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…