "natural education" of its young protagonists, was an afterthought, a device for presenting the anthologised texts in a more "natural" fashion:
Those that have been much used to children, and to such alone I appeal, will sufficiently understand the defects of the method I have described, and the total impossibility of avoiding it. I, therefore, thought that it would be a very valuable present to parents, were I to make a selection of such stories as may interest without corrupting the minds of children, and print them in a separate volume ... But more attention to the subject convinced me, that, though such a selection would be highly useful, the method was still defective, as the objects would overwhelm the tender mind of a child by their variety and number, instead of being introduced according to that natural order of association which we ought never to overlook in early education. I, therefore, resolved to proceed a step farther, and not only to collect all such stories as I thought adapted to the faculties of children, but to connect them by a continual narration; so that every story might appear to rise naturally out of the subject, and might, for that reason, make the greater impression. To make the relation more interesting to those for whom it was intended, I have introduced two children as the actors, and have endeavoured to make them speak and behave according to the order of nature. As to the histories themselves, I have used the most unbounded license; altering, curtailing, adding, and generally entirely changing the language, according to the particular views which actuated me in undertaking this work. (Day I: v-vii)
- According to Day's Preface, then, the story of the children's "natural education" is a supplement to the anthologised stories designed to make those stories "appear to rise naturally out of the subject". Uglow claims that "Day had not totally turned his back on Rousseau, but he had realized his ideas must be modified. The History of Sandford and Merton owes much to the 'natural education' of Emile, with the reinstatement of the book-learning that Rousseau threw out" (Uglow 321). Yet Locke's and Rousseau's critiques of the use of books in the education of children suggest that it might not be so straightforward simply to add "book learning" to "natural education". In the remainder of this essay, I want to explore the relationship in Sandford and Merton between these potentially incompatible pedagogic strategies, focussing particularly on the way the novel at once celebrates, questions and disrupts the potential effects of reading.
- Sandford and Merton makes reading&emdash;the supervised reading aloud and interpretation of stories&emdash;a key process in Tommy's re-education. The novel opens - like so many children's books of the period - with the thematisation of reading (see Richardson 133). It is made clear that reading aloud is part of Harry's daily routine, that he enjoys doing it, and that Mr Barlow uses the stories to supplement his education. It is a sign of Tommy's mis-education that he has to confess "he had never learned to read" (I: 61&endash;62). This extraordinary admission indicates the ideological realignment that reading undergoes in Sandford and Merton:
Day's book is designed to encourage children to read, and it has somehow to get round Rousseau's dislike of the written word. It does this by making reading characteristic of the industrious class, who use books to teach themselves self-sufficiency and skills. Learning to read is not superfluous or decadent. In fact, far from being seen as a second-order language, it is explicitly opposed to the obsession with image and spectacle typical of the gentry. (Rose 51)
- The fact that Tommy's re-education begins with Harry teaching him to read is thus loaded with implication. Tommy is being weaned from an aristocratic order of false signs and initiated into a sign system that promises "a direct knowledge of the real world" (Rose 51). Yet, as we will see, learning to read involves more than the ability to link written signs to the ideas or things they signify. The lesson that the story of Tommy's acquisition of literacy presents to its readers is that reading can enable the child to recover (and augment) his or her own innocent nature, but only when he or she has learnt how to interpret the practical and moral meanings of stories and hence sort out what features ought to be imitated and what rejected. Tommy eventually learns to read in this sense, and hence arrives at self-understanding, through the constant supervision of Mr Barlow and the constant example of Harry (who embodies the moral values that he reads about). Yet Tommy's final achievement is also brought about through a series of misreadings, some of which put him in moral or physical danger (or make him into a tragicomic figure) while simultaneously contributing to his practical education. Learning to read in this larger sense is thus a necessary process, but one fraught with danger.
