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Design of “Princess Hebe” 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.

“Princess Hebe” card

 

 

British essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) first coined the term “Columbia” to represent the symbolic female personification of the American colony in a 1738 issue of Gentlemen’s Magazine. Johnson defined active as “that which acts, opposed to passive, or that which suffers (Johnson 1785: 1: ACT),” and he defined passive as, “receiving impression from some external agent (Johnson 1785: 2: PAS).”

In traditional fairy tales the male represented the active side of human nature, while the female represented human nature’s passive more receptive side (Meyer 1988: 73). American publishers during the early Republic were especially sensitive to the semantics of active and passive in promoting a strong new America, and American publications promoted feminine virtue as a tool for building nationalism. However, they remained in accord with earlier British essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele who warned of the deplorable effects of fashionable education on young women: “From this general folly of parents we owe our present numerous race of coquettes (Lasch 1997: 68 and Tise 1998: 362).” They suggested that raising daughters to be “artful” made them fair game for seducers, when parents should rear daughters to make them morally attractive as marriage partners for upwardly mobile young men.

Pouch with stitching by Constance Eliassen

Pouch with stitching by Constance Eliassen

While Jane Austen was in sync with the contemporary Anglo-American sensibility that young women should not have any exaggerated sense of self-worth, the dependency of her heroines upon reputation was too akin to the sense of dependency experienced by men in colonial America. The memory of economic and cultural dependency on the mother country lingered undermining national confidence. American women craved British literature during the 1790s because it did not mirror tumultuous conditions of contemporary life. American publishers in literary hubs including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Georgetown, and New Haven, drew upon the British female writers to attract new female readers. However, American publishers were slow to cultivate a sophisticated readership.

In England, as well as in the Colonies, an idle “novel reading” woman was seen not only as a burden to her family but also as a risk for becoming immoral. Reading was not a leisure activity for women in the new America. Within communities where there was very little individual privacy, one frivolous woman in a household could create scandal for the family patriarch resulting in hardship to the entire family since patronage more than inheritance influenced credit. Congregational clergyman Reverend Dr. Enos Hitchcock (1745-1803), in his epistolary novel Memoirs of the Bloomgrove Family, composed a series of letters to Martha Washington explaining how European educational systems were not applicable in the United States: “it is now time to become independent in our maxims, principles of education, dress, and manners, and we are in our laws and government (Hitchcock 1790: 15-7).”

 

Bibliography

Hitchcock, Enos. Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family: In a series of letters to a respectable citizen of Philadelphia. Containing sentiments on a mode of domestic education, suited to the present state of society, government, and manners, in the United States of America, and on the dignity and importance of the female character interspersed with a variety of interesting anecdotes. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1790.

Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. London: J. F. and C. Rivington, l. Davis, T. Payne and Son, T. Longman, B. Law [and 21 others in London], 1785.

Lasch, Christopher, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Women and the common life: love, marriage, and feminism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Meyer, Rudolf. The Wisdom of Fairy Tales. Edinburgh: Floris, 1988.

Tise, Larry E. The American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800. Mechanicsburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 1988.