Today, a novel my readers may actually have heard of--Mary Martha Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family (first volume, 1818). Whenever someone thinks Fairchild Family, the notorious gibbet scene is what soon comes to mind. There are, however, other things going on. Unfortunately, no true first edition of the initial volume appears to be online, which is a pity: Sherwood had revised the book somewhat by 1822, the earliest edition I was able to locate.1 Most Victorianists have, at the very least, a vague sense of the novel's Calvinist theology--in particular, the doctrine of total depravity. "I know that you have a wicked heart," Mrs. Fairchild says to her daughter, Lucy, "and that your wicked heart will often make you unhappy when there is nothing else to make you so" (49). Each chapter in the novel's episodic structure illustrates this point, usually through a child's disobedience and its immediate providential punishment. (Steal fruit, the Eye of Sauron--um, the Lord--will fall upon you. But really, it's a "dreadful Eye" .) The primary takeaway from any reading of the text, as Brendan A. Rapple explains, is that "the nature of the child in Mrs. Sherwood's eyes is evil, and it is primarily through parents' wise guidance that its soul may be redeemed."2 But the novel's form strikes me as potentially as interesting as its theology.
Nineteenth-century religious fiction for adults and children alike frequently functions as a commonplace book of sorts: narratives usually include extensive Biblical prooftexts, for example, thereby supplying readers with handy go-to material when at war with the nearest skeptic (or Catholic, or whatever). In addition to the regular prooftexting, though, The Fairchild Family deploys multiple other genres in the service of its theological message: hymns, deathbed narratives, spiritual diaries, prayers, inset tracts, the occasional bit of Gothic horror, and so forth. This multiplicity is contained within a repetitive overall structure, nicely summarized by Lynne Vallone: "The Fairchild Family puts into detailed practice the methods of the tracts: in narrative form, the reader learns the specifics to the ending of the story, that is, how the child 'gets good.' Each chapter ends with an occasional prayer and a hymn sung by the Fairchild children (to be learned by 'any little children'). In this way each lesson couples the tract message with the poetry of the hymn at the same time that the lesson is embellished through rudimentary narrative."3 The repetitive form of each episode, with each narrative beginning and ending in direct address before concluding with the prayer and hymn, teaches the child reader a comfortingly predictable formula while introducing new material for performance at the same time--something that Kimberley Reynolds suggests might well have been "familiar and empowering" to young readers, not "tedious."4 That is, while the novel teaches the evangelical child how to behave, in the sense of obedience to papa and mama, good manners, and so on, it also teaches the child how to read and speak to and of the divine. At the same time, the novel's interest in the genres of spiritual experience, both written and oral, offer the child reader multiple ways of "plotting" their own religious transformations.
A case in point is one of the less spectacular chapters, "Story on the Secret Sins of the Heart," which takes place after a more overt example of childhood naughtiness. When queried about her behavior, young Lucy thoughtfully tells her mother that "[p]erhaps, if you had not been with me, I might have been as naughty as I was that day; for I think that my heart is the same: I don't think that it is any better" (84). At this point in her development, Lucy both is and is not self-reflexive: the cautiousness of the repeated "think," as well as the qualifier "perhaps," suggests that she is unwilling to embrace the full force of her moral depravity. (This is in stark contrast to the adult narrator's voice, which, as Reynolds notes, lacks any signs of "uncertainties" .) "Nevertheless, she grasps that without parental surveillance, she is likely to once again come a-cropper. In response, Mrs. Fairchild offers her a diary in which to write "the naughty things which pass in your heart" (85). This diary, Mrs. Fairchild assures Lucy, will remain private unless Lucy wishes otherwise. That is, Lucy must learn to read and write herself, to externalize the sinning self through narrative and thus grasp its workings. Simultaneously, though, this act is cast as unique in its privacy: although the Fairchild parents have always assumed full control over their children's thoughts and actions whenever possible, here the mother shapes a space for the child to develop, as it were, by both withdrawing herself (the writing will remain for Lucy's eyes only) and making her presence felt (Lucy writes on a topic prescribed by her mother). As the story continues to unfold, Lucy initially resolves to be so "very good" that the diary would, in effect, remain blank, but instead there are a series of inward petty resentments--at being told to do her chores, or having to listen to the Bible reading--so that at the end of the day, she discovers that despite her outward good behavior, "her heart had been full of evil thoughts and wicked passions" (88).5 The resulting diary narrative moves away from "I think" and "perhaps" to declarative statements about her feelings ("I felt," "I was envious," "hated," etc. ). Far from being an exercise in narcissism or Romantic self-expression, the spiritual diary centers the child only to reveal her darkest sins to herself. Or, to put it differently, when she is the subject of the narrator's own first-person discourse, Lucy remains unconscious of her own depravity; when she takes over as her own narrator, Lucy finds that she is not, after all, an angelic good child.
Despite the promise of privacy, Lucy opts to show her mother the diary, although she worries that her mother might be outraged. We thus begin and end with parental surveillance, but Mrs. Fairchild's reading of her daughter's text also demonstrates the difference between mature and childish interpretive practices. Lucy, reading and writing herself, correctly concludes that she has a "wicked heart" (90), but wrongly believes that this marks her out as somehow Other, uniquely evil. By contrast, Mrs. Fairchild is delighted: "I thank God, who has by his Holy Spirit helped you to know a little of the wickedness of your heart" (90). Mrs. Fairchild's corrective works at multiple levels. First, she insists that Lucy, far from being angelic or demonic, is simply normal in her depravity. Lucy is neither the hero nor the villain of her theological plot. Second, she rewrites Lucy's authorship so that the diary becomes not so much the expression of an "I," but an act of divine collaboration, in which self-knowledge only emerges through God's intervention. Although the diary threatens to center the "I," Mrs. Fairchild warns that the "I" remains permanently in a state of incompletion. Finally, the prayer they utter is a joint expression of the "exceeding vileness of their hearts" (90): the mother and child are momentarily equalized as sinners before God, admitting that "I can do nothing for myself!" (91) The chapter thus leads the child reader through multiple levels of self-knowledge, on and up through the reminder that if all men are sinners, then even Mommy--authority figure though she may be--must be a sinner too. And yet, that knowledge emerges only in the act of humbling the self before God.
1 For a convenient overview of the revisions, see M. Nancy Cutt, Mrs. Sherwood and Her Books for Children (London: OUP, 1974), 76.
2 Brendan A. Rapple, "The Evangelical Image of the Child in Mrs. Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family," Children's Literature Association Quarterly Proceedings (1991): 253.
3 Lynne Vallone, "'A Humble Spirit under Correction': Tracts, Hymns, and the Ideology of Evangelical Fiction for Children, 1780-1820," The Lion and the Unicorn 15.2 (Dec. 1991): 84.
4 Kimberley Reynolds, Children's Literature, 2nd ed. (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2012), 10.
5 Bertrand Russell thought this chapter exemplified how not to discipline a child; see On Education (London: Routledge, 2014), 99-100.