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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XVI. Children’s Books

§ 13. Sarah Trimmer

The established church takes an important, though, from a literary standpoint, not the foremost, place. Its protagonist in the nursery was the redoubtable Sarah Trimmer, to whom Calverley applied the only possible adjective—“good Mrs. Trimmer.” Mrs. Trimmer wrote only one really notable child’s book, apart from tracts and educational works; but that book, first published in 1786, is still being printed, published and read. Probably, it would not be recognised by its original title: Fabulous Histories: Designed for the Instruction of Children, respecting their Treatment of Animals. Here are to be met those excellent little robins—The History of the Robins was the later title—Pecksy, Flapsy, Robin and Dick; here, too, the learned pig is gravely discussed. Even though the story is unflinchingly didactic, it has everywhere naturalness and charm. Its earnestness is so simple, and the author’s own interest in the narrative so clear, that age has not destroyed its individuality. It contains, incidentally, a footnote which lights up, as by a flash, the whole conception of moral tales. A mocking-bird is introduced into an English scene, and the author, always careful of truth, warns the reader that “the mock-bird is properly a native of America, but is introduced here for the sake of the moral.” Volumes could not say more.

The Robins is Mrs. Trimmer’s main claim upon the memory of children; but, in writing about children, rather than directly for them, she wielded, at the time, even more power. As a staunch churchwoman, she was desperately afraid of Jacobinical tendencies; she believed a vast French conspiracy existed to destroy Christianity in England, and she kept a very wary eye upon both books and education. Her zeal went into details too minute for mention here. Its most relevant excursion was a very surprising adventure into fairyland. In The Guardian of Education (a polemical magazine she conducted from 1802 to 1804), she mentioned children’s books current half a century before, among them some of Perrault’s tales. A correspondent at once complained and asked for greater severity of judgment because Cinderella was

  • perhaps one of the most exceptionable books that was ever written for children … It paints the worst passions that can enter into the human heart, and of which little children should, if possible, be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law (sic) and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc.
  • Mrs. Trimmer, who, by her own confession, had been brought up on Perrault, agreed that this lady was right. She was supported, a little later, by a tremendous manifesto of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, expressly denouncing such stories. It is difficult, indeed, to find any toleration of fairyland in these stern moralists.