An Enslaved Woman Learns to Read in Eliza Fenwick’s A Visit to the Juvenile Library (1805)

Frontispiece to Eliza Fenwick’s Visits to the Juvenile Library (1805). Cotsen 14522.

Visits to the Juvenile Library; or, Knowledge Proved to be the Source of Happiness (1805) is a scarce, desirable book by a stylish and important publisher of the Napoleonic era.  Benjamin Tabart was a rival of John Harris, who enjoyed the advantage of being successor to the great Newbery firm. While Tabart had the backing of the unscrupulous Sir Richard Phillips, he still had an uphill battle establishing his bookstore as a destination for families.

Visits  was less a novel than an extended exercise in product placement for his new business on New Bond Street.  It was written by Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840), the friend who nursed radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) when she lay dying.  An on-again-off-again marriage to a charming deadbeat with a bottle problem, had forced Fenwick to put on hold her ambitions as a novelist, being obliged to take what paid work the book trade there might be to support her little family.  During 1804 and 1805, she produced Visits and several other children’s books which cross-promoted Tabart’s backlist and premises.  The street-level view of the shop in the frontispiece  advertises that  he stocked books for lessons and leisure reading in English and French appropriately priced for private individuals or wholesalers.  As an additional inducement to stop by, a little boy is shown dragging his mother by the hand towards Tabart’s door, while a somewhat older boy peers in the window crowded with books. Wiling away part of the day in Mr.Tabart’s comfortably furnished shop, filled with books arranged by subject, looks like a pleasant expedition.  Through the double door, a cheery blaze in the fireplace in the back room can be seen.  There is a little animal lying underneath the chair on the left, but it is hard to tell if it is the shop cat or the customers’ dog.  Fenwick presents this shop as a temple of learning which will become the site of several conversions to literacy.

The five orphaned Mortimer children are sent away from their home in the West Indies after their parents’ death to live with the kind, intelligent guardian, Mrs. Clifford.  These circumstances  in children’s novels of this period always initiate a narrative arc of personal improvement. Child characters like Thomas Day’s Tommy Merton, who spent any amount of time on Caribbean plantations, are presumed to have received little or no education and can be expected to act out, as they have never had to control themselves.   The Mortimers are no exception.  Idle and quarrelsome among themselves, the children are sullen, haughty, or rude to Mrs. Clifford, who is concerned by their listlessness and lack of curiosity.

Of course the Mortimers have no idea of how to pass their time beyond  tracing the roses in the drawing room carpet.  “I always grow low spirited when I am obliged to read,” declares Richard.  Says the youngest ,Caroline, “I had rather have another wax doll, for I am quite tired of mine already.”  Louisa asks, “Now, Mrs. Clifford, are you going to be cross Mrs. Clifford?  Nora said you would make us read, and write, and work until we should all be quite wretched.”

Nora is the woman of color who has been the Mortimers’ slave.  She has come with them to England with some trepidation.  Her affection for the children is genuine, but  she has encouraged them to believe that “there was no occasion for rich people to be learned.”   Being illiterate herself, she supposes that “Reading and writing were only to be acquired by excessive suffering.”   During the sea voyage, she kept repeating to the children that England would be a “dull disagreeable” place to live, where there will be no slaves to wait upon them,” only tutors to flog them.  Nora’s worst fears are confirmed when she goes into the library by mistake and sees Mrs. Clifford seated at a table covered with books, writing a letter.

Thanks to Mr. Tabart, Mrs. Clifford is not obliged to remove the Mortimers from Nora’s influence and send them away to school.  Her friend Mr. Benson tells the children all about the Juvenile Library and suggests that some of the many books there might interest them.  While  too proud to admit to the adults  that they would like to go to New Bond Street, some of the children the Mortimers meet convince them that it could be quite pleasant to stick their noses in books  full of interesting stories and pictures. Their new acquaintances Edward Soames and Frank Howard describe their favorite Tabart titles and are even generous enough to loan them out.  The  Mortimers  spend the first evening of their lives busy and happy.  Nora notices the change in her charges and wonders if her dislike of Mrs. Clifford is misplaced.