- Significantly, the first story the newly literate Tommy reads to Mr Barlow and Harry&emdash;"The History of the Two Dogs" (I: 75&endash;84)&emdash;is an expansion of Aesop's fable, "The Two Dogs". This fact signals Day's divergence from Rousseau and seems to reiterate Locke's endorsement of Aesop. The story itself is emblematic of the whole project of Sandford and Merton since it shows that these dogs' characters can be completely reversed by a reversal in their circumstances&emdash;that training and conditioning can shape and reshape character. Indeed, the question of the extent to which the character and nature of animals can be changed by training is repeatedly returned to throughout the text, with Mr Barlow being confident that the nature of all animals can be transformed in this way. Such stories and speculations, then, constitute an analogy for the overall story of the re-education of Tommy. "The History of the Two Dogs" is also typical of all the stories in the novel in that its moral&emdash;the deleterious effects of luxury on body and character and the positive effects of healthy labour - is brought out not only within the story itself but also through Mr Barlow's entering into dialogue about the story with Tommy, who invariably misreads the morals of stories during the early stages of his education, even if he can read their words.
- The process of reading, responding to, discussing and analysing stories thus serves to supplement Tommy's natural education. The tension between these modes of education is suggested by the multiple ways in which the reading of fictional and non-fictional narratives in the novel is variously foregrounded, dramatised, promoted, interrupted, and brought into question. None of the novel's numerous inserted stories is told or consumed simply for its value as a story, as a fictional text that excites pleasure in narrative. Instead, the majority of these stories reiterate the same ideological message regarding the dangers to self and country of aristocratic luxury and the benefits of wholesome labour and sincerity. Stories also become the occasion&emdash;like all the boys' play and adventures&emdash;for practical or scientific instruction or discovery (Day was, after all, one of the "Lunar Men"). Moral and practical messages are brought out explicitly and implicitly in the stories themselves and through Mr Barlow's relentless interrogation of Tommy's typically naive or ignorant responses. Furthermore, the status of the stories as fiction is often ambiguous or undermined, and many of them are adapted from real-life adventures or historical narratives. In other words, although Sandford and Merton is largely made up of stories, which puts it in tension with its otherwise Rousseauean stress on practical education, the fictional, imaginative elements of such stories are played down in order to minimise that tension. Foregrounding the narration of the stories allows them both to appear more "fictional" than the "true story" they take place within and works to prevent the reader becoming absorbed in fictional narrative for its own sake. One level of fiction continually cuts across, frames and disrupts other levels of fiction. Sandford and Merton can therefore be read as a narrative fiction that uses narrative fiction as a tool in its educational project while continually resisting being read as narrative fiction.
- The sustained use of stories serves repeatedly to disrupt the frame narrative. Indeed, the story of Tommy's re-education only comes into its own in its critical phase midway through volume II, when his visit to his parents' house, accompanied by Harry, threatens to undo all the training that he has undergone at the hands of Mr Barlow (II: 222ff). This visit precipitates a crisis of values in Tommy as he is torn between adhering to Mr Barlow's precepts and imitating the conduct of the fashionable young people he encounters at his parents' house. Initially, at least, this conflict, which dramatises the novel's central ideological struggle, is enacted not in narrated stories but in a series of clashes between Harry and the young gentlemen who seek to seduce Tommy back to his old ways. Here, ideological struggle - in the absence of Mr Barlow - expresses itself as relatively exciting plot in the frame narrative itself. This is not to say that the moral is wholly carried by the narrative and left to child readers to work out for themselves. The narrator alerts us to Tommy's reversion, for example, by telling us that he "had now completely resumed his natural character, and thrown aside all that he had learned during his residence with Mr. Barlow" (II: 263). (The contradiction between this statement and the narrator's suggestion, in the early pages of volume I, that Tommy "was naturally a very good-tempered boy, but unfortunately had been spoiled by too much indulgence" (I: 12) points up the inherent contradiction in the project of natural education: Mr Barlow is variously seen as attempting to restore Tommy's natural (good) character and as attempting to displace his natural (bad) character.)
