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Tom Furniss (University of Strathclyde), Reading Children/Children Reading: The Problematic Nature of Eighteenth-Century Children's Literature in Locke, Rousseau and Day (1798)

This essay locates Thomas Day's The History of Sandford and Merton: A Work Intended for the Use of Children (1787–1789) within eighteenth-century debates about childhood and children's literature. It begins by arguing that John Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), both established the principles for a revolution in children's literature and brought into question the very possibility of such a literature. For Locke, the best education&emdash;like ideas in general&emdash;comes from direct experience of the world rather than from reading. His account of the problematic relationship between words and ideas, and his distrust of literary uses of language, lead him to argue that there is only a handful of books suitable for children and that a child reader should be supervised by an adult, who ought to "talk to him often about the Stories he has read, and hear him tell them". The paradox and problem of children's literature is made still more complex and problematic by Rousseau's theory of "natural education" and the way he articulates it in Emile (tr. 1762), an educational treatise cum novel that would keep children from all books except Robinson Crusoe. The internal contradictions of Emile's account of "natural education" are brought out through using Jacques Derrida's analysis of the way the supplementary relationship between culture and nature structures Rousseau's writing in general. Yet, as with Locke, despite these internal contradictions, or perhaps because of them, one of the results of Rousseau's revolutionary intervention in the understanding of childhood and education was to stimulate a new phase in children's literature.
The second half of the essay is devoted to a close analysis of the way Day's History of Sandford and Merton dramatises and seeks to overcome Rousseau's (and Locke's) problematisation of children's literature. On the one hand, the novel presents itself as a straightforward narration of the recovery of Tommy Merton's character from the deleterious effects of privileged luxury through the natural education provided by his tutor, Mr Barlow. In doing so, the novel provides a vicarious natural education for its child readers and downplays its own status as a fictional text. On the other hand, the novel foregrounds and thematises the problem of children's reading by making learning to read a central part of Tommy's re-education and suggesting that the supervised process of reading, responding to, discussing and analysing stories can serve to supplement his natural education. Yet 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. The child reader is never allowed to become absorbed in these stories since they are frequently interrupted by Tommy's interventions, which are, indeed, their purpose since they allow his tutor and father to read (and hence modify) his inner character through the way he reads (interprets, responds to, asks questions about) the stories he hears. The novel's denouement seeks to imply that natural education and supervised reading have been successfully harnessed to restore Tommy's original character. Despite struggling with its intrinsically problematic nature, Day ultimately implies that children's literature, alongside natural education, has a key role to play in rejuvenating the children of the upper classes and, hence, of restoring the national character to its native virtue.

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