Lessons for Children is a series of four age-adapted reading primers written by the prominent 18th-century British poet and essayist Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Published in 1778 and 1779, the books initiated a revolution in children's literature in the Anglo-American world. For the first time, the needs of the child reader were seriously considered: the typographically simple texts progress in difficulty as the child learns. In perhaps the first demonstration of experiential pedagogy in Anglo-American children's literature, Barbauld's books use a conversational style, which depicts a mother and her son discussing the natural world. Based on the educational theories of John Locke, Barbauld's books emphasize learning through the senses.
One of the primary morals of Barbauld's lessons is that individuals are part of a community; in this she was part of a tradition of female writing that emphasized the interconnectedness of society. Charles, the hero of the texts, explores his relationship to nature, to animals, to people, and finally to God.
Lessons had a significant effect on the development of children's literature in Britain and the United States. Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Trimmer, Jane Taylor, and Ellenor Fenn, to name a few of the most illustrious, were inspired to become children's authors because of Lessons and their works dominated children's literature for several generations. Lessons itself was reprinted for over a century. However, because of the disrepute that educational writings fell into, largely due to the low esteem awarded Barbauld, Trimmer, and others by contemporary male Romantic writers, Barbauld's Lessons has rarely been studied by scholars. In fact, it has only been analyzed in depth since the 1990s.
Lessons depicts a mother teaching her son. Presumably, many of the events were inspired by Barbauld's experiences of teaching her own adopted son, her nephew Charles, as the events correlate with his age and growth. Although there are no surviving first edition copies of the works, children's literature scholar Mitzi Myers has reconstructed the probable publication dates from Barbauld's letters and the books' earliest reviews as follows: Lessons for Children of two to three (1778); Lessons for Children of three, part I (1778); Lessons for Children of three, part II (1778); and Lessons for Children of three to four (1779). After its initial publication, the series was often published as a single volume.
Barbauld demanded that her books be printed in large type with wide margins, so that children could easily read them; she was more than likely the "originator" of this practice, according to Barbauld scholar William McCarthy, and "almost certainly [its] popularizer". In her history of children's literature in The Guardian of Education (1802–1806), Sarah Trimmer noted these innovations, as well as the use of good-quality paper and large spaces between words. While making reading easier, these production changes also made the books too expensive for the children of the poor, therefore Barbauld's books helped to create a distinct aesthetic for the middle-class children's book.
Barbauld's texts were designed for the developing reader, beginning with words of one syllable and progressing to multi-syllabic words. The first part of Lessons includes simple statements such as: "Ink is black, and papa's shoes are black. Paper is white, and Charles's frock is white." The second part increases in difficulty: "February is very cold too, but the days are longer, and there is a yellow crocus coming up, and the mezereon tree is in blossom, and there are some white snow-drops peeking up their little heads."
Barbauld also "departs from previous reading primers by introducing elements of story, or narrative, piecemeal before introducing her first story": the narrator explains the idea of "sequentiality" to Charles, and implicitly to the reader, before ever telling him a story. For example, the days of the week are explained before Charles's trip to France.
Barbauld's Lessons emphasizes the value of all kinds of language and literacy; not only do readers learn how to read but they also acquire the ability to understand metaphors and analogies. The fourth volume in particular fosters poetic thinking and as McCarthy points out, its passages on the moon mimic Barbauld's poem "A Summer Evening's Meditation":
|Lessons for Children||"A Summer Evening's Meditation"|
|The Moon says My name is Moon; I shine to give you light in the night when the sun is set.
I am very beautiful and white like silver.
You may look at me always, for I am not so bright as to dazzle your eyes,
and I never scorch you. I am mild and gentle.
I let even the little glow-worms shine, which are quite dark by day.
The stars shine all round me, but I am larger and brighter than the stars,
and I look like a large pearl amongst a great many small sparkling diamonds.
When you are asleep I shine through your curtains with my gentle beams,
and I say Sleep on, poor little tired boy, I will not disturb you.
A tongue in every star that talks with man,
Barbauld also developed a particular style that would dominate British and American children's literature for a generation: an "informal dialogue between parent and child", a conversational style that emphasized linguistic communication. Lessons starts out monopolized by the mother's voice but slowly, over the course of the volumes, Charles's voice is increasingly heard as he gains confidence in his own ability to read and speak. This style was an implicit critique of late 18th-century pedagogy, which typically employed rote learning and memorization.