- Tommy's reversion to his natural (bad) character in volume II is dramatically revealed when he betrays his friendship with Harry by striking him&emdash;significantly, in a dispute about the true meaning of the term "gentleman" (II: 292). But the conflict between classes and world views in the novel comes to a head in the fight between Harry and Master Mash&emdash;a clash between a virtuous young hero and an older bully from a supposedly superior class that anticipates many similar encounters in children's literature, from Tom Brown's fight with Flashman to Harry Potter's enmity with Malfoy. In Sandford and Merton, Harry overcomes a bigger and stronger opponent precisely through the ideological qualities that he embodies and exemplifies:
Mash had superior strength and dexterity, and greater habitude of fighting; his blows were aimed with equal skill and force; and each appeared sufficient to crush an enemy so much inferior in size, in strength, in years: but Harry possessed a body hardened to support pain and hardship; a greater degree of activity, a cool, unyielding courage, which nothing could disturb or daunt. (II: 295)
- After Mash's defeat, the gulf between Harry and the young gentlemen is made still more apparent by their very different responses to an escaped bull. While the young gentlemen run for their lives, Harry risks his own life to save Tommy (with timely assistance from an emancipated black slave). This incident brings the second volume to a close and precipitates the process of Tommy's moral recovery in the third volume, forcing him to confront his errors and to confess the truth to his parents. Mrs Merton is in turn forced to confront her own prejudices and to realise the novel's overall ideological message: "Mrs. Merton was now silent with shame at reflecting upon her own unjust prejudices, and the ease with which she had become the enemy of a boy who had saved the life of her darling son; and who appeared as much superior in character to all the young gentlemen at her house, as they exceeded him in rank and fortune" (III: 6&endash;7).
- When Mr Barlow reappears on the scene, the question of whether Tommy can be recovered or not is explicitly debated. Mr Merton fears that his son's recent behaviour reveals that he is "radically corrupted" (III, 10). But Mr Barlow is more sanguine&emdash;because he assesses Tommy's character differently and because of his general theory of education:
though I cannot deny the dangers that may arise from a character so susceptible of false impressions, and so violent at the same time, yet I do not think the corruption either so great, or so general, as you seem to suspect. Do we not see, even in the most trifling habits of body or speech, that a long and continual attention is required, if we would wish to change them; and yet our perseverance is in the end generally successful? Why then should we imagine that those of the mind are less obstinate, or subject to different laws? (III: 11)
- For Mr Barlow, then, the mind or character can be changed by the sustained application of true impressions through education. As a modern educationalist, inspired by Locke and Rousseau, he posits that there is
little reason ... to despair of youth, even in the most disadvantageous circumstances ... the seeds of different qualities frequently lie concealed in the character, and only wait for an opportunity of exerting themselves; and it is the great business of education to apply such motives to the imagination, as may stimulate it to laudable exertions. (III: 22)
- To deal with the current crisis, Mr Barlow echoes Locke's advice that parents should observe their son's temper when he is under least restraint: "Let us both be attentive to the silent workings of his mind, and regulate our behaviour accordingly" (III: 23).
- But at this point of highest interest in the overarching narrative, the novel shifts its focus from Tommy's crisis and possible recuperation in order to stage the telling of another story&emdash;this time, the longest in the whole novel. Mr Merton asks Miss Simmons&emdash;an English equivalent of Rousseau's Sophie&emdash;to "entertain the company with some little tale or history, adapted to the comprehension even of the youngest" (III: 26). On the surface, this can be read as another alienation device that serves to prevent the main narrative from absorbing the reader's attention. At the same time, however, the inserted story turns out to be a perfect device for prompting Tommy to reveal the silent workings of his mind in his frequent interruptions to the narrative. By observing Tommy's reactions to the story that Miss Simmons reads out loud to the assembled company, Mr Barlow and Mr Merton will have the opportunity to read the state of his character and modify their educational strategies accordingly.
- Like all the stories in Sandford and Merton, "Sophron and Tigranes" is firmly on message in stressing the dangers of luxury for individual and national character and in offering primitivist simplicity as an antidote and alternative. More than this, however, it serves as a kind of parallel story to the overarching story of Harry and Tommy insofar as it is about two childhood friends from Lebanon whose inner characters or essential natures lead them in very different directions and eventually bring them face to face as adults on opposite sides of a struggle for national liberty. The story implies that such an outcome was inevitable from the start:
Nor were these two youths less different in the application of their faculties than in the nature of them; for Tigranes seemed to be possessed by a restless spirit of commanding all his equals, while Sophron, contented with the enjoyment of tranquillity, desired nothing more than to avoid oppression. (III: 27&endash;28)
- In listening to the story of "Sophron and Tigranes", then, Tommy is learning to read his own story.
