Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Aitre, St Maclou, Rouen (1890s, a French girls’ school)
A colorized version of an 18th century French rococo print of Madame d’Epinay visiting Voltaire on his Swiss country estate
Dear friends and readers,
Earlier this year (February to be exact), a very few of us on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, read and posted together on Sarah Fielding’s David Simple and then her The Governess; or Little Female Academy. I’ve been meaning to blog at least about The Governess and am now prompted to as it appears one evening at Godmersham, Jane and Cassandra and a few friends (with Anne Sharpe looking on) acted some version or playlet taken from this text out. Imagine that. Wouldn’t we love to have that fragment? (I’ll write about this in a separate blog and if I have time also about our group read on Eighteenth Century Worlds of Sarah Fielding’s David Simple.)
Mary Cadogan’s preface sets the book in the context of stories of girls’ schools, and says it’s among the first, perhaps the first to offer a realistic account of the experiences of children everyday — and here i School. So it’s the great-great…. grandmother of Katy Did books. Fielding shows us the world of girls’s peer groups. The first book for boys in this vein was also by a woman, Harriet Martineau The Crofton Boys. Fielding entertains with little biographies, stories, fables (her preface has two of these).
Fielding’s dedication and preface has the same strong austere stance we felt in David Simple and there is even towards the end of the preface a rather darker comment which brings us into DS’s world when she warns you against certain behaviors of people who say they are your friends but are “not your real Friend,” and if you don’t have “resolution enough” to break from them “in the end will fling you to death.”
The plot-design: as the extended title says it’s book about girls’ schooldays: at the center is Mrs Teachum; each of the chapters is named after the day of the week on which each of the girls tells a story, sometimes autobiographical, sometimes about characters given type names and sometimes fairy tales. The book opens with a dedication, preface and opening: we are told how Mrs Teachum came to have a school, how it’s small and exclusive, the nine young ladies are presented and we learn of them each through their fight over the apples.
The book’s problem is Fielding thinks she has to produce good girl messages. Children’s literature when seriously considered is a problematic genre because of who writes the books, what they are sold for. They are said to be “children’s books,” but they are written by adults with adult interests in mind. It emerges as a popular genre in the 18th century: see Defining her Life: Conduct and Courtesy.
Another variant of the type; so too Swiss Family Robinson
The one thing that made be said for good girl messages as delineated by Fielding is at heart it’s a quietist view — resignation and compromise for peace of mind (common in women’s books in a way):”Remember,” Mrs. Teachum warns, “that Innocence of Mind, and Integrity of Heart, adorn the Female Character; and can alone produce your own Happiness, and diffuse it to all around you.” This is how Jane Eyre ends; her innocence of mind and integrity of heart are now going to strengthen and rejuvenate her “master’s,” Rochester’s, bringing him back from his brink of bitterness and despair. “Le repos” at the end of French 17th century romances like LaFayette’s La Princess de Cleves takes us along the same route.
See also my blog, Felicite de Genlis, writer, educator, mother.
From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969): her girls
Dedication and preface:
The dedication and preface appealed to me for their high-minded tone. Yes our “true Interest is concerned in cherishing and improving those amiable dispositions into Habits.” On the fray over the apples: I’d like to suggest Fielding begins with an insuperable problem in education, one Felicite Genlis confronted quickly too — and it’s the one I pointed out that engaged me. What do we do about how people have bad natures? Today it might be put as the problem of bullies and society’s acceptance of this. I don’t know how better to put it. Fielding goes into the minds of the girls and shows that the moral teachings and appeals that Jenny Peace make have no echo in the minds of the girls; they just feel more resentment.
Each time Jenny seems to make a dent in the girls, it emerges that the girl is just thinking another version of resentment, ago, aggression and how to get back, about her pride and so on. Genlis presents herself as overcoming this in the individual case by moral blackmail, absolute repression, punishment and reward but (as I said) I didn’t believe it and when Genlis’s real daughter (upon whom Adele is modelled) grew up if you read her letters you find she seethes with resentment, alienation &c&c
I can see how Sarah Fielding would regard marrying for survival (not just money, but house, food, everything that came with it) is a form of prostitution. It’s a good analogy as in this period women had few options but marriage to maintain themselves in safety and decency; many did resort to prostitution and then they were treated terribly. This was enough to drive women into marriage — despite the loss of their control over property, that a man could beat, eject, basically do with his wife as he wished if he was prepared to abuse and threaten her. We see women’s lack of control or custody of their children (after 7).
