Christmas comes but once and year and when it does it brings….annual performance appraisals of children. This belief that St. Nicholas passes judgment on us may evaporate soon enough, but not before planting the idea that December means the person in authority gets to decide if you have been productive/nice or unproductive/naughty. In the spirit of the season, let’s put under the microscope some child characters in eighteenth-century books, who were very, very good or very, very bad.
Kindness to animals often indicated a good heart in an age when cruelty to animals was tolerated to a degree unimaginable today. In this illustration, Jacky Lovebook is buying a cat from a man, who had stolen it while it was playing on the steps of its house. Afraid that the cat will be abused by its abductor, Jacky runs after the man and offers to take it off his hands. The man names a shilling as the price, so Jacky gives him the sixpence in his pocket plus a top worth twelve pence (seen in his hand). Even though he made a bad deal, Jacky happily returns the cat to its owner. The second illustration shows a fly, who is the story’s hero and narrator, entangled in a spider’s web in a shop he flew into, lured by the delicious smell of barley sugar and molasses. The little girl rescues him with her brush, only to nearly kill him with kindness by kissing him, unaware that exposure to the blasts of her hot breath would be unbearable to such a small creature.
Sad but true, the bad children are more interesting than the tender-hearted ones, at least in fiction. Despicable little girls are highlighted today in the interests of equal opportunity, horrid little boys having been the subject of a previous post.
Here is six-year-old Fanny Dawdle, who has been coddled all of her short life. Considered a delicate child, she has spent so much time lounging on the sofa that her legs and body have grown crooked. Her mind has been completely uncultivated so she has not yet learned the letters of the alphabet or how to thread a needle. Having nothing to do, she orders the servants around all day and they hate her. She ought to make the acquaintance of Miss Fiddle Faddle who spends her time “eating, drinking, gossiping, dressing, undressing, and sleeping.” An eighteenth-century fashion victim, she sits in front of her mirror trying to place a beauty patch on her face. If she can’t do it to her satisfaction after an hour, she may get so angry that she will break the mirror.
Literary critics usually turn up their noses at characters like Miss Fanny and Miss Fiddle Faddle as completely unbelievable compared to the rounded ones in today’s children’s books. It is as if they believe children have no ability to distinguish the realistic delineation of character and the distortion of it for satiric purposes. But lots of children find the grotesques in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory absolutely hilarious. The young ladies from the eighteenth-century novels are surely sisters under the skin to Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregard: they are funny because they are all so awful. And readers can congratulate themselves for being free from such obnoxious traits.
But will St. Nicholas give them a pass? Probably not… It will be switches and coal in their stockings for eternity.