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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

§ 4. Hell-fire tales

These educational and semi-educational books have been mentioned because, in early periods, they possessed the importance conferred by isolation. The effect of that isolation is seen when, in more authentic beginnings of children’s literature, “good Godly books” first emerge. The new feature is a natural by-product of the national life. The end of religious persecution in its more virulent forms, the Elizabethan diffusion of knowledge and enthusiasm, the Jacobean growth of style, the puritan fierce flame of morality, the vast increase in the activity of the press—all helped to make the child-mind, not, perhaps, a centre of intensive cultivation, but, at least, not a fallow field. But, since all previous efforts (except the decayed and, so to speak, illegally acquired romances, which will be dealt with when chapbooks are considered) had been, more or less, more rather than less, didactic, the new product was, also, didactic. Its novelty lay in the fact that it was not a text-book. It was purely moral, not forensic nor technical. It was a grim affair, with few literary merits. Hell-fire was its chief theme; anything might turn out to be a faggot for the conflagration of wicked little souls. More than a century later, Mrs. Sherwood was influenced by the same obsession. The kingdom of heaven might be of children; but children were always dreadfully in jeopardy of another fate.

The best vision of these grisly performances is to be seen in one of them. Thomas White, minister of the gospel, in A Little Book for Little Children (1720)—a volume of brief moral addresses—recommends his audience to read

  • no Ballads or foolish Books, but the Bible, and the Plain-mans path way to Heaven, a very plain holy book for you; get the Practice of Piety; Mr. Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted; Allen’s Allarum to the Unconverted; read the Histories of the Martyrs that dyed for Christ; and in the Book of Martyrs. … Read also often Treatises of Death, and Hell, and Judgement, and of the Love and Passion of Christ.
  • Some perfectly horrible stories of martyrdom ensue. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as it is colloquially called, was and long continued to be, perhaps still is in some strata of society, a great incentive to piety and gateway to religious adventure; and it must be admitted that many children like such horrors, and do not suffer any harm from them. Still, White’s love of tortured saints (young ones, for choice) and his readiness to describe their torments in detail pass the limits of innocuous ferocity.

    The religious works catalogued by White as suited to the young were adult or semi-adult in purpose. More definitely juvenile was the anonymous Young Man’s Calling … a Serious and Compassionate Address to all Young Persons to remember their Creator in the days of their Youth (1685). The author of a great part of it was, probably, Samuel Crossman, whose initials are at the end of the preface. “Richard Burton” (i.e., Nathaniel Crouch) wrote the residue. An eighth edition appeared in 1725, so the book was clearly in demand. Crossman outdoes White in his examples of martyrdom; his homilies, also, are longer, but not at all more valuable or enduring. Like White, he was vigorously protestant. Some Divine Poems—passably good hymns—were included in the final pages. Among the advertisements at the end is one of Winter Evening Entertainments. This, perhaps—one work alone excepted—is the nearest approach, before the eighteenth century, to a child’s book in the modern sense.

  • Here’s Milk for Children, Wisdom for Young Men,
  • To teach them that they turn not Babes again,
  • says a prefatory poem. The “wisdom” was, presumably, the ten coarse stories of the jest-book type (“ten pleasant and delightful relations”) which form the first part; the “milk,” no doubt, the fifty riddles of the second part, each of which is adorned with an explanation, an observation and a moral, to say nothing of duplicated woodcuts. A somewhat similar work was The Father’s Blessing Penn’d for the Instruction of his Children (by W. J., M.A.), the date of which may be roughly conjectured from one of the “riddles in rhyme” which (in addition to thirteen “lessons”) it contains:
  • Q.What rare Outlandish Fruit was that of late
  • Which Heaven sent us to restore our State?
  • A.Our Statesmen had the Scurvy deeply, sure
  • The Princely Orange was a sovereign cure.