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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

§ 20. Charles and Mary Lamb

Miss Turner alone of the Taylors’ rivals has a facility equal to theirs; her metrical skill is unfailing; her language may be the merest prose, but it goes with an infectious swing. Charles and Mary Lamb, in Poetry for Children (1808), essayed the same kind of performance, not without success; but they hardly succeeded in going beyond prettiness and gentleness. The Taylors and Miss Turner were more resolute moralists and less unfaltering craftsmen.

One other poet may be mentioned here. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) were produced by their creator in so peculiar a way that they had not any part in the real history of children’s books. It required a later generation to rescue them, as, in other ways, Herrick and Traherne were rescued, from an accidental obscurity.

Apart from propagandists and retributory moralists, much good work of a plain kind appeared in various ways. The most eminent of these less pronounced philanthropists were Dr. Aikin and his sister Mrs. Barbauld, whose Evenings at Home is a companionable and homely miscellany. Hymns in Prose is a series of nature-studies in really fine prose; extracts taken out of their context might easily to-day be mistaken for simple passages from Maeterlinck. Easy Lessons are what the title claims. Mrs. Hofland—The Son of a Genius (1816), The Clergyman’s Widow (1812) and Theodore were among her best-known books—was more stagey and pompous, without the clearness of equally determined but less heavy moralists. Maria Hack, another quaker, wrote very successful Fireside Stories (1825), a good little moral tale, Harry Beaufoy (1821) and several pleasant semi-educational works. Agnes Strickland’s early work—The Moss House (1822), for instance—was in the form of instructive fiction. Mrs. Pilkington, who took to writing because of her straitened circumstances, concocted some Biography for Boys (1808) and for Girls (1809), an abridged translation of Marmontel’s Moral Tales and, among other works, the portentously named Marvellous Adventures: or, the Vicissitudes of a Cat (1802).

The most illustrious author who ever wrote for children (and yet Goldsmith and Dickens and Thackeray might dispute the title, though they did not write so much) has been reserved till the end of the moralists. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Mrs. Leicester’s School (1807) was certainly a moral tale; rather a dull one in itself, but interesting because of its author and its style. Equally certainly Prince Dorus (1811) and The King and Queen of Hearts (1805) were not moral tales; nor were they, for that matter, either a commercial success or a literary production in any way worthy of Lamb. They belong to the reaction against morality, and would not attract much attention but for the names of Lamb and Godwin. The Poems have already been mentioned. Tales from Shakespeare (mainly Mary’s)—written for Godwin’s neat little Juvenile Library—have a curious charm: it would be possible to read them in ignorance and be sure that they were the work of a competent writer. On the other hand, for their particular purpose, they have strong defects. The language is very long-winded for children, and the train of thought too often adult; while they frequently give a very incomplete version of the plays.

But though, in the eyes of reviewers and the chroniclers of the serious, the moral tale occupied the larger part of the nursery, the “objectionable” fairy tale and its offshoots still persisted. Indeed, like the fabled camomile, the harder you trod it, the faster it grew. In the chapbooks, it and non-moral rimes—about Jack and Jill and the Babes in the Wood and their peers—had an inglorious popularity. But, in the editions with coloured illustrations which poured from the press between 1800 and about 1830, it endued fine and honourable raiment. The best extant collection of these works contains about 400 volumes, which it is obviously impossible to examine in detail. Ex pede Herculem. They have a strong family likeness, for the excellent reason that they were produced imitatively to suit a fashion. That fashion was set, or, at any rate, rendered dominant, by the best of all these picture books—William Roscoe’s Butterfly’s Ball (1806–7), written for his little son Robert. There is not any moral here; the book is nothing but fancifulness and graceful frivolity. There were hosts of imitations, the best and the best-known being Mrs. Dorset’s Peacock at Home and Lion’s Masquerade. They nearly all appeared in the same year, 1807, which reveals the imitative vigilance of the publishing trade. Of The Butterfly’s Ball and The Peacock at Home, 40,000 copies were sold that year.

Akin in pictorial appeal, but of more pedestrian execution, were many facetious jingles and storybooks, for the most part derivatives of the nursery rime. The Life and History of A Apple Pie, The Dame and her Donkey’s Five (1823), The Gaping Wide-mouthed Waddling Frog (1823; a version of an ancient cumulative rime that appears in The Top Book of All, in 1760) were among the most noteworthy. Dame Wiggins of Lee (1823), of this numerous fellowship, attracted the attention and eulogy of Ruskin. The History of the Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (1821) contains the first instance of the metrical form commonly called the limerick, and usually ascribed to Edward Lear; it is here used, with skill and finish, for some preposterous adventures.