by Helen Tsang, May 2006
Eliza Fenwick and the politics of education in the literature of the Romantic era
In order to explore where her literary inspirations originated and the foundations of which her writings are based, I will examine Fenwick’s work alongside that of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s philosophies, Mary Wollstonecraft’s response to this and Sarah Trimmer’s views on education. Consequently, the essay will assess how influential the work of Rousseau was to Fenwick’s concept of education and literature, why the child of reason was so important to female writers of the romantic era as well as why the balance between sensibility and reason was of such importance to the literature of female writers.
Children are to be educated, and not merely conditioned, and this means their faculty of reason is to be strengthened, and their capacity to resist their desires steadily increased.
These ideas were further developed and challenged to an extent, by Rousseau in his educational doctrine, Emile, or On Education (1762) whereby he saw that the institution of education and it’s supporters as being corrupt. He argued that a child is innately good and made corrupt by society’s evils and therefore disagrees with Locke’s notion of a Tabula Rasa.
Much of the literature written by women of this time also rejected the notion of the imagination and childhood fantasies. This was inherent in the teachings of Locke who believed that children should be taught how to become adults, and thus does not concern his work with the discussion of children and playing. Conversely, Rousseau disagrees with Locke in this manner and supports the notion of childhood:
Love childhood; promote its games, its pleasures, its amiable instinct….Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking and feeling, which are proper to it. Nothing is less sensible than to want to substitute ours for theirs. (Cited in Palmer: 90)
Although, he argues for the importance of the existence of childhood, Rousseau rejects the concept of reading and suggests that books serve to impose the opinions of others onto the child, which would lead to the absence of independent thinking. In Visits to the Juvenile Library (1805), Fenwick’s main focus is that reading leads to enlightenment and liberation of narrow minded and ignorant views of the world. Even Fenwick’s title immediately exudes a contrast to Rousseau’s objection to reading and books: Visits to the Juvenile Library or, Knowledge Proved to be the Source of Happiness. Therefore, suggesting that the only way for humans to become happy and maintain this happiness is through the acquisition of knowledge and in order to achieve this, we must read.
The children in her novel are portrayed as being rude and ill mannered at the beginning of the story. Their discovery of Tabart’s Juvenile library allows them to explore the world from different perspectives and broadens their experiences through expanding interests that were dormant. One of the older Mortimer children, Arthur, explains that he doesn’t think that books can give him any more knowledge than he already has. Yet, when he meets a similar aged acquaintance, Howard, introduced by Mrs Clifford, he declares an interest in farming and Howard recommends a book entitled A Visit to the Farm House. Through the course of the story, the children find out more about themselves through the process of reading, as well as developing their moral and independent thinking skills. This is shown towards the end of the story when Arthur sensibly accompanies Mrs Clifford to the home of a young girl in order to nurse her mother. When they realise that the young girl is Mrs Clifford’s daughter, Arthur is overjoyed and hugs the bewildered girl.
The moral and didactic element is clear throughout the book, however, it is made explicit when the education of the children has been identified as transforming their personalities, attitudes and intelligence. In Fenwick’s Visits , she identifies the ability to read as the fundamental source of happiness, as explained in the title. This element is reinforced by the children’s West Indian servant, Nora who, due to the transformation in the children’s attitudes and behaviour, had taught herself to read as the children embarked on their discovery of books:
Since you come to England, you get books, you read books, you talk together, play together, read again, play again, be happy, be merry, fetch your own playthings, put them away…Nora think you learn it all out of books, so Nora learn books too. (Fenwick 72)
Fenwick even refers to Rousseau by indicating that Arthur should read Robinson Crusoe, thus suggesting that aspects of his theories may have been the foundations to her on her educational philosophy.