Barbauld's Lessons also illustrates mother and child engaging in quotidian activities and taking nature walks. Through these activities, the mother teaches Charles about the world around him and he explores it. This, too, was a challenge to the pedagogical orthodoxy of the day, which did not encourage experiential learning. The mother shows Charles the seasons, the times of the day, and different minerals by bringing him to them rather than simply describing them and having him recite those descriptions. Charles learns the principles of "botany, zoology, numbers, change of state in chemistry ... the money system, the calendar, geography, meteorology, agriculture, political economy, geology, [and] astronomy". He also inquires about all of them, making the learning process dynamic.
Barbauld's pedagogy was fundamentally based on John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), the most influential pedagogical treatise in 18th-century Britain. Building on Locke's theory of the association of ideas, which he had outlined in Some Thoughts, philosopher David Hartley had developed an associationist psychology that greatly influenced writers such as Barbauld (who had read Joseph Priestley's redaction of it). For the first time, educational theorists and practitioners were thinking in terms of developmental psychology. As a result, Barbauld and the women writers she influenced produced the first graded texts and the first body of literature designed for an age-specific readership.
Lessons not only teaches literacy, "it also initiates the child [reader] into the elements of society's symbol-systems and conceptual structures, inculcates an ethics, and encourages him to develop a certain kind of sensibility". One of the series' overall aims is to demonstrate that Charles is superior to the animals he encounters—because he can speak and reason, he is better than they are. Lessons for Children, of Three Years Old, part 2 begins:
Do you know why you are better than Puss? Puss can play as well as you; and Puss can drink milk, and lie upon the carpet; and she can run as fast as you, and faster too, a great deal; and she can climb trees better; and she can catch mice, which you cannot do. But can Puss talk? No. Can Puss read? No. Then that is the reason why you are better than Puss—because you can talk and read.
Andrew O'Malley writes in his survey of 18th-century children's literature, "from helping poor animals [Charles] eventually makes a seamless transition to performing small acts of charity for the poor children he encounters". Charles learns to care for his fellow human beings through his exposure to animals. Barbauld's Lessons is not, therefore, Romantic in the traditional sense; it does not emphasize the solitary self or the individual. As McCarthy puts it, "every human being needs other human beings in order to live. Humans are communal entities".
Lessons was probably meant to be paired with Barbauld's Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), which were both written for Charles. As F. J. Harvey Darton, an early scholar of children's literature, explains, they "have the same ideal, in one aspect held by Rousseau, in another wholly rejected by him: the belief that a child should steadily contemplate Nature, and the conviction that by so doing he will be led to contemplate the traditional God". However, some modern scholars have pointed to the lack of overt religious references in Lessons, particularly in contrast to Hymns, to make the claim that it is secular.
One important theme in Lessons is restriction of the child, a theme which has been interpreted both positively and negatively by critics. In what Mary Jackson has called the "new child" of the 18th century, she describes "a fondly sentimentalized state of childishness rooted in material and emotional dependency on adults" and she argues that the "new good child seldom made important, real decisions without parental approval ... In short, the new good child was a paragon of dutiful submissiveness, refined virtue, and appropriate sensibility." Other scholars, such as Sarah Robbins, have maintained that Barbauld presents images of constraint only in order to offer images of liberation later in the series: education for Barbauld, in this interpretation, is a progression from restraint to liberation, physically represented by Charles' slow movement from his mother's lap in the opening scene of first book, to a stool next to her in the opening of the subsequent volume, to his detachment from her side in the final book.
Lessons for Children and Barbauld's other popular children's book, Hymns in Prose for Children, had an unprecedented impact; not only did they influence the poetry of William Wordsworth and William Blake, particularly Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789–94), they were also used to teach several generations of schoolchildren both in Britain and the United States. Barbauld's texts were used to perpetuate the ideal of Republican motherhood in 19th-century America, particularly the notion of the mother as the educator of the nation. British children's author and critic Charlotte Yonge wrote in 1869 that the books had taught "three-quarters of the gentry of the last three generations" to read. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning could still recite the beginning of Lessons at age thirty-nine.
Writers of all stamps immediately recognized the revolutionary nature of Barbauld's books. After meeting Barbauld, the famous 18th-century novelist Frances Burney described her and her books:
... the authoress of the most useful books, next to Mrs. Trimmer's, that have been yet written for dear little children; though this for the world is probably her very secondary merit, her many pretty poems, and particularly songs, being generally esteemed. But many more have written those as well, and not a few better; for children's books she began the new walk, which has since been so well cultivated, to the great information as well as utility of parents.