I and a friend, Diana, were upset by the story of the wanton killing of Jenny’s cat. Here’s the passage:
When I was about Eleven Years old, I had a Cat that I had bred up from a little Kitten, that used to play round me, till I had indulged for the poor Animal a Fondness that made me delight to have it continually with me where-ever I went; and, in return for my Indulgence, the Cat seemed to have changed its Nature, and assumed the Manner that more properly belongs to Dogs than Cats; for it would follow me about the House and Gardens, mourn for my absence, and rejoice at my Presence: And, what was very remarkable, the poor Animal would, when fed by my Hand, lose that Caution many Cats are known to be possessed of, and take whatever I gave it, as if it could reflect, that I meant only its Good, and no Harm could come from me.
I was at last so accustomed to see this little Frisk (for so I called it) play round me, that I seemed to miss Part of myself in its But one Day the poor little Creature followed me to the door; when a Parcel of School-boys coming by, one of them catched her up in his arms, and ran away with her. All my Cries were to no Purpose for he was out of Sight with her in a Moment, and there was no method to trace his Steps. The cruel Wretches, for Sport, as as they called it, hunted it the next Day from one to the other, in the most barbarous manner; till at last it took Shelter in that House that used to be its Protection, and came and expired at my Feet. I was so struck with the Sight of the little Animal’s dying in that manner, that the great Grief of my Heart overflowed at my Eyes, and I was for some time inconsolable.
What bothers me in the cat story is the mother of Jenny then uses it as a lesson to teach Jenny to accept misery and cruelty in existence — without so much as admitting the foundation of her preaching is that the creature is just a cat. And all Jenny tells us she learnt to control her grief and accept, nothing about the cat. This erasing of the particulars of the incident is fatal.
A dialogue about Monday:
Shot from Cocteau’s La Belle et la bete
Since I teach fairy tales, I was delighted to reach the “Monday” chapter, with “The Story of the cruel Giant BARBARICO, and the good Giant BENEFICO, and the pretty little Dwarf MIGNON.” This is a fascinating fairy tale and certainly illustrates how Sarah Fielding influenced Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in her imitation, Magasin des Enfans, which includes “Beauty and the Beast”
For this list, however, what really interests me is the way in which this tale revises the first two volumes of _David Simple_ in the genre of the fairy tale. One clue to this revision is Mrs. Teachum’s explanation of how to read the tale
symbolically: “For a Giant is called so only to express a Man of great Power; and the magic Fillet round the Statue was intended only to shew you, that by Patience you will overcome all Difficulties.”
Here we have another tale of the powerful abusing the weak. Barbarico hoards his wealth and torments the more vulnerable (little) people. He snatches Fidus. However, we also see the power of friendship: Fidus is befriended by Mignon, while elsewhere the kind and wealthy Benefico befriends Amata, who is betrothed to Fidus. The patience of Mignon and others frees them; and the giant Benefico slays Barbarico, takes the wealth, and redistributes it among Barbarico’s
victims. He also (like David) takes the key characters into his castle. Lovers and siblings are reunited. The little community lives happily ever after
What struck me about Monday is how adult the emotions are that Sarah Fielding attributes to the fairy tale figures. This is not general language, but filled with subtle psychological motivation and a desire to torment and inflict pain and power I’d expect to find much more in say a Kafka short story. The fairy tales I’ve read — or remember reading — do not delve one figure’s love of tormenting another. As a consequence of this depth of psychological acuity and particulars, I felt the “burden” of the experience went far beyond what Sarah Fielding consciously presented as the moral.
Tuesday into Wednesday:
This day opens with the girls learning much better lessons from the fable they heard than talk about what they liked best. I was amused by the characterization of their dialogue as simply seeking for pre-eminence and how Fielding saw going down to particulars and keeping talking about them will eventually end in quarrels. She would have not been surprised as quarrels on listservs.
We have two girls described and a brief resume of each one’s life by her. The concision of the treatment a little disguises how this is novel matter put into didactic form. Sukey Jennet’s life also shows us how a child can be brought up to be a domineering heartless person if she is taught repeatedly others are not equal to her as human beings — and she is to have her own way in everything.
I was troubled in Sukey’s story where they see the woman beating her daughter for lying. I know that maybe Fielding felt she was showing this is not the way to stop someone from lying but it seemed to me the text half-supported the woman doing the beating. It’s suggested in a way that for some only beating will stop lying. That may be so — for a while. When the person grows up, they have no reason not to revert; worse, they have been taught to beat others this way, that it’s acceptable.
We see how authority is based on physical size; I’m not sure that Fielding meant me to see it this way but I do.
Not that I’m keen on lying; it is a real problem in life — Fielding has focused on a second insoluble problem in trying to educate someone to be moral. The first was the intransigence of “bad” elements in our nature; the second is this resort to lying to cover up, manipulate, defend one’s pride &c
Maggie Smith as the less than truthful Miss Jean Brodie
Wednesday and Thursday
I found myself really troubled by the moral lesson drawn from the story of Chloe and Caelia. Sarah Fielding does not appear to recognize the treacherous character who causes the mischief is Sempronius. If someone thinks that Sarah Fielding does see it’s he who nearly breaks this family up permanently, please to argue this point with me because it’s important. In the early phase of David Simple, it may be remembered that David does not marry a young woman who he falls in love with but whom her father first pressures to marry someone else, and when that falls through, partly because she does not want to marry simply for money, David still walks away from her as someone horrible. He cannot allow that she could be tempted or pressured.
