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Children's Literature Volume 29Annual of The Modern Language Association Division on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association
Yale University PressCopyright © 2001 Hollins University
All right reserved.
Guarding the British Bible from Rousseau: Sarah Trimmer, William Godwin, and the Pedagogical Periodical
Sarah Kirby Trimmer produced biblical and historical prints, educational tracts, children's books, textbooks, religious commentaries, numerous best-selling editions of the Bible, a spiritual autobiography, and two magazines. She founded Sunday schools and an industrial school. Her still-popular fable of Robin Redbreast defined the genre of the children's animal allegory and became the text with which all other animal fables contended. She knew Johnson, Hogarth, and Gainsborough and was among the privileged few to be mocked by Byron and damned by Charles Lamb. Always she wrote with an extraordinary self-confidence and even, at times, with what appears to be overconfidence. For example, included in the two-volume memoirs of her life is the following letter to "Mrs. S-":
During my early years I relied upon the judgment, and took up the opinions of a parent, who had made Polemic Divinity his particular study, and who cautioned me againstfollowing his example in that particular, as he said it had at times greatly disturbed and perplexed his mind, though it ended at last in a firm belief of the doctrines of the Established Church.... Convinced that he had chosen the right way, [I] resolved to obey his injunctions, by avoiding those publications which he warned me against; and when I came to years of maturity, instead of giving up my mind to researches into the various opinions of human beings, [I] set myself seriously to examine the principles in which I had been educated, by the Word of God. This I have repeatedly done with the most perfect satisfaction; and having no doubts, why should I seek to raise them? I have, it is true, read many books of divinity; but very few, that I can recollect, of a controversial nature. If I found it necessary to read one side of the argument, I should think it incumbent upon me to read the other; but surely what is requisite in merely worldly affairs, ought not to be extended to a subject in which we have an infallible guide-the word of God; on that word then, I choose to build my faith, in preference to any human authority whatever. (Some Account 1.91-92)
This letter is indeed uncomfortable reading. Perhaps it, and countless other similar examples from Trimmer's writings, explains why scholars of British romanticism as well as feminists working to recuperate women writers have, in large measure, avoided Trimmer. It is difficult to praise Trimmer's scholarship and the theological rigor of her writings when she publicly professes never to have questioned her own beliefs. For feminists who dedicate limited time, energy, and other resources to the ongoing project of recovering women authors, there are more appealing women writers to recuperate. Indeed, in terms of our project of creating women's literary history, Trimmer can be read as a useful figure who allows us to examine the limits of our recovery efforts. As Margaret Ezell reminds us, Anglo-American feminism celebrates the authors who represent contemporary feminist values and overlooks others who are difficult to fit into our paradigms for reading women's texts.
At the same time, Trimmer has fared little better in the historiography of children's literature: as Mitzi Myers and William McCarthy have compellingly documented, the story of how children's literature developed has been a "story almost Manichaean in its need to dichotomize, and then to extol or damn its dichotomized terms" (McCarthy 198). Authors who "instruct" children are aligned with an oppressive hegemony in contrast to an ongoing celebration of texts considered imaginative, pleasurable, delightful, or playful. In other words, fairy tales and nonsense rhymes are superior to textbooks no matter how innovative the textbook and how derivative the tale. Myers argues that this genre dichotomizing is also explicitly gendered. She traces the ongoing excoriation of pedagogical writings (and women pedagogues) to a reinscription of the romantic myth of the child of nature into our constructions of children's literature. The child, "trailing clouds of glory," comes from God into nature but is gradually corrupted by a feminized and feminizing culture. Subsequently, when the history of romanticism or of children's literature is constructed, authors such as Trimmer (I could add Hannah More, Anna Barbauld, and Maria Edgeworth) who openly educate children into this feminizing culture are criticized, demonized, belittled, or ignored.
