Sarah Fielding & the Literary Fairy Tale

August 31, 2016

woman_with_crown

Design of “princess” by Meredith Eliassen, 2016

Englishwoman Sarah Fielding (1710-68), the younger sister of author Henry Fielding, created an innovative work that included whimsical stories of fairies, giants, and animals that taught lessons about controlling vanity, envy and pride. Her novel, The Governess, or, The Little Female Academy (1749), taught didactic lessons to girls from eight to twelve years of age. The Governess has been called the first novel for children, but it was actually the first novel written for adolescent girls. Fielding’s logic appeared in genres familiar to females — the fable and fairy tale. The Governess became a textbook; its clean logic was perfect for teaching fundamental critical thinking to girls, its innovative feminine rhetoric remains seminal to understanding early fairy tales published in the United States between 1790 and 1820.

In her Dedication, Fielding referred to John Locke’s pedagogical theories when she asserted an inclination toward moral excellence might be gained with the suppression of passion. John Locke (1632-1704), one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, suggested children could be educated to conform with a shift from the physical coercion to more modern psychological maneuvering. Fielding adapted the traditional practice of a tutor (or governor) teaching sons into a suitable literary text designed to teach daughters: “The design of the following Sheets is to endeavour to cultivate and early Inclination to Benevolence, and a Love of Virtue, in the Minds of young Women by trying to shew them, that their True Interest is concerned in cherishing and improving those amiable Dispositions into Habits; and in keeping down all rough and boisterous Passions; and that from this alone they can propose to themselves to arrive at true Happiness, in any of the Stations of Life allotted to the Female Character.”

The Governess was the first novel to depict realistic juvenile characters in recognizable settings. Its frame story centers on daily activities in a boarding school for adolescent girls. The action of the novel begins when Mrs. Teachum’s students resort to violence over apples. The initial conflict creates the justification for imbedding tales that lead to character development. The governess, Mrs. Teachum, employs persuasion rather than force to instruct. Mrs. Teachum encourages the girls to read stories to each other, and then instructs her assistant to point out morals in the stories: “The misses all agreed, that certainly it was of no Use to read, without understanding what they read.” Fielding concluded, “This I have endeavoured to inculcate, by those Methods of Fable and Moral, which have been recommended by the wisest Writers, as the most effectual means of conveying useful Instruction.”

British essayist Joseph Addison asserted that fables flourished during periods “when Learning [was] at its greatest Height.” Readings provoke pupils to confess incidents that build upon themes of how passion, lying, cunning, and envy adversely affect chances for happiness. Fielding led a movement to utilize oral traditions including fables to teach girls good moral conduct. “The Story of Caelia and Chloe,” an exemplary tale, warned of the danger of using deceit and exerting will. Twin sisters, twenty-two years old, meet an intelligent lieutenant colonel named Sempronius. He cannot determine which sister to marry, so he goes to Chloe and explains to her that he loves Caelia and wants to marry her. Chloe dissuades Sempronius by lying about Caelia’s character. Chloe tells him that her sister is prone to horrible fits of rage, and that she would make him a poor wife. Confused by this poor report of Caelia’s character, Sempronius next goes to Caelia with the same message, telling her that he loves her sister and wants to marry her. Caelia, who has a sweet and loving temperament, is disappointed by this confession, because indeed, she loves Sempronius deeply. However, unable to speak badly of her sister, Caelia blesses the union. Sempronius leaves when he notices the difference in behavior between the two sisters. He returns to explain to Caelia how Chloe badmouthed her, but Caelia refuses believe him. Chloe becomes ill when she realizes that Sempronious has caught her in a lie. As Chloe’s lies weigh on her conscience, her “dis-ease” grows. Sempronius leaves with his regiment, and Caelia remains by her sister’s side to nursing her. Chloe grows worse under the weight of her guilt, until she confesses her transgression. Caelia blesses Chloe’s engagement to Sempronius, and peace is restored when the truth because both are equally provided for in the story’s resolution.

The Governess equates happiness with conformity and group cohesion. Mrs. Teachum instructs her assistant to choose fairy tales that illustrate how patience can present opportunities to prevail in adversity: “But neither this high-sounding Language, nor the supernatural Contrivances in this Story do I so thoroughly approve, as to recommend them much to your Reading; except, as I said before, great Care is taken to prevent your being carried away, by these high-flown Things, from that Simplicity of Taste and Manners which is my chief Study to inculcate.”

COMING IN SEPTEMBER… a discussion of media ecology in relation to childhood… stay tuned.

 

 

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