The Voice of the School Boy

A boy whipping a gig. Christopher Comical, Lectures upon Games and Toys (London: F. Power, 1789). Cotsen 2039

The adult gets the privilege of impersonating the child, throwing its voice as if it were a ventriloquist’s puppet.  How often was the child allowed to speak in authentic tones before the mid-nineteenth century?   More frequently than we might expect.  Old public school boys, with vivid memories of how dreadful it was to be educated branded on their brains, sometimes invented a miserable schoolboy character and let him rip.

One such sympathetic work was the prologue written by Thomas Sheridan, Jonathan Swift’s good friend, for an amateur theatrical staged at Westminster School in 1720.  It is in English and introduced the performance of a tragedy by Euripedes in Greek.  A six- or seven-year-old was supposed to be able to declaim it and Sheridan gave him an opportunity to tell the audience just how ghastly this whole exercise had been.  So ghastly that he wished he could throw away his book and get back to whipping gigs and playing marbles.

Cotsen 5744.

A steady-selling school book like Newbery’s The Pretty Book for Children, a primer, a speller, and elementary reader in one volume, does not seem like an appropriate venue for an “I hate school” speech.  Its presence in an otherwise earnest text undercuts the message that children who love their books become “great” men and women.  But perhaps the compiler thought letting an imaginary school boy sound off would not  topple the educational system…

So here is Sheridan’s prologue to the school play, with the boy’s extended negative comparison of his book to his toys.

So there…

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