Barbauld herself believed that her writing was noble and she encouraged others to follow in her footsteps. As Betsy Rodgers, her biographer, explains: "she gave prestige to the writing of juvenile literature, and by not lowering her standard of writing for children, she inspired others to write on a similar high standard". In fact, because of Barbauld, Sarah Trimmer and Hannah More were galvanized to write for poor children and to organize a large-scale Sunday School movement. Ann and Jane Taylor began writing children's poetry, the most famous of which is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Ellenor Fenn wrote and designed a series of readers and games for middle-class children, including the bestselling Cobwebs to Catch Flies (1784). Richard Lovell Edgeworth began one of the first systematic studies of childhood development which would culminate not only in an educational treatise co-authored with Maria Edgeworth entitled Practical Education (1798), but also in a large body of children's stories by Maria, beginning with The Parent's Assistant (1798). Thomas Day originally began his important The History of Sandford and Merton (1783–89) for Edgeworth's collection, but it grew too long and was published separately.
In the second half of the 1790s, Barbauld and her brother, the physician John Aikin, wrote a second series of books, Evenings at Home, aimed at more advanced readers, ages eight to twelve. While not as influential, these were also popular and remained in print for decades. Lessons was reprinted, translated, pirated, and imitated up until the 20th century; according to Myers, it helped found a female tradition of educational writing.
While Day, for example, has been hailed as an educational innovator, Barbauld has most often been described through the unsympathetic words of her detractors. The politician Charles James Fox and the writer and critic Samuel Johnson ridiculed Barbauld's children's books and believed that she was wasting her poetic talents. In his Life of Johnson (1791), James Boswell recorded Johnson's thoughts:
Endeavouring to make children prematurely wise is useless labour ... Too much is expected from precocity, and too little performed. [Barbauld] was an instance of early cultivation, but in what did it terminate? In marrying a little Presbyterian parson, who keeps an infant boarding-school, so that all her employment now is, 'To suckle fools, and chronicle small beer.' She tells the children 'This is a cat, and that is a dog, with four legs and a tail; see there! you are much better than a cat or a dog, for you can speak.'
Barbauld had published a successful book of poetry in 1773 which Johnson greatly admired; he viewed her switch to children's literature as a descent. The most damning and lasting criticism, however, came from the Romantic essayist Charles Lamb in a letter to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Mrs. Barbauld['s] stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery ... Mrs. B's and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant & vapid as Mrs. B's books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, & his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers, when he has learnt, that a Horse is an animal, & billy is better than a Horse, & such like: instead of that beautiful Interest which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to Poetry no less in the little walks of Children than with Men.―: Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with Tales and old wives fables in childhood, you had been crammed with Geography & Natural History? Damn them. I mean the cursed Barbauld Crew, those Blights & Blasts of all that is Human in man & child. [emphasis Lamb's]
This quote was used by writers and scholars to condemn Barbauld and other educational writers for a century. As Myers argues:
[Lamb] expresses in embryonic form ways of thinking about children, teaching, and literature that have long since been institutionalized in historical account and classroom practice: the privileging of an imaginative canon and its separation from all the cultural knowledge that had previously been thought of as literature; the binary opposition of scientific, empiricist ways of knowing and intuitive, imaginative insights; even the two-tiered structure of most modern English departments, with male-dominated imaginative literature on the upper-deck and practical reading and writing instruction, taught most often by women and the untenured, relegated to the lower levels.
It is only in the 1990s and 2000s that Barbauld and other female educational writers are beginning to be acknowledged in the history of children's literature and, indeed, in the history of literature itself. As Myers points out, "the writing woman as teacher has not captured the imagination of feminist scholars", and Barbauld's children's works are usually consigned to "the backwaters of children's literature surveys, usually deplored for their pernicious effect on the emergent cultural construction of Romantic childhood, or in the margins of commentary on male high Romanticism, a minor inspiration for Blake or Wordsworth perhaps". The male Romantics did not explore didactic genres that illustrated educational progress; rather, as Myers explains, their works embodied a "nostalgia for lost youth and [a] pervasive valorization of instinctive juvenile wisdom" not shared by many female writers at this time.
Serious scholarship is just beginning to investigate the complexities of Barbauld's Lessons; McCarthy, for example, has noted the resonances between Lessons and T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland that have yet to be explored:
|Lessons for Children||The Wasteland|
|Come, let us go home, it is evening. See ... how tall my shadow is.
It is like a great black giant stalking after me ...
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),