- Like all the framed stories in Sandford and Merton, "Sophron and Tigranes" is hedged round with the foregrounding of its telling, by the moral situation in which it is told, by the moralising of its internal narrator which guides young readers about how to read it, and by the responses and debates of those who are listening to it. And as with many of the other narrated stories, Tommy several times breaks into the narrative with various kinds of response. His first intervention, in reaction to Sophron's declaration of the humane principles that lead him to avoid eating meat, indicates that he has begun to perceive the parallels between the main protagonists of the framed story and his own story:
Here the interest and concern which had long been visible in Tommy's face could no longer be represt, and tears began to trickle down his cheeks. What is the matter, my darling, said his mother, what is there in the account of this young man that so deeply interests and affects you?&emdash;Alas! said Tommy, mamma, it reminds me of poor Harry Sandford; just such another good young man will he be, when he is as old as Sophron; and I, and I, added he sobbing, am just such another, worthless, ungrateful wretch as Tigranes. But Tigranes, said Mrs. Merton, you see, became a great and powerful man, while Sophron remained only a poor and ignorant shepherd. What does that signify, mamma? said Tommy. For my part, I begin to find that it is not always the greatest people that are the best or happiest; and as to ignorance, I cannot think that Sophron, who understood his duty so well to his parents, and to God, and to all the world, could be called ignorant, and very likely he could read and write better than Tigranes, in spite of all his pomp and grandeur; for I am sure there is not one of the young gentlemen that went home to-day, that reads as well as Harry Sandford, or has half his understanding. Mr. Merton could hardly help smiling at Tommy's conjecture about Sophron's reading; but he felt the greatest pleasure at seeing such a change in his sentiments (III: 49&endash;51).
- This intervention breaks up the story's narrative flow in order to highlight its moral significance and role in the larger narrative. Here, listening to a fictional story adds a reality effect to the main narrative, serves to comment on it, and becomes a key episode in its unfolding course. As he applies the story to his own situation, Tommy's emotional identification with the characters in the story serves to remind us of the narrative scene - the fact that the story of "Sophron and Tigranes" is being read aloud by one character to some of the other principal characters. Yet if his mother completely misreads the story's moral import, Tommy's admiration of the qualities that Sophron and Harry share and his distressed recognition of his own similarity to Tigranes work precisely to differentiate him from the latter and from the character he himself might have become without the intervention of Mr Barlow. Tommy's readerly identification is already shifting from Tigranes to Sophron. His emotional outburst thus serves to reveal - to Mr Barlow and Mr Merton as well as to the reader - the silent workings of his mind, even though Tommy himself does not fully understand those workings.
- Miss Simmons then resumes her narrative. Having rescued "a venerable old man" and "a beautiful young woman" from their captors, Sophron "entreated them to let him hear the history of their misfortunes" (III: 55, 62). The insertion of stories within stories is not an unusual literary technique, of course, but here the insertion of Chares's story into the story of "Sophron and Tigranes"&emdash;which is itself an insertion into the story of Harry and Tommy&emdash;serves once more to foreground the telling of stories and to impede narrative momentum. Narrative is at once celebrated (as stories beget stories) and inhibited (as stories serve to disrupt the stories they appear within). At the same time, however, all the stories in Sandford and Merton tell the same story about the contrary effects of luxury and virtue. The novel becomes a hall of mirrors in which each story reflects the same image from different angles. Chares's story includes an account of his experience of the people of Egypt, whose effeminate luxury has enabled "A few thousand disciplined troops" to hold millions in servitude (III: 66). This information prompts Sophron to respond with an interjection that both breaks up the narrative and spells out its ideological message:
Unhappy people! exclaimed Sophron, how useless to them are all the blessings of their climate! How much rather would I inhabit the stormy top of Lebanon, amid eternal snows and barrenness, than wallow in the vile sensuality of such a country, or breathe an air infected by its vices! (III: 66).
- The story hardly gets going again, with Chares beginning an account of the tribes of Arabia, when the mention of a camel prompts Tommy to interrupt the story once more to ask Mr Barlow to explain "what kind of an animal a camel is" (III: 67). From a Lockean perspective, Tommy is right to interrupt the story at this point because he has encountered a word for which he has no corresponding idea. Unable to bring on an actual camel, Mr Barlow attempts to give Tommy an idea of a camel by offering a brief natural history lesson.
