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Chapter 2 - Reading Poetry for Children in the Long Eighteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Louise Joy
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Jessica Lim
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

We start with a silenced woman. In one of the most notorious discussions of Romantic children’s literature, Charles Lamb’s comments in his letter to Coleridge of 1802, his sister’s voice is absent. Yet Mary Lamb is at the heart of the anecdote, with her attempt to purchase books for the infant Derwent Coleridge:

Goody Two Shoes is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld[’s] stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery; & the Shopman at Newbery’s hardly deign’d to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary ask’d for them. Mrs. B’s & Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant & vapid as Mrs. B’s books convey, it seems, must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, & his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers, when he has learnt, that a Horse is an Animal, & Billy is better than a Horse, & such like: instead of that beautiful Interest in wild tales, which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to Poetry no less in the little walks of Children, than with Men. —: Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with Tales and old wives’ fables in childhood, you had been crammed with Geography & Natural History.?

Charles Lamb’s vituperative comments are well known; Mary’s presence in the scene is overlooked. Yet we might assume, from her specific request to the shopman, that she had her own opinions about the sort of literature which would be suitable for a child to learn to read. She had, after all, taught Charles, her junior by ten years; she

would continue tutoring children until late in life, among them the Shakespeare scholar Mary Cowden Clarke. But her voice is drowned out by Charles’ exuberant damnation of ‘the cursed Barbauld Crew, those Blights & Blasts of all that is Human in man & child’. Partly, this is misogynist bravado, as, after an uncomfortable rift of two years, Charles Lamb re-establishes his friendship with Coleridge: he aims to recall the homosociality of their young London years together, fuelled by tobacco and egg-hot in the Salutation and Cat.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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