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:
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.