Review: Children’s Fiction 1765-1808, ed. Anne Markey

Contributed by Pádraic Whyte

This title from the Early Irish Fiction series presents us with a selection of children’s stories published between 1765 and 1808. With an excellent introduction by editor Anne Markey, the book includes three tales: John Carey’s Learning Better than House and Land; Lady Mount Cashell’s Stories of Old Daniel; or, Tales of Wonder and Delight and various versions of Henry Brooke’s fable of the three little fishes from The Fool of Quality; or, The History of Henry, Earl of Moreland. This is an extremely timely and important publication as it makes a valuable contribution to studies in Irish children’s literature and, in turn, to studies in eighteenth century Irish literature more generally.

The selected writings from these three authors offer an insight into the varying ways in which much literature of the period was engaged in the struggle for young people’s minds, particularly in terms of the construction of narrative voice for the child reader. John Carey’s tale follows the lives and differing experiences of two young boys, Dick and Harry (yes, there’s also a father called Thomas) and demonstrates in no uncertain terms that diligence, hard work, and goodness will be rewarded. However, not trusting that the child reader will fully understand the moral, Carey places a note at the end, just to reiterate the point.In fact, in all three texts there is an emphasis on reading the tale as a moral lesson and encouraging the child reader to apply it to his/her own life. This is certainly to the fore of Lady Mount Cashell’s text which employs two narrators. Although the text is made up of the stories of Old Daniel who narrates the tales of his younger years, this is framed by a narrator who explains that, as a young boy, he listened to the tales of Old Daniel with other children in the village. Daniel tells a range of stories, each highlighting a particular lesson for the reader. For example, ‘The Church-Yard’ explains away apparently foolish beliefs in ghosts, while ‘The Robber’s Cave’ implies that keeping your word and never telling a lie are of the utmost importance no matter what the circumstances. As with Carey’s text, Lady Mount Cashell’s writing continually suggests that hard work and education are vital if young people are to succeed in life and she too is insistent that the reader will receive this message loud and clear. The double narration allows for a distillation of the content of the tale for the implied child reader. The narrator notes the discussions that he and his friends have each time Daniel tells a story and how they relate the moral lesson to their own lives, thus encouraging the implied child reader to do the same.

Similarly, in the first version of Henry Brooke’s fable of the three little fishes, the character Harry thinks about the fable and what it might mean, encouraging the reader to parallel such a process. On reflection, Harry questions God’s actions in the fable, adding a complexity to the story that is absent from subsequent versions which simply indicate that there is a divine order and to try to move beyond one’s station in life is against God’s wishes. Such a lesson is interesting when read within the context of representations of class in children’s fiction, and seems to be in stark contrast to Carey’s text where a move from  lower class to middle class is depicted as a reward from God.

This collection of children’s stories is an extremely well-edited and brilliantly annotated publication that serves as a rich resource for scholars of children’s literature and eighteenth century literature. Markey’s detailed introduction provides an overview of the texts and their history, placing them within a context of other writing of the period. Indeed, she expertly manages to weave together personal and public histories of the authors and situates them within the context of some of the more well-known authors of the period. The introduction and the texts themselves raise a number of issues for debate from the notion of the complicated binary of child-adult relations involved in the writing of children’s literature to the complexities of narrative voice in such fiction. While much has been written about contemporary Irish children’s literature and – to a lesser extent – nineteenth century children’s fiction, with a few exceptions, the long eighteenth century has remained largely unexplored. Markey’s work is hugely important both in redressing this imbalance and in making such children’s stories accessible for scholarly research.

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