Along with Rousseau, Fenwick admired and was greatly inspired by her friend and mentor, Mary Wollstonecraft. Eliza Fenwick’s first novel Secresy could have been written with the educational doctrine of Mary Wollstonecraft in mind, and was perhaps a fictional reinterpretation of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792 ) . At this time, there was a distinct change in the literature of the day. Male writers such as Wordsworth, Lamb and Coleridge were indulging in writing for the reader’s imagination; the French Revolution had shocked England and there was an air of anxiety that French ideals would permeate through English society. This led writers and men of influence to retreat to their imaginations instead of having to face the political and social troubles that may have been impending. On the other hand, many female writers had emerged by writing literature that invoked reason and rationality. They, through the earlier influences of John Locke, rejected the use of the imagination and fantasy in children’s education. Locke’s idea of education centred on the view that children should be trained to be rational and civilized adults; thus imagination would interfere with their rationality and reasoning, which was believed to be crucial to their upbringing. Palmer (2001) makes the point that Locke does not actually refer to his ideas as being relevant to the education of girls:
And he is writing for the class of people whose sons (their daughters are barely mentioned here) are to grow up into gentlemen under the individual guidance of tutors: these people are interested in the wider question of how their offspring are to grow into satisfactory manhood, and not simply in their intellectual attainments. (Palmer, 2001: 47)
This unequal view of education being different for girls and boys is justified in Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. (1762)In the novel, Rousseau devotes the last part of his book to the instruction of how girls should be brought up. He maintains that women and men have innate roles in life and in order to keep a balanced society, we must ensure that these roles are fulfilled:
Dependence is a condition natural to women, and thus girls feel themselves made to obey……what is commanded them is good; what is forbidden them is bad. (cited in Grundy: 26)
Writing before the British reaction to the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft argues for a system of education that involves and allows women to become independent of men and be emancipated from being simply domestic creatures. She attacks Rousseau for his stance on the difference in educating men and women. Her response to Rousseau’s vision was to argue that to sustain their roles as mothers, carers and wives, women still require an education that stimulates their intellect in order to preserve the standard necessary to their roles. Richardson’s interpretation of Wollstonecraft’s view was that “The proper mother is not an amiable, fashionable house-slave, but a reasonable, liberated individual.” (2002: 33)
Rousseau’s view of Reason serves to govern the different ideas of both genders. Wollstonecraft criticised Rousseau in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and argued that reason was ungendered (Grundy: 26)and this seems to have been taken on board by Fenwick in Secresy whose heroines, Sibella and Caroline, reflect Wollstonecraft’s ideals of feminism. The notion of education is what Valmont believes, a refutation of society, which Wollstonecraft denies in Vindication:
I do not believe that a private education can work the wonders, which some sanguine writers have attributed to it. Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in. (cited in Grundy: 27)
Various elements of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication to the Rights of Women (1792) and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1788) are resonated through Fenwick’s Secresy. The protagonist, Caroline Ashburn rejects the idea that she has a female “role” to fulfil in which she is subservient to her spouse. This is indicated in her letter to Sibella Valmont when Caroline describes her disapproval and refutation of her mother’s upbringing and consequently, her own privileged background. This background being neither earned by herself or her mother, and from Caroline’s point of view, was not in any way deserved. She describes with contempt how her mother, as a young woman, set out to find her husband who had to simply fit the criteria of being in the correct and socially accepted family and background. As a result of her search, Mrs Ashburn “secured the address of Mr Ashburn, who, though her was neither young nor attractive, had gold and diamonds in abundance.” (Fenwick: 47)
Prior to A Vindication to the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft had written Mary, A Fiction in 1788, which differed greatly from her ideals in A Vindication. In this earlier novel, she argues for the importance of sensibility in women and how this emotional aspect of the female composition was the very entity that allowed women to be independent of men.
Sensibility is the most exquisite feeling of which the human soul is susceptible: when it pervades us, we feel happy…It is this quickness, this delicacy of feeling, which enables us to relish the sublime touches of the poet, and the painter; it is this, which expands the soul, gives an enthusiastic greatness, mixed with tenderness, when we view the magnificent objects of nature, or hear of a good action. (cited in Todd (ed) 1989)
This struggle between sensibility and rationality was of much debate amongst women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and was the focus of Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy. One of the questions that concerned Wollstonecraft and to an extent is portrayed in Secresy, was whether woman, were innately sentimental and emotional, an advantage on one hand, which allowed them to be nurturing mothers and wives. Fenwick seems to take a less radical stance on this issue when Caroline declares that the only reason for toleration of her mother and the foreign country in which they resided was to imagine the island to which her mother wished to return: “I indulged the visionary theme till I also panted to become an inhabitant of this climate of peace, joy and felicity.” (Grundy (ed): 56)However, Wollstonecraft argues later in Vindication that it is this assumption that women are naturally sentimental that renders them foolish and irrational.
