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



Diolog[ue]s and Conversations

September 18, 2014

Emma (1814) was the only work Jane Austen (1775-1817) to be published in the United States during her lifetime. Austen’s romantic fiction remains more popular in the United States than the work of gritty bestselling American female authors of the same era including Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840). Austen merged several female literary genres including the fable, the dialogue, and epistolary fiction to create conversations that women could emulate. The semantics of conversation in the context of Austen’s work refers to “behavior; manner of acting in common life (Johnson 1785, 2: CON).” American publishers did not embrace Austen’s work until the 1830s, and the choice of Emma as her introduction to American readers creates a curious subtext of changing women’s roles that came with the emerging American nationalism between 1790 and 1820. Sensibilities of disenchantment run throughout Austen’s plots creating adult exemplum without fairies. The enduring American fascination with Austen’s character, as well as the authoress herself, has lingered with the excitement of a meeting between two cousins long-separated by a family dispute; it reveals an inclination of American readers to read about domestic conflicts in the private sphere abroad rather than public conflicts mirrored in the familial sphere at home in the United States.

Women were generally self-taught and garnered intellectual access to male-dominated fields through the genre of the dialogue or conversation. The dialogue provided a non-threatening literary mechanism so women could read about science without drawing attention. Austen would have been familiar with Sarah Fielding (1710-1768), the younger sister of novelist Henry Fielding, who wrote the first full-length novel for adolescent girls The Governess, or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which was noted for its innovative adaptation of John Locke’s educational theories. The Governess utilized literary devices innovated by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) but it lacked plot complexities found in novels written for adults. Its frame story centered on the daily activities in a boarding school for adolescent girls – it presented a familiar conversation going on between students and their teacher and among each other.

British editions of The Governess could be found in affluent colonial households and the first American edition was published in Philadelphia in 1791. Its lessons would have been familiar to American girls, but culturally and economically a great divide existed. The vast majority of American girls would have little need to attend to a “female academy” unless their families were affluent enough to pay for finishing schools, they would have been modestly educated at home by mothers using primers that might use fables to inculcate very distinct behavior. Fables and fairy tales in Fielding’s story were repeated as mnemonic devises built upon themes of how passion, lying, and cunning adversely affected a girl’s chances for happiness (Fielding 1968: 280). Fielding employed neither “high-sounding Language, nor the supernatural Contrivances” to tell stories, suggesting to readers that great care be taken not to be “carried away, by these high-flown Things, from that Simplicity of Taste and Manners which is my chief Study to inculcate (Fielding 1968: 166).”

Austen’s characters, like Fielding’s, were seldom elegant, but she resolved plotlines with the moral precision characteristic of didactic fairy tales. Austen’s greatness came from embedding themes utilized by Sarah and Henry Fielding in characters that were placed in conversations familiar to readers in the growing middle-class in an industrializing British society. At a time when every girl had little chance for social advancement beyond her choice in marriage partner, Austen mastered a realistic fairy tale where fantasy was spun into reality transposing ordinary into extraordinary. Austen promoted the notion that a girl’s indigenous goodness in any circumstance would bring goodness into her life, and her success in asserting this logic was that she wrote about conversations that were very familiar to her. Austen would later advise her niece Anna Austen Lefroy, an aspiring novelist; against including desultory conversations in her stories, “You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath… there you will be quite at home (Austen 2003: 101).”


Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s letters. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, 2003.

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess, or, Little Female Academy. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

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.