Celebrating a child’s birthday at a social gathering was a late eighteenth-century trend that was not immediately adopted because it flew in the face of a traditional Christian practice. A birthday was supposed to be an occasion for reflection, when one took stock of one’s life so that goals for the coming year could be decided upon. Nevertheless, references in children’s booksabout the observance of birthdays seem to have risen during this period. In some stories, the authors contribute indirectly to the discussion about whether balance could be struck between fashionable entertainment and religious observance.
The Oracles, Containing some Particulars of the History of Billy and Kitty Wilson (London: E. Newbery, ca 1792) is a book that reveals rather interesting notions about birthday celebrations. It’s not a book that has received much scholarly attention and what value it has, resides in John Bewick’s fourteen wood-engraved illustrations. This domestic tale has been attributed to Stephen Jones (1763-1827), who was Newbery family royalty, being the son of Giles Jones and nephew of Griffith Jones, who are believed to have collaborated with their employer and collaborator John Newbery on some of the firm’s most famous children’s books. Early in his career, Stephen produced five children’s books, the best known being the it-narrative, The Life and Adventures of a Fly (1787). The Oracles deserves a closer look for its insights into the quality of late eighteenth-century childhood.
At the beginning of The Oracles, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson are mostly satisfied with the characters of their two children, except for their tendency to assume their judgement is as good as that of their parents. While the Wilsons may take their responsibilities as parents very seriously, they are not so strict as all that, because on Billy’s seventh birthday, the family goes to London for a day of sightseeing. The high point of the day is to be a visit to the famous Speaking Figure, which could answer questions put to it in English, French, German and Italian between noon and nine o’clock in the evening, Monday through Saturday. Here are the Wilsons testing the Speaking Figure’s ability to communicate. Billy is posing a question to the Figure by speaking into the trumpet inserted into its mouth.
For the Wilson party of four, admission was a shilling per person, which means attendance in the exhibition rooms was not nearly as expensive theater tickets–a single opera ticket would have cost 4 shillings. But if Mr. Wilson were not sufficiently wealthy to keep his own coach, he also would have had to pay for round-trip transportation from their home in the country to the capital and after the Speaking Figure to their other destination, the Tower Zoo. Zoo admission was six pence per person. A meal in a tavern was probably also in order at some point during the outing as well. Depending upon the family’s annual income, Billy’s birthday outing may have taken a good portion of the Wilsons’ discretionary income for that month.
This fictional day trip was not the product of Jones’s imagination, but based on a London exhibition that had been on view between 1784 and 1786 and attracted quite a bit of publicity. The Frenchman who constructed the Speaking Figure imposed upon the public at major European cities by creating the illusion of conversations between doll and visitor with tubes concealed by the doll’s large feather headdress. The deception was promptly exposed by Phillip Thicknesse in a pamphlet, which is illustrated with this diagram, showing how the figure operated.
So where does Stephen Jones stand on the question of birthday celebrations? From one perspective, he tried to have his cake and eat it too. The Wilsons did not take Billy and Kitty to gawk at the Speaking Figure, but to prepare them to participate in a plan conceived to correct their most serious fault with minimal intervention from their parents. Billy and Kitty’s delight in the Speaking Figure is so great that the Wilsons promise to install in the house two speaking figures, who will serve as the children’s personal advisors.
Experiences at home and at school quickly teach Billy and Kitty that their oracles always had their best interests in mind and after a few trials, they trust the oracles so much that they follow the figures’ advice to the letter. At that point, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson step up and reveal that they have been voicing the so-called oracles from the very beginning, with the result that the children transfer their trust to their parents, where it should have been all along.
Jones was on thin ice here. He seems to have been leaning towards the approach of French educators like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mme de Genlis, who justified the deception of children if the ends of a ruse justified the means. On the other hand, Jones is also suggesting that a birthday celebration that is both entertaining and improving is appropriate. It seems to have been possible for the day to be associated with pleasure as well as reflection and moral growth–at least at some remove from the big day.