Sempronius lies to Chloe. He pretends he is thinking of marry Caelia and coming to her for advice; he implies if she will tell him Caelia is no good, he won’t want her and will want Chloe.
This is a strong temptation. We are told these girls are broke; they need to marry; the aunt won’t live forever, plus unmarried women even with an income were at all sorts of disadvantages in the communities of 18th century England. So she lies and says Caelia is artful and envious.
Then what does he do? he goes to Caelia to try the same trick on her. Caelia is self-sacrificing and presented as abject, and goes out of her way to overpraise the sister. So he decides he’ll take Caelia. But he doesn’t right away. Instead he lets them all stew and be miserable and wretched. Chloe who is humane feels bad already and confesses.
Then what happens. He gets to marry Caelia. We are told the moral of this is “the miserable effects of deceit and treachery” where the line is aimed at Chloe. The deceitful and treacherous person was Sempronius.
Why did Caelia marry him? We are not told it was that she needed financial support in a way that brings that motive out clearly. Rather we are left to think she likes this guy.
Fielding is telling a story which shows us the desperation of women and how men can play ugly tricks on them. She does not see this — or if she does, she doesn’t register this in the text.
Then we get two stories where the lesson is how wretched and miserable comparing yourself with others makes you. Dison dies of her envy. We are told that Patty Lockit didn’t feel this way when brought up in a large group and so much younger; but when she went to live with a Cousin who was smarter, she learned to hate her. The villain in this piece is the maid Betsy who sets Patty on.
To be sure Betsy is no friend to Patty; but the solution that going to live in this house filled with girls seems to me to ignore what has happened.
Is Fielding showing us the reality that social structuring such as we have in society and competition as a leading value is insidious and poisons our lives. No. She is blaming the victims — victims of their own weakness to be sure. What then is her solution? Living among all these girls. We have no reason to believe in their hearts the same kind of invidiouis feelings will not emerge — in the first story she did not at all convince me that Jenny Pearce’s preachings changed the nature of the girls she presented, and in these two tales we have enough to show us that people tenaciously hold on to their egoistic passions.
Now the life of Lucy Sly intervenes as a story where a girl learns of the misery of a life of lying which leads to hatred of those around her. Now I agree with the thrust of this one — partly because it’s so short Fielding does not go on to make inferences. Yes the person who lies in this way often does it out of intense envy and when they can’t break out of it, and see how they are fooling you, they can see how inferior and hypocritical they are, and hate the person lied to all the more, despise him or her as someone easily fooled. The emotions here the person is habituated to are probably part of why our society is such a seething place. But I cannot help but point out, Fielding does not reform Lucy. If anything this parable undermines all the others about the schools’ efficacy.
Lying by the way is a way of getting through life for many as long as the lie is superficial (student with a late paper, student who cut a class, contractor who pretends he will start work earlier than he means to) or in business (ah ha) where it’s a matter of money and property and vying for position. When it comes to the private lives Fielding depicts here people are found out when it goes on for any time especially when it concerns something important They stay together as a ritual or convention to keep the peace but are not fooled after a while. And lying is a pain: you have to keep your stories straight and after a while will contradict yourself.
From Caroline, a rejoinder:
“I also find “The Story of Caelia and Chloe” troubling. This tale insists that Chloe’s envy and lies are wrong not just in themselves but because they upset the community: Caelia is unhappy, Sempronius is angry, and Amanda is bewildered by the confusion in the household. In other words, it’s important to be a good girl not just because it’s the moral thing to do but because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.
This point again reflects Sarah Fielding’s position–the genteel woman dependent
on a community for support–and she takes it to a disturbing level by showing the potential consequences: death. Chloe’s deceit nearly brings her to the grave, and the near-death is not just an excess of sensibility but a sense that she no longer belongs: “For she thought within herself, I shall now make my dear Cousin happy, by removing out of her Way an Object that must imbitter all her Joy.” This is the ultimate good-girl lesson. Behave, or you won’t be wanted any more.
This lesson does seem harsh for children because it’s presented in a realistic tale.
For more on this tale, see comments.
Friday through Saturday:
I’ve now read Hebe’s — or Sybella the fairy’s — tale too. In fact there are at least three mothers and several different natured daughters. I agree that the women are made all powerful in this story, but what struck me — perhaps from memories of Genlis’s book (which this one is perpetually bringing to mind — is the moral: a daughter must obey her mother. As Caroline says, these morals that are derived from these tales cannot begin to control the details and probably Fielding knew it, but to me this disconnection or forced connection is both funny and important. The larger “submit” Before authorities is in Genlis too.