My project here, however, is not to explore why Trimmer has been neglected within women's literary histories or within histories of children's literature. Rather, my aim is to examine what happens to our constructions of British romanticism when we consider Trimmer as a participant in its formal practices, thematic content, and ideological positions. Rather than challenge the limitations of our received understandings of what constitutes romanticism-what we might call the romantic ideology-I find it a useful aesthetic category for which we have a history of literary criticism and by which we can read texts such as Trimmer's as engaged in a shared body of concerns: an engagement with political, social, and poetic revolutions; a questioning into the nature of genius and the creative imagination; an increased attention to the specific and local as opposed to the general; the use of nature imagery; a renewed focus on the growth of the poet's own mind; an intense subjectivity; and a masculine colonization of feminine genres, sensibilities, and subject matter. In order to place Trimmer within British romanticism, I scrutinize a group of texts from the conservative Trimmer and the radical Godwin (writing under the pseudonym of William Scolfield), untangling the complicated inter-textuality of Trimmer's and Godwin's debates about the nature of the imagination and its place within pedagogy and the growth of a child into an adult.
By the confluence of political, historical, and pedagogical events at the turn of the century, a woman such as Trimmer was able to gain a greater visibility in the realm of public letters than was perhaps typical before or after. Oxford and Cambridge Universities had reacted to the French Revolution by shutting down dialogue on all controversial subjects-even replacing oral exams with written exams. In the absence of academic dialogue, intellectuals developed and disseminated ideas through journals, political clubs, and professional organizations. Coleridge, for example, created The Friend in 1800. Trimmer created The Guardian of Education in 1802. In the first volume of this work, Trimmer lambastes a children's text that contemporary scholars have only recently attributed to William Godwin.
For two authors who write from opposing ends of the political spectrum, the radical Godwin and the conservative Trimmer share a surprisingly extensive intertextual history. Godwin's two-volume Fables, Ancient and Modern. Adapted for the Use of Children (1805, under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin, Esq.) was modeled after Trimmer's popular Ladder to Learning. A Collection of Fables Consisting of Words of One, Two, and Three Syllables, with Original Morals and would have been in direct competition with this text and her popular Fabulous Histories (1786). Certainly Godwin's reputation as a radical ensured that he would run afoul of influential critical organs such as Trimmer's Guardian of Education. Forced to write under a variety of pseudonyms and struggling financially, Godwin enhanced the marketability of his own texts through a gendered form of criticism that attacked the feminine status of his competitors, treating their works as obviously of lesser value. In particular, the preface to his 1802 Bible Stories, written under the pseudonym William Scolfield, is a polemic against other moral improvers who are overwhelmingly female or, if male, feminized.
Godwin's preface to Bible Stories is a useful place for my analysis to begin, for it contains much that we, as contemporary critics, have come to associate with British romanticism: an intermixing of Rousseau's Emile, associationist philosophy, and Adam Smith's version of the sympathetic imagination:
these modern improvers have left out of their system that most essential branch of human nature the imagination.... Every thing is studied and attended to, except those things which open the heart, which insensibly initiate the learner in the relations and generous offices of society, and enable him to put himself in imagination into the place of his neighbour, to feel his feelings and to wish his wishes. Imagination is the ground-plot upon which the edifice of a sound morality must be erected. Without imagination we may have a certain cold and arid circle of principles, but we cannot have sentiments: ... we can neither ourselves love, nor be fitted to excite the love of others. Imagination is the characteristic of man. (ii-iii)
Godwin/Scolfield presents the familiar ideal of the sympathetic imagination and connects this imagination to charitable emotion. As in Rousseau's Emile, Godwin emphasizes age-appropriate learning and is concerned that children are too frequently given Bibles that contain moralizing commentary beyond their comprehension level. Godwin's Bible Stories does not provide commentary and prints only narratives that had "most forcibly seized upon his youthful imagination ... before he was but seven years of age" (vii). Godwin's introduction also builds on associationist philosophy-he suggests that his text presents the Bible as a "posy of sweet-smelling flowers, without one shrub of evil scent," and thus the child will have "none but pleasing recollections associated with the sacred volume" (v). Such early recollections, Godwin insists, are the foundation of a "sincere and manly sentiment of religion" (vi). For the same associationist reasons, Bible Stories follows the original King James translation (with one exception that I discuss later). Godwin contends that to alter the original phrasings for the child's understanding will eventually cause pain to the child-as-adult: these alterations will be unpleasantly jarring to the reader's positive associations with the original language and will cause a "painful and injurious sensation" in the mind (vi).