- The narrative resumes with Chares's account of the Arabs, who he represents as the polar opposite of the people of Egypt in that they eschew luxury and pursue a primitive nomadic existence that serves to preserve their liberty. In fact, the Arabs are represented as primitivist philosophers who fully understand that their existence as "free-born men" is dependent on their non-materialistic way of life (III: 78). When he hears such sentiments, Sophron interrupts the narration once again in order to praise this "Happy and generous people" (III: 81). Chares welcomes this response and makes it clear that he had narrated this part of his story precisely in order to gauge the secret workings of Sophron's character and to assure himself that Lebanon is as yet "uninfected with the vices that have deluged the rest of Asia, and bent its inhabitants to the yoke" (III: 82). It thus becomes explicit, once more, that narrative is used both to reiterate the novel's ubiquitous ideological message and to test the reactions of listeners in ways that allow their characters to be read. In fact, Sophron's interruption of Chares's narration prompts Tommy to make his third interruption of Miss Simmons's narration with the following reflections: "In all these stories which I have heard, it seems as if those nations, that have little or nothing, are more good natured, and better and braver, than those that have a great deal" (III: 83). Tommy is clearly beginning to get the point, and goes on to ask whether the equation between economic poverty and moral worth applies in England as well. This initiates a kind of Socratic dialogue between Mr Barlow and his pupil in which the tutor seeks to show Tommy that in England "the rich do nothing and produce nothing, and the poor every thing that is really useful" (III: 89). This simultaneous critique of aristocracy and capitalism brings the narrative to a close for the evening, Mr Barlow suggesting that "Miss Simmons will be so good as to defer the remainder of her story until to-morrow" (III: 89).
- But Miss Simmons's narrative is deferred for longer than this because Tommy's excitement about what he has heard of the Arabs' horsemanship leads him into the "dangerous experiment" (III: 92) of trying to imitate what he has heard. Reading, here, precipitates experience rather than supplementing it. Bad imitation overrides good imitation. The narrator makes it clear that although Tommy's views are changing for the better he is still too susceptible to impressions and liable to be carried away by the wrong kind of imaginative identification with characters in stories:
The next day Tommy rose before his father and mother, and, as his imagination had been forcibly acted on by the description he had heard of the Arabian horsemen, he desired his little horse might be saddled, and that William, his father's man, would attend him upon a ride. Unfortunately for Tommy, his vivacity was greater than his reason, and his taste for imitation was continually leading him into some mischief or misfortune. He had no sooner been introduced into the acquaintance of genteel life, than he threw aside all his former habits, and burnt to distinguish himself as a most accomplished young gentleman. He was now, in turn, sickened and disgusted with fashionable affectation, and his mind, at leisure for fresh impressions, was ready to catch at the first new object which occurred. The idea, therefore, which presented itself to his mind, as soon as he opened his eyes, was that of being an Arabian horseman. (III: 89&endash;90)
- Tommy has still not learned how to read. His imagination makes him susceptible to wrong impressions and he has not yet judged which aspects of the heroes he admires are appropriate to imitate. The comic outcome of the potentially "dangerous" experiment that follows clearly corroborates the narrator's view. Nonetheless, the adventure does provide Harry with practical experience that contributes to the gradual reorientation of his character. It enables him to save Harry's lamb and to be saved himself by a Highlander, Andrew Campbell, for whom he exhibits a compassion that bodes well for his future redemption. Needless to say, the Highlander is induced to tell his own life story (a boys' own military adventure among the noble savages of America that contributes its own version of the novel's predominant ideological message). The Highlander's story also further delays the continuance of the story of Sophron and Tigranes and is itself punctuated by three interventions by the irrepressible Tommy.
- The Highlander's story has a positive effect on Tommy. After it comes to an end he takes the chance to be alone with Mr Barlow in order to begin the confession of his faults, setting out to "tell [Mr Barlow] every thing which lies so heavy upon my mind" (III: 172&endash;73). The staging of children's confessions is a common feature of children's books of the period, but what I would stress here is that confession involves the assumption that language and narration really can tell all. Tommy repeats "with great exactness the story of his insolence and ingratitude [towards Harry], which had so great an effect upon him, that he burst into tears and cried a considerable time" (III: 178). In the dialogue that follows, Mr Barlow recommends that Tommy should try to rescue his friendship with Harry through "an honest confession" of his faults (III: 182). Tommy's ability and willingness to tell the story of his own errors, then, is a key element in his moral recovery.
