Banned Books of the Past: Robert Dodsley’s Chronicles of the Kings (1740) “Altogether Abominable”

Eighteenth-century children helped themselves to fictional travellers’ tales such as  Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1729) or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) that were not intended principally for them.  Both characters having gone to sea against their fathers’ commands were not good role models for boys, who might acquire a desire to “ramble” from their reading.   In spite these concerns, the process of repackaging Crusoe and Gulliver as abridgments that were unmistakably children’s books was underway by the 1760s.

But other books for adults that children consumed have never factored into the history of their reading during the 1700s.  One of the more surprising ones is Robert Dodsley’s The Chronicles of the Kings of England (1740) supposedly written by the rabbi Nathan Ben Saddi in the style of the King James’ version of the Bible.  Dodsley (1704-1764), the son of a schoolmaster, apprentice to a stocking-maker, footman to well-connected London families, and poet, established himself as one of the most important literary publishers of the times.  As an upstart and outsider, he also made his mark as a satirist  of George II’s reign in popular works like The Chronicle,which are unread now even by specialists.

When Dodsley’s mock-history enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 1790s, one edition was reissued for young readers illustrated with handsome portraits of the kings and queens by Thomas Bewick by a group of children’s book publishers that included Elizabeth Newbery,  Darton and Harvey, and Vernor and Hood.  Elizabeth Newbery’s catalogue described it as “written in a Style adapted to impress upon the Memories of Youth the Elements of History.”

Mrs. Trimmer begged to disagree and attacked it as a very dangerous book in one of her longest and most negative reviews in the Guardian of Education:  “It was evidently composed with a most prophane and invidious design, to depreciate the Sacred Writings, and to bring contempt and ridicule upon the memory of the sovereigns who have successively filled the British throne, and through them to glance derision, upon monarchy itself.”   Although it not written with for children in mind, she pointed out that far too many of them seemed to be familiar with the Chronicles:  “We hear to our impressible concern, that it is extensively circulated, and that in some families children learn chapters of it by heart, as other children learn chapters in the Bible.  Nay, we ourselves have seen this book recommended…in a work professedly written to direct ‘Parents and Teachers in their Choice of Books in every Branch of Education.’”

Trimmer is still regarded with some justification as a paranoid reactionary responding to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution.  Because she saw it as her duty to expose conspiracies to the public does not mean that she was always wrong.  In the case of Dodsley’s Chronicles, her calling it  “obscene to a very high degree” was quite true.  Here is Dodsley’s version of the incident that set off Wat Tyler’s revolt during the reign of Richard II:

One of the tax-gatherers came to the house of a certain tyler…commonly called Wat the tyler, and demanded the tax for one of his daughters.

And Wat the tyler said unto him, Nay, verily, but thou shouldst not demand the tax of my daughter, for the maiden is not yet fifteen years old.

Howbeit the tax-gatherer believed not the words of her father, for the virgin was fair and comely to look on.

Wherefore he stopped down, and put his hand beneath the garments of the maiden, to see if peradventure the signs of her womanhood might not appear; and he discovered her nakedness”

The passage  about Sir Robert Carr doesn’t exactly mince words about the nature of his relationship with King James I:

Wherefore he [James] an eye of favour upon Sir Robert Carr, a gentleman of Scotland, of such exquisite beauty, and so delicate a composure of body, as if nature had framed on purpose to be a king’s favourite.

And the king loved him, and he pleased the king; nor was any man partaker of the royal influence like unto him; all matters of grace and favour passing from the kind by kind, insomuch that the queen was jealous.

She was even more scandalized by the impiety of  Dodsley’s praise of Elizabeth, which might serve an attractive model for children to learn how  to joke, scoff, and blaspheme in the language of Scripture, treating it not with reverence, but as material “on which to exercise their sprightliness of imagination, and their talent for ridicule.”

And woe unto you, Spaniards; woe unto you, ye haughty usurpers of the American seas; for at the lightning of her eyes, ye were destroyed, and at the breath of her mouth ye were scattered abroad; she came upon your Armada as a whirlwind and as a tempest of thunder she overwhelmed you in the sea.

Wisdom and strength were in her right hand, and in her left were glory and wealth.

She spake, and it was war; she waved her hand, and the nations dwelt in peace.

From Trimmer’s perspective then, it was irrelevant that Dodsley meant to call to account abuses perpetrated by  Sir Robert Walpole, George II’s prime minister that could have terrible consequences for the nation.  She did not have the power to halt the distribution or publication of the Chronicles, but she could call it out in the strongest of terms to dissuade parents and teachers purchasing or circulating it.

How Not to Parent Very Large Families: An Old Bachelor’s View

Young characters in eighteenth-century children’s books have a reputation for being preternaturally well-behaved goody-goodies.  That stereotype probably contains some truth, but we don’t have to dig very hard to find contemporary writers besides Jane Austen who showed that not all  adults were natural managers of children and households. Descriptions of parents in over their heads turn up in magazine essays and I ran across one in the July 1799 European Magazine.  “The Wanderer” number 15 was supposedly contributed by a cranky bachelor, but is actually the work of Joseph Mosher (1748-1819), one of the magazine’s regular writers.  It’s a fascinating mash-up of half-examined gender expectations, details about the material culture of childhood, and stereotypes about “savages” that were thought comical then.

Before telling about his dinner at the home of his boyhood friend Frank Homely, “Solus” the bachelor gives the backstory.  Years before he and Frank both fancied Rachel Barnaby, a farmer’s daughter, but Frank won her heart in just two months. Luckily Solus never revealed his passion and left England almost immediately after his disappointment for fourteen years.  Shortly after his return, Frank sent him an invitation to visit his lovely wife and their little family of seven sons and seven daughters.  Solus anticipates the pleasure of being entertained by an affectionate, rational couple who preside over an elegant establishment where the children are seen and heard when only when admitted to the company.

