Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 5. “Exemplary” Compilations

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

§ 5. “Exemplary” Compilations

It is accompanied by a woodcut of an orange. This cut and its fellows did duty elsewhere, in another Little Book for Little Children, also by Thomas White (not dated; the frontispiece, however, is a portrait of queen Anne). Here, too, is a mixture of education and amusement—a cut of a hornbook, some spelling lessons, alphabetical rimes and riddles. The volume is notable for the first appearance in print of A was an Archer, and the lines displaying the errors of misplaced punctuation, beginning “I saw a Peacock with a fiery Tail.” Practically contemporary with this was The Child’s Week’s-Work, by William Ronksley (1712). It is the best of all these early attempts to purvey “pleasure with profit duly mixt,” though there is more profit than pleasure in it. Its simplicity of method and absence of dogmatic frenzy are remarkable. In four successive series of lessons, each calculated to occupy a week, it runs up to words of four syllables. A monosyllabic verse may be quoted:

  • Hear you a Lark?
  • Tell me what Clerk
  • Can match her. He that beats
  • The next Thorn-bush
  • May raise a Thrush
  • Would put down all our lays.
  • Finally, perhaps the most popular—or, at any rate, most widely read—of all these oppressive compilations was James Janeway’s Token for Children: being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of several young Children (?1720): a supreme example of morbid and gloating piety. The title conveys its scope. It was not alone; three or four works like it can be discovered; but it was the most highly coloured.

    A more polished type—indeed, pietists might have said a politely immoral type—is the Chesterfield of the seventeenth century, A Lady’s Gift (1688, published without authorisation, often reprinted). Halifax—the trimmer—could write admirable English, and, if his Advice to a Daughter (the sub-title) is worldly, it is, also, honest and sensible. It had other counterparts in the next century besides Chesterfield’s Letters. Advice to a Young Nobleman, Letters from a Tutor to his Pupils and similar works carried out the gentlemanly ideal of making the best of this world without either despising or making too much of the next.

    Works of these types were, if not common, at any rate not unique. They are not, perhaps, in the direct succession of pure children’s literature: they are but the unennobled ancestors. But they deserve not to be forgotten by the historian. The more authentic pedigree follows a line of less unmixed descent—lines, rather, for the family has, at first, three branches. The older branches are among the oldest forms of literature preserved to us: the cadet branch is fathered by two eminent men.