The Governess, published in 1749 and written by the sister of Henry Fielding, is the first (known) novel written for children. It is the first example of a children’s book set in a social setting populated by real children that contemporary children would have recognized, and therefore can be seen as the precursor to all those fictional school story romps that children have enjoyed throughout the centuries, whilst simultaneously complaining of the horror of real school. (I never complained. I LOVED IT ALL.)
Over the course of ten days set in the ‘Little Female Academy’, both the head of the school – Mrs Teachum – and each of the nine pupils tells the story of their lives. These stories, and the fables which are weaved between them, are in many ways predictably moral, but also surprisingly bleak in parts (lots of dying parents) and rather gory (a story about a very nasty giant sounds rather Dahl-esque and was apparently removed from Victorian editions of the novel. Bloody Victorians…). The descriptions of the little ladies are amusing in their frankness (‘Miss Patty Lockit was but ten years old; tall, and inclined to fat.’).
However, one of the greatest merits of this book is the fact it has survived to provide a fascinating window into what entertained the kiddies of yesteryear (or what adults thought would/should entertain them). I thought of the mid 18th-century children lucky enough to be able to read and to have access to this book – such as the two young ladies in Gainsborough’s contemporary picture below, who are about the right age and social class -and wondered whether my own 18th-century ancestors were as lucky? I also began to think of the children across the world today who either cannot read – at least one in four children in developing countries, according to a recent UNESCO report – or do not have the access to books that I enjoyed as a young ‘un, and how tragic this is, as, as Sarah Fielding observed almost 300 years ago:
…The true use of books is to make you wiser and better. You will…have both profit and pleasure from what you read.
Not cheerful thoughts, I know. But always worth remembering.