For Saint Nicholas’s Review: Children Naughty and Nice

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.

Stephen Jones, The History of Tommy Lovebook and Jacky Playlove (London: E. Newbery, 1783) p. 46. Cotsen 6732.

Stephen Jones, The Life and Adventures of a Fly (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1787), p. 53. Cotsen 6777.

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.

Richard Johnson, The Juvenile Biographer (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1790), p. 22. Cotsen 5362.

Richard Johnson, The Juvenile Biographer (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1790), p. 62. Cotsen 5362.

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.

Wilhelm Busch’s Ice-Peter: A Cautionary Tale for Extreme Winter Weather

Once upon a time there was a day so cold that no one with any sense would go outside.  A wilful boy named Peter slipped out the front door to go skating when his parents were warming their fingers and toes by the stove.  Peter walked past the crows that froze stiff and fell out of the trees.  He ignored the old sportsman’s warning to turn back.  He laughed at the poor rabbit and sat down on a stone to put on his skates.  When he launched himself on the ice, his pants stuck to its frigid surface and tore a big hole in the seat.

He fell into a hole in the ice and managed to scramble out quickly, but not before he was drenched with water.  It was so cold on the pond that the water dribbling off his extremities immediately froze into icicles, which greatly restricted his range of motion.When the good old sportsman and Peter’s father went looking for him, they found him stuck fast to the ice sheet covering the pond.  With an axe, they chopped him free and carried him home to his mother.Peter was put near the stove to warm up, but this sensible remedy reduced the bad boy to a clear liquid that covered the entire floor. Being frugal people, his distraught parents had the presence of mind to swept what was left of their son into a fine earthenware Topf, label it “Peter” and preserve his  earthly remains between the pickles and cheese.No one needs to know what a “bomb-cyclone” is to grasp the moral of this story.  If you live in Princeton, don’t venture out on Lake Carnegie until the University posts a sign that the ice is safe.  Stay indoors and read more edifying illustrated stories by the great Wilhelm Busch about disobedient boys who richly deserved what they got.  Give his classic Max and Moritz a try.   Or you could try the new Philip Pullman fantasy, La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in The Book of Dust.   It’s a page-turner…