- Before Miss Simmons returns home with her father, Mr Merton prevails on her to conclude the story of Sophron and Tigranes, seeing it as a means of furthering Tommy's recuperation. At the conclusion of Chares's inner story (III: 197&endash;236), Sophron and Chares join forces to resist Tigranes's imminent attempt to overrun Lebanon, Sophron fighting his former friend with military valour and Chares contributing a scientific knowledge of the uses of gunpowder discovered through a characteristically Enlightenment investigation of nature. As soon as Miss Simmons finishes her narration, Tommy expresses his astonishment at the destructive effects of gunpowder in the story. When Mr Barlow explains the mechanisms that Chares had used, Tommy is convinced:
That is true, indeed; and I declare Chares was a very good and sensible man. Had it not been for him, these brave inhabitants of Lebanon must have been enslaved. I now plainly perceive that a man may be of much more consequence by improving his mind in various kinds of knowledge, even though he is poor, than by all the finery and magnificence he can acquire. I wish, with all my heart, that Mr. Barlow had been so good as to read this story to the young gentlemen and ladies that were lately here. I think it would have made a great impression upon their minds, and would have prevented their feeling so much contempt for poor Harry, who is better and wiser than them all, though he does not powder his hair, or dress so genteelly. (III: 253)
- Tommy, then, has come to believe in the power of stories to transform character by making "a great impression" on young readers' or listeners' minds. Once again, though, Tommy misreads the story&emdash;or rather his own story&emdash;by not yet recognising that the great impression the story of Sophron and Tigranes has had on him has only been possible because it reiterates the same message that he has repeatedly encountered&emdash;through practical experience and numerous stories&emdash;since he began his re-education with Mr Barlow. His father's response serves to jolt him into a reconsideration of the power of stories and of the as-yet incomplete trajectory of his own story:
Tommy, said Mr. Merton, with a kind of contemptuous smile, why should you believe that the hearing of a single story would change the characters of all your late friends, when neither the good instructions you have been so long receiving from Mr. Barlow, nor the intimacy you have had with Harry, were sufficient to restrain your impetuous temper, or prevent you from treating him in the shameful manner you have done? (III: 253&endash;54)
- Stung by this reproach, Tommy symbolically abandons his fashionable dress for plain clothes and persuades Mr Barlow to accompany him to visit Harry at his home, where Tommy and Harry are reconciled and where Tommy enters "upon a course of life which was very little consistent with his former habits" (III: 271). Living and working on the farm serves to confirm his tutor's lessons: "He now found, from his own experience, that Mr. Barlow had not deceived him in the various representations he had made of the utility of the lower classes" (III: 273). This new phase in his practical education is supplemented by the constant example of Harry, by Mr Barlow's conversation, and by further stories. When he is on the point of returning to his father's home, Tommy finally acknowledges to Harry that his example has contributed significantly to the little good that he can boast of. Tommy has finally realised the meaning of his own story. "Natural education", supplemented by supervised reading, has finally restored him to his natural character.
- Sandford and Merton, then, ends in closure. The successful re-education of Tommy Merton, the restoration of his character to its native virtue, supposedly demonstrates the possibility, even the necessity, of supplementing natural education with the supervised reading of appropriate stories. Yet this is not merely a theoretical resolution of a philosophical problem. Virtually every story in the novel, including the frame narrative itself, establishes an equation between national virtue and the preservation of national liberty. Despite the novel's sustained critique of the corruption of the English upper classes, the novel's final message, on the eve of the French Revolution, is not a call for revolution but a suggestion that England's national character can be saved, and its liberty preserved, if the children of the upper classes undergo a Rousseauean practical education supplemented by the guided reading of improving stories&emdash;in particular, perhaps, the reading of Sandford and Merton itself. Despite struggling with, and dramatising, its intrinsically problematic nature, Day ultimately implies that children's literature, alongside natural education, has a key role to play in the restoration of the national character to its native virtue.
University of Strathclyde
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