It seems to me that Fielding continues with these conservative messages in Mrs. Teachum’s “The Assembly of the Birds. A Fable.” The fable focuses on a contest to see which bird is happiest. The first bird, a Parrot who lives in a golden cage as the pet of a fine lady, replays the moral of David Simple: dependence on the elite leads to misery. The second bird, a daw, is exposed for its borrowed plumes, while the gorgeous peacock nearly expires from envy of the nightingale’s beautiful voice. The nightingale is vain and therefore prey to the hawk, etc. True happiness, we discover, is exhibited by the dove. While these morals do not warm my very modern soul, I do like the way that Fielding teaches another valuable lesson: how to read. Again and again, her characters model reading, summary, analysis, and reflection. So while the book PREACHES some conservative messages, it DOES a very progressive thing: it takes seriously the life of a girl’s mind. It insists on true understanding and application of readings, and to demonstrate those points, it shows the girls relating their life-stories. Simply telling those (fictional) life-stories affirms their value, which could be seen as empowering to girls. You, [insert reader's name], matter.
Sunday and Monday again:
From 2oth century production of Steele’s The conscious Lovers
Fielding offers two characters who come to visit the school, girls recently raised to the peerage as daughters: Lady Caroline who has turned into an utter snob, and Lady Fanny who paradoxically ugly prides herself ridiculously on her beauty. They are matched by descriptions and life stories of girls similarly making themselves ridiculous — and miserable — due to their overvaluation of status and non-existent beauty (Nancy Spruce and Betty Ford)
I think again Fielding is reaching out to something fundamental she thinks gets in the way of genuinely ethical development of girls: the focus on their physical appearannce, and (I’d put it) in the light of the disvaluation of girls/women as such an egregious over-emphasis on social class and rank status. I am bothered by her presenting Lady Fanny and Betty Ford as ugly and not attacking the overvaluation of beauty in the first place and why it’s there. Maybe that’s asking too much, but Madame Genlis does go this far in her Adele and Theodore regularly.
Monday is more interesting. The girls do not play-act Steele’s Funeral; instead they produce moral readings of it. I’m struck by a kind of transvaluation of values I came across when I read Catherine Trotter on The man of Mode. Far from amusement, Trotter saw in the central male a figure who spelt misery for women, a man bad to women and not just getting away with it, but of high status because of this. The girls do not read Steele to laugh or say they laugh but as a psychologial inner history. The reading is misogynistic — blaming Lady Brumpton. As I recall Anne Oldfield played Lady Harriot, and recently this play and Steele’s work in general has been praised as sentimental and sentimental comedy seen as bringing in a pro-woman’s point of view, but that was for The Tender Husband and Conscious Lovers. Still I’m struck by how if Fielding reacted with adverse dislike to the cruelties of the play, as I recently did to Murphy’s The Way to Keep Him, and Trotter to The man of Mode why or if she missed totally this vein of feminism.
To conclude: Maybe I’m reading too much into the text, perhaps as a result of having read other of these books supposedly just on education, but I see it as a serious book meant for adults beyond literal advice on how to teach children. For example, the first phase showed us the girls’s bad nature and how hard it was to improve, even to reach. Tuesday brought in lying, another serious obstacle if you are intent on teaching girls how to live ethically, grow up to be decent happy people, indeed what is the good life. Then there is corporal punishment — and I still think Sarah is not against it. The fairy tale itself had a burden of adult perception: for example the enjoyment of tormenting of one person by another. I don’t remember that being analysed and brought out in any thing like this way by any fairy tales I read when young.
It is true that unlike Locke’s treatise or Rousseau’s Emile, Fielding’s book is obviously meant for children to read too, but Genlis’s Adele and Theodore can be read by adolescents at any rate and Epinay’s dialogue had it been published and disseminated (I’m not sure it was) are dialogues children could read. Genlis’s resembles Fielding’s in the austerity and disciplinary approach it takes. Epinay is much kinder, more aware of the necessity of following individual needs rather than repressing them
Women wrote these sorts of books. Charlotte Smith’s is relieved because it’s about the natural world, stories of animals, botany, nature at the same time, filled with poetry. Genlis’s is at its most powerful when she inserts novels. Mostly though the books are didactic morality on the surface. Later famous ones include Hester Chapone’s letters. I’m not sure how many children really read such books but they are readable by younger people. And it’s true that this one is situated in a school so you could say we have the first glimmerings in this book of What Katy Did.
What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge
And Austen’s own novels, with their emphasis on education, and direct allusions (at least in Emma) to some of this previous literature are another kind of legacy.
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