It is not until chapter five that the children finally go to Tabart’s.  Once inside the shop,  they can hardly decide what to chose–books, jigsaw puzzles, prints, or globes   Mrs. Clifford expertly helps each Mortimer to  select a small group of titles that will hold his or her attention and lay the foundation for further study.  They take home works of natural history, biography, French grammars, spellers, easy readers,and poetry anthologies.  Mr. Tabart himself waits on the party until  called away on other business. Soon after this expedition, Arthur happily describes how he has changed since discovering  the pleasures of reading: “I find myself quite a different boy to what I was when I used to life half the day upon the sopha, or was always quarreling with my brothers and sisters, for want of something better to do.”  This change is not  lost upon Nora.One evening Arthur and his brother Henry go up to their room and surprise Nora sounding out words in William Mavor’s English Spelling Book.  Obviously embarrassed, Nora explains that “Well me tell all–you, Massa Henry, was cross boy, sometimes cruel boy to poor Nora–you, Massa Arthur, use to call Nora here, send Nora there; never satisfied if Nora sat down a moment, and you sit still and scold all day.  Since you come to England, you get books, you read books, you talk together, play together, read again, play again, be happy, be merry, fetch your own play-things, put the away no call poor old Nora down stairs, up stairs, now pick up a ball, now to tie your shoes, no scold and quarrel with Nora when you go to bed; all kind and good to Nora now.  Nora think you have learn it all out of books, so Nora learn books too.”  Her outburst shames the boys into apologizing for having been “sad tyrants” to her.  Not only do they promise to continue to give her “any such cause to complain of them,” but Henry volunteers to teach her to read and Arthur to write, so that she can write letters to her sister in the West Indies.

What are we in the twenty-first century to make of this early nineteenth-century story about how the West Indian-born Mortimers and their slave Nora embrace education as the high road to happiness? The use of dialect is cringe-worthy.  Lissa Paul, author of a new biography about its author Eliza Fenwick, observes how  how unusual it was for an enslaved person to be presented in such a positive light in children’s stories then.  And Nora is represented in the plate as an attractively dressed woman–indeed her pose while seated at the table is perhaps inappropriately sexualized  Nor is Nora’s conversion is  unambiguously positive, if scrutinized a little more carefully.

She seems not to have accompanied the children to Tabart’s, which probably would have been the case, given her low rank within the hierarchy of servants as the nursery maid.  Certainly Nora displayed the curiosity, initiative, and determination to go through all the books from Tabart’s lying around the children’s rooms in order to find the one she needed to teach herself to read.  But she hasn’t gotten any farther than sounding out words of one syllable when the boys interrupt her.  And her “simplicity” is what is emphasized.  Does “simplicity” in this context refer to her direct manner of speaking, or to her intelligence (think of Edgeworth’s “Simple Susan”)?  Does it imply that Nora would not have been able to make much progress towards full literacy if Henry and Arthur hadn’t offered to be her tutors?  Surely it would have been quite difficult for her to have learned how to write without a teacher.  Nora decided to improve herself because of the improvement she noticed in her charges, but readers don’t get the chance to see how far she progressed.  Fenwick moves on to the education of the two Mortimer girls and readers hear nothing more about Nora.  It would have been a triumph if she had been shown giving Mrs. Clifford a letter to her sister to be franked, but that is probably an unrealistic expectation on our part…


The Progress of Sugar: Illustrating the Enslaved Producing A Luxury Commodity

Nowdays the word “progress”  usually means “growth, development, usually to a better state or condition; improvement,”  rather than  “advancement through a process, a sequence of events, a period of time, etc.”   In early nineteenth-century British children’s books, “progress” also can refer to a sub-genre of illustrated non-fiction that explains the necessary steps to make something useful from a kind of raw material–for example, the progress of wheat, the progress of bread, etc.  When the product was sugar, the subject was politically charged, because it was impossible to describe how sugar cane was grown, harvested, and processed without reference to the underlying economy of human trafficking.

Amelia Opie’s “The Black Man’s Lament ” has two speakers, the British abolitionist poet who exposes the white man’s crime by allowing a black enslaved man to describe the how his people suffer so “civilized” people can enjoy sugar with their tea.  The poet’s tribute to the sight of a sugar-cane field in bloom is quickly forgotten as the enslaved man takes the reader through the process step by step.   The second step is the breaking up of families through forcible removal of people from their native lands.   The third step is packing their bodies like bales of cotton into a frigate’s hold.  The sixth step is selling the unlucky survivors of the ocean voyage to white planters, looking for more workers in the sugar cane fields.  Steps seven through fourteen show the sequence of jobs that must be performed until the mature canes can be harvested.  The last steps show how the sugar cane is made into sugar crystals, which can be packed in barrels for shipping to England.

Amelia Opie, The Black Man’s Lament: or How to Make Sugar. (London: Harvey and Darton, 1826), p. 6. Cotsen 15245.

Amelia Opie, “The Black Man’s Lament,” p. 8. Two planters inspecting a man for possible purchase. Notice the drivers with whips in the far right and background.

Opie, “The Black Man’s Lament,” p. 16. This is the only scene in the fields where the overseer is not watching the black man like a hawk.