I repaired to Mr. Homely’s house, and was shewn into his study, which, instead of being furnished with books and maps, was strewed round with go-carts, dolls, whistles, penny trumpets, and “cheap publications.”  I  thought this rather strange furniture for a library….Scarce had I made this reflection, when my ears were alarmed with a tremendous sound, which, ascending the stair-case, and bursting open the study door, exhibited four of my friend’s sons and six of his daughters, shouting like wild Americans, with their arms strongly fastened with cords, and urged forward by another of the hopeful race, who brandished a whip over his head;…this gentle pastime, it seems, they called “playing at horses.”  The infant banditti had paced round the room, and thrown down three chairs in their progress, when the second horse in the team fell down, and was dragged by his playful associates along the floor, in spite of his angry cries and remonstrances. 

The floor sounds as if it were ankle-deep in inexpensive toys, the baby walkers (i.e. go-carts), and chapbooks (i.e. “cheap publications”), giving the impression that children took over their father’s library long before. If any further proof were necessary, eleven of the children burst in, as noisy as “savages” ( as Native Americans were then erroneously considered), pretending to be a team of horses drawing a carriage.  It sounds as if the coachman was applying his whip to his siblings’ backs to make them go faster around the room.  Their lack of respect for property provokes Solus to compare them as well to a lawless band of robbers (i.e. “infant banditti).  Of course, their play ends in tears and roars.

It required all the authority of their father to quell this hideous din, who shortly made his appearance; and notwithstanding the increased wrinkles on his brow, welcomed me with a cordial shake of the hand, and led me upstairs to the drawing room, to introduce me his wife. The drawing room had discarded all superfluous ornaments, and boasted a negligence and plainness that Diogenes might not have been ashamed of. In one corner two mischievous urchins had torn open a new pack of cards, and were building houses with them. In another stood a cradle and cawdle cup; while rush-bottomed chairs, backboards, steel collars and stocks, usurped the place of candlelabrums, silk hangings, and mirrors. 

A drawing room is supposed to be a handsome space where adults socialize, but at the Homelys it has been childproofed (i.e. emptied of furniture and objects needing protection from clumsy, careless, high-spirited members of the family) and is instead full of more the children’s things that belong more properly in the nursery.  Equipment for improving posture like backboards, steel collars and stocks indicates parental aspirations that their children to carry themselves with fashionable grace.  Could their resting place on the floor betray the little victims as having taken the first opportunity to throw off the wretchedly uncomfortable things.?On my entrance, Mrs. Homely shook two children from her lap, and one from her shoulder, and arose to welcome me; exhibiting to my astonished view the once slender Rachel converted into a broad clumsy dame, with all the marks of premature old age.  After the usual ceremonies I took my seat, and now my torments commenced.  One child fastened my button with packthread to the back of the chair; another pierce the calf of my leg with a black pin; while a third insisted upon mounting behind me, and swinging by my pig tail.  I bore these tortures with the firmness of an American captive, hoping that the call to dinner would put an end to my sufferings.

Solus’ observations here must test many modern readers’ notions. While it is natural to be taken aback when seeing an old acquaintance changed almost beyond recognition, Solus’ description of Rachel’s body after bearing so many children seems ungentlemanly and unkind.  Comparing himself to a hostage tortured by Native American captors is now inappropriate, even if the Homely’s children were misbehaving.  Certainly, they ought to be have been stopped by one of their parents.

But my expectations were vain… though I confess my sufferings were alleviated by observing that the rest of the company came in for their share.  Mrs. Homely sat at the head of the table with a rickety child on her knee, and insisted, like an indulgent mother that she was, that none of her numerous brood should seat themselves at the board, which caused all the dine and disturbance that I expected.  Two butter-boats were overset on the satin breeches of Mr. Deputy Maroon; the immaculate muslin of Miss Bridle was fated to receive the contents of a wine glass; and, to complete the calamity, a fine leg of pork was entirely flayed, that the children might devour the skin, under the significant name of crackling.  My friend, not quite reconciled to matrimonial trammels, seemed rather disturbed at this scene of folly and confusion; but his help-mate, who had long buried politeness, and even decency, in the vortex of one instinctive passion, love for her offspring, was delighted with the bustle, and “would not have the poor things snubbed for the world.”  She looked round upon her distorted brood with exultation, even priding herself upon their defects, and appeared to think that she had obtained a dispensation from rule and reason from the sole circumstances of having favoured the world with fourteen children.

After surviving a meal so disorderly, Solus was entitled to be exasperated and disappointed.  And yet it seems incredible he would cast Mr. Homely as the victim of his wife’s failure as a mother. The figure of overly fond mother who does not restrain her children’s unmannerly and self-destructive behaviors goes back in English literature at least to the seventeenth century and usually the father is not considered an equally guilty party to the spoiling of the children.  When the wife’s parenting makes life miserable for everyone in the house as well as anyone who visits them and the father does nothing to correct the course, then he has failed his children as much as she has.

Although Mosher’s essay contains distasteful stereotypes, he also points the finger at some very familiar shortcomings parents can fall into when outnumbered by their offspring and overwhelmed by their energy.  Gentle readers of this blog may have experienced something like dinner at the Homelys  while trying to enjoy a quiet meal in a nice restaurant or catch up with friends in their apartment on a night no babysitter was available.  Perhaps they know someone who has been provoked to write to an agony aunts for advice about how to alleviate the miseries of such social situations.