Trimmer's review of Godwin's Bible Stories accurately outlines her crucial objections to his text-that this edition is the product of Rousseau-influenced and Deist-based modern philosophy and leads children away from religion. This twenty-page review of Bible Stories is by far the longest of all of her Guardian reviews in the running feature "Examination of Books for Children"; the typical length of these reviews runs from a third of a page to four pages. Clearly, she uses this review to establish the principles by which children's books should be evaluated, principles she has delineated in her periodical's opening essay: "Introduction: Containing Observations on the Instruction of Children and Youth from the Time of the Reformation; and a Short Account of the Present Work." Found in the first installment of her journal, this lead article is a political-historical discussion in which Trimmer spells out her version of the history of religious education and religious writers.
In her discussion of Christian education, Trimmer carefully defines her moment in history as a moment of crisis in which Christianity is under siege: a "CONSPIRACY against the CHRISTIAN RELIGION (to which we shall have frequent occasion to allude) was first organized by three persons: namely, VOLTAIRE, the chief; FREDERICK the second, King of Prussia, the protector; D'ALEMBERT, the agent; to whom was afterwards added Diderot" (9). These writers, in combination with earlier British writers who had attempted to establish Deism on the ruins of true religion, had developed a "concerted plan to propagate their abominable principles, the French ENCYCLOPEDIA, which mixed their abominable principles with doctrines of truth and caused a general taste for metaphysical studies" (10). Although this abominable philosophy is fed by the "seducing pen of Voltaire," the greatest injury of all is "Rousseau's system given to us by Emilius, an imaginary pupil educated in a new principle from which Christianity [is] banished" (11). Rousseau's Emile, Trimmer contends, works in concert with Diderot's Encyclopedia to weaken religion, propagate modern philosophy, and undermine British morality.
In Bible Stories, Trimmer discovers a clear example of French-inspired modern philosophy and shows her readers how to discover for themselves the Deism that permeates his biblical text. She reprints all of Godwin's preface and, in a smart pedagogical strategy for em- phasizing her key points, italicizes or capitalizes every word that comes from the "language of modern philosophy." Trimmer's typographical aggression and her insistence that Godwin has mutilated the Bible indicate a sophisticated aesthetic maneuvering. She understands what is at stake in Godwin's text: children's first introduction to the foundational text of Christianity and Western society. Her review lists the dangerous gaps in Godwin's good-parts version while simultaneously engaging in a romantic gesture of doing violence to Godwin's words.
What Trimmer excoriates in Godwin's Bible Stories is precisely what Godwin suggests is the positive effect of his book: that, by inspiring young children's passions and imaginations, he would be encouraging them to read, remember, and be inspired by the Bible. By contrast, Trimmer suggests that his good-parts version of the Bible fosters the false sympathy of the imagination that gives rise "to the fictitious virtues philanthropy, mental energy, and sensibility" while destroying habits of "charity, reverence and attachment. Liberty and equality [are] the ultimatum of modern philosophy" (249). In short, Godwin's Bible foments antigovernment sentiment and espouses liberty and equality for all. Because she condemns the sympathetic imagination and sensibility, Trimmer raises questions for contemporary critics who have associated the rise of sensibility with the rise of the domestic novel and women's literary authority. Trimmer argues against sensibility-the creation of sympathetic bonds between humans through human interaction-by revealing its solipsistic nature. Trimmer argues that all forms of morality based on human faculties such as the imagination are wrongly hubristic: to rely on empathy and fellow feeling for morality is ultimately human and not God-centered. One must care for other humans whether or not one is able to sympathize with them. In her opposition to the sympathetic imagination, Trimmer diverges from the paradigm of a female romanticism established by critics such as Anne Mellor. In identifying the markers of a feminine romanticism, Mellor links women writers to the sympathetic imagination, which, she notes, is strikingly similar to Carol Gilligan's ethic of care. Trimmer, however, finds such human-centered concepts of morality dangerously hubristic. In fact, Trimmer's stance ultimately implies that all secular theories of morality including Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments are implicitly flawed. The great humanitarian strength of Trimmer's Christianity is its inflexibility: one must be moral whether one feels like it or not.
Excerpted from Children's Literature Volume 29 Copyright © 2001 by Hollins University . Excerpted by permission.
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