The Rev. Isaac Taylor’s Scenes in Africa, one in a series to remedy British children’s ignorance of cultural geography, is not a progress poem,  but its more ambivalent representation of slave trading contrasts with Opie’s more coherent one. Taylor’s volume about Africa consists of eighty-four short descriptive sections with illustrations on engraved plates.  Section 24 “A son going to sell his Father and Mother into Slavery” begins with this surprising statement: “We must just take a peep at the miseries of these people on account of the prevalence of the slave-trade; we might trace the cause deeper, to an immoderate love of brandy.”   Sections 34 to 36 describe how petty chiefs will stoop to making false criminal judgments, waging war, and setting huts in adjoining villages on fire to procure bodies to exchange for iron, fabric and brandy.  Near the end of the volume, Taylor retells the episode from the travels of James Bruce where he met the queens of Sennar and was repulsed by the way the fat women were dressed and adorned (or in his view deformed) with the huge rings in their ears and lips.  Taylor may be able to express humanity for black people in general because Europeans or their own people prey upon them, but finds the reported behavior and appearance of individual groups disgusting.

A son dragging his parents off to sell for brandy in Rev. Isaac Taylor Senior, Scenes in Africa, 2nd ed. (London: J. Harris and Son, 1821) engraving 24. Cotsen 2898

Rev. Isaac Taylor Senior, Scenes in Africa, 2nd. ed. engraving number 35. Cotsen 2898. This is almost certainly copied from one of the famous large engravings of the hold of a slave ship; however this one is so small that it was not possible to show the outlines of the people’s bodies in any detail.

The queens of Sennar in Rev. Isaac Taylor Senior, Scenes in Africa, 2nd ed., engraving 72. Cotsen 2898.

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar extends the process by adding the steps that take place after the sugar crosses the Atlantic, unloaded in England, and further processed.   One pair of illustrations compare and contrast workers in the West Indies and the other in Great Britain.  On the plantation, two barefoot, bare-chested black men tend the great copper vats under the overseer’s supervision.  In the middle distance, one adds lime to thicken the boiling sugar cane syrup, while the other in the foreground ladles the now ropy liquid onto a plate to harden.  The second illustration  shows a sugar baker, neatly dressed in a hat, shirt, apron over knee breeches, stockings and shoes.  According to Cuffy the narrator, the sugar baker is spooning blood and some other adulterant to whiten the sugar loaves hardening in the molds.  Equally compelling is  the portrait of  Cuffy at the head of the doggerel poem imploring little readers to think of the “poor Negro” whose labor tending the sugar cane in the fields results in luscious pies, puddings, sweetmeats, cakes, and lollypops.  The wood engraved depiction of the black man shivering in the cold contains details that are not easy to interpret.  Cuffy is holding a red Phrygian hat and wearing torn striped trousers–garments associated with the sans culottes of the French Revolution.  Was the artist of this wood engraving covertly expressing support for the West Indian slave rebellions during in the early 1800s?

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar (London: E. Wallis, ca. 1823), p. 11. Cotsen 26162.

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar, leaf 15. Cotsen 26162.

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar, leaf 2.

This interpretation of the image seems untenable at first, but the short story “Clarissa Dormer, or the Advantages of Good Instruction” (1806) depicts such an uprising as justifiable, but avoidable if white people take seriously their duty to enslaved peoples. This view strikes us as condescending now, but to express it then in a story for rather young children was radical, even extraordinary.   Clarissa Dormer is the daughter of native West Indian planters, who are described as “black enough to be esteemed descendants of those unhappy beings whom perfidy or avarice brought into the hands of Europeans, nor yet so fair as to pass for natives of our temperate climes.”   To give Clarissa every possible advantage, her parents hire an English governess  to educate her.  The chief obstacle to Miss Melville’s program of enlightened instruction is Mrs. Dormer, an ignorant, showy woman, who is remarkably cruel to the enslaved peoples working in her household and on the plantation.  So cruel that when the “ill-used” Dormer slaves rise up one night, their mistress is brutally murdered along with the overseen and whipper-in.  Miss Melville and Clarissa, who has learned humanity from her in spite of her mother’s atrocious example, are spared by those DISCRIMINATING SLAVES” who…deemed them worthy of their clemency at a time when they came to execute vengeance on an individual under the same roof.”

Mrs. Dormer orders the slave Dinah, who, Clarissa falsely accused of lying, to be beaten until hunks of flesh come off her back. Miss Melville tries to stop her, but without success. Clarissa Dormer; or The Advantages of a Good Education (London: J. Harris, 1806) plate 2. Cotsen 26219.

Dinah pleads for the lives of Miss Melville and Clarissa the night the slaves rebel. Clarissa Dormer, plate 3. Cotsen 26129.

These four works demonstrate what rich sources children’s books can be in documenting early nineteenth-century attitudes about the institution of slavery.