In Secresy, the two women; Caroline and Sibella are seen to be complete opposites in their personalities, although both came from similar backgrounds. It appears that Fenwick posed a set of binary opposites with the protagonists of her novel: Caroline Ashburn is portrayed as the epitome of Wollstonecraft’s vision, represent the independent, educated and reasoned young woman. Whilst Sibella Valmont is the romantic, misguided and imaginative character who is oppressed and is subjected to the restrictive education by her father as Emile was in Rousseau’s educational doctrine. Consequently, as a result of her isolation and narrow educational experiences, Sibella rebels and meets an unfortunate early death. Here Fenwick appears to be arguing that Rousseau’s idea of education and raising children is a failure and moreover, female education should be advised against excessive sensibility. Whereas, Caroline, though brought up in a privileged family, has experienced the world and learned from various encounters and adapted to the world using reason and rationality. As a result, at the end of the novel, she is the one who survives.
Wollstonecraft further argues that Rousseau and other male writers who discuss female education, “ have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society.” (cited in Richardson:146) Along with other female contemporaries, Wollstonecraft argued that appropriate education, as in educating women in the same ways and subjects that men were taught, and the ability to reason, were the only ways in which women could contend with men on an even keel in every respect, whether it is literary, political, or social. (Sanders, 1996) This major contemporary issue of education has only recently taken a different angle by studying the child in literature. By doing so from the perspective of women, who were the main advocators of the epistolary, moral, didactic and instructive texts, we can gain a better insight into the literary and social politics of the time. Conversely however, Guest (2000) agrees with Wollstonecraft’s argument that men and women should have access to equal status in society, yet Guest contests that radical feminists of the Romantic era, like Wollstonecraft, More, Hays, Barbauld, Seward and Macaulay turn their feminist argument against their own concepts. She purports that feminist writers at this time were using misogynistic discourse, supposedly to expose the corruptness of contemporary femininity, but in doing so, they inadvertently discard the idea of equal opportunities in favour of women. Guest argues that the fight to become equal to men has led women writers to reject the innate femininity that we possess and instead adopt male characteristics in order, they suggest, to survive this male orientated society. It seems that these women seem to be trying to adhere to society and thus conform to it, from a different angle, rather than change it’s beliefs and outlook. By connecting themselves to a male formula of writing and philosophising, contemporary writers have succumbed to the very society that they despise, instead of attempting to change the society in order to adapt to their needs.
Brown ( ) asserts that Reason and experience are prioritised over imagination and individualism, the latter of which is suppressed. This can be identified in the plot of the traditional children’s book. Some authors, like Thomas Day and Lucy Aikin were influenced by the teachings of Rousseau’s “active education” and so many books were written which, consisted of a child protagonist from who the reader could learn. The aim of Emile was to show the possibility of raising a child in complete isolation but yet could still function as an individual in society. He maintained that knowledge comes from the senses and as a result, children should engage with it as much as possible from birth. He opposed control over the child and thus rejected textbooks and leading the child into a certain way of thinking. The protagonist, Emile, was allowed to experience nature at first hand and encouraged to be independent of adult structures.
Similarly, in Eliza Fenwick’s Visits to the Juvenile library (1796), the main characters, who are children, need to be trained and encouraged by an adult mentor who, in contemporary children’s literature is not usually the parent. The tradition of the moral tale involves the absence of the parents through death or abandonment and thus puts the child in the care of a trusted guardian. In the case of Visits, it was Mrs Clifford.
The names of characters also reflect their personalities, e.g. Wollstonecraft’s Mrs Trueman and Lady Sly. Rousseau suggested that children may associate themselves more with the child who is badly behaved because that personality is more interesting and true to life. Mrs Trimmer bestowed human follies and attributes onto animals in her frequently published “History of the Robins” (1786) This device has been continued in 20th century literature in the guise of Mr Men, Wombles, Animals of Farthing Wood. Even the titles of the stories suggest rationality and moral sustenance. Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, From Real Life; With Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness. (1788), as well as Fenwick’s Visits To The Juvenile Library; Or Knowledge Proved to be the Source of Happiness. (1805) Both titles implicitly suggest that these tales will reform the child and assist in the development of reason and rationality; qualities, which (it is implied), the child would not be able to refine and thus progress independently.
These informal conventions that seemed to dictate moral and didactic stories took less of a Rousseauvian stance, and appears to have combine the work of more conservative writers such as Trimmer and Sherwood. Richardson argues that “the relation of didactic writers to the fairy tale might be better described as one of appropriation than of censorship.” (115)Therefore, if we view the dismissal of fantasy in this respect, we can see why conservative educationalists did not reject the fairy tale outright when they could adapt the genre for their own purposes. The general plot and familiarity of the fairy tale would be redesigned in order to carry a didactic message, or as Richardson puts it “a fairy coating over the moral pill.” (115)
Although Trimmer was a strict conservative and refused to accept that the creative imagination should be a part of children’s education, she does however, advocate that education should begin with an independent exploration of the natural world, thereby following the teachings of Rousseau. Fenwick also promotes this aspect of education, which appears to run through the educational concepts proposed by all three writers whom we have discussed. However, Trimmer did not believe in learning by rote, especially where religious scriptures were concerned. (Ruwe: 2001) Like Wollstonecraft and Fenwick, Trimmer argued that children should learn by experience; a feature that is recurrent in the works of Wollstonecraft and Fenwick. In Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, Caroline and Mary both learn moral lessons from their experiences. For example, when Caroline over indulges at dinnertime on fruit, she suffers the consequences the following morning with a stomachache. Similarly, in Fenwick’s Visits, the children learn through their own experiences, that reading is enjoyable and constructive in developing their minds. However, although “active” learning may be a Rousseauvian principle, Trimmer, as did Wollstonecraft, rejects the suggestion of female education by rote, simply because Rousseau believed that when girls became women, they would be devoid of theological reasoning. In Emile, the education of Emile and Sophy differs greatly in that Emile is allowed to learn through his natural experiences whilst Sophy is taught the Bible by rote. Thus, literature by Trimmer, Wollstonecraft and Fenwick may take the basic general ideas of Rousseau, but adapt them in order to make them more accessible to female as well as male education.
The focus on education and women writing for children allowed women to break out of the usual roles and limited careers that they were allowed to follow such as being governesses and companions. This emergence of children’s literature also experienced conflict between the ideologies of reason and fantasy. Fantasy novels were seen as the sphere dominated by male writers, and thus seemed difficult for women to infiltrate and shape to their own advantages. (Vallone: 2001) That is not to say that women writers did not indulge in writing fantasy at all; many simply refrained from doing so in favour of writing moral and didactic stories in order to distance their work from contemporary male writers. There appeared to be a belief that female attributes included “emotion, spontaneity, and intuition, as opposed to rationality and objectivity; the elements of sensibility were assembled.” (Turner: 43) In order for women writers to be taken seriously in the world of literature, they tried to write in the style of men: the language of rationality and reason. Paradoxically, as mentioned earlier, men at this time were writing with creative imagination and so female writers were still criticised. Charles Lamb notes in a letter to Samuel Coleridge:
Is there not possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead being fed with Tales and old wives fables in childhood, you had been crammed with Geography and Natural History? Damn them. I mean the cursed Barbauld crew (cited in Richardson 114)
Throughout this study, I have noticed that Fenwick’s early novel, Secresy is very much inspired by Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. However, although her later child centred work is less radical, there are strands of Wollstonecraft’s feminism, Trimmer’s didacticism and even Rousseau’s active learning that runs through her work. Consequently, it is difficult to identify where her true ideals lie, as they appear to have been influenced by a variety of sources, I suspect, if her finances were more prolific, Fenwick would have kept up her more radical writing in tribute to the legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft.