Reading for the Day: The Lunar Society of Birmingham Tackles Children’s Books!

Have just stumbled across this passage on p. 321 of the book self is currently reading: The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Self has already shared with loyal blog readers how much she is enjoying this story, of friends who met every month during the full moon (hence the name The Lunar Society), who were all from humble families, who were all living far from the center of things, but whose curiosity was so unbounded that they:

    invented the steam engine (James Watt)
    put digitalis on the medical map (William Withering)
    began the famous Wedgwood pottery business (Josiah Wedgwood)
    propounded early theories of evolution (Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles)

Not content with having done all of the above, these men now turn their attention to the void in literature aimed specifically at children:

There were no real children’s books in the 1770s, although in this new age of sensibility a few were just beginning to be written. Around 1780, (Thomas) Day took up the challenge. To begin with, he planned a book of extracts from famous lives, classics, and history or novels, but to leaven the extracts he added a framing narrative, the story of young Harry Sandford and Tommey Merton, and their teacher, Mr. Barlow. . . . The first problem that faces his Mr. Barlow . . . is one that also bothered Day: even if you educate children perfectly, how will they cope with the corrupt world they meet? And how can you reconcile Spartan ‘hardiness’ with the virtues of sensibility and sympathy?

. . . Days’ boys live in the ‘world’ from the start. Six-year-old Tommy Merton, the spoiled son of a Jamaica sugar baron, meets his match in the person of the farmer’s son, Harry Sandford (kind to animals, especially toads and nasty insects, always in a good temper; never tells a lie). Harry becomes an ally and teaches him to read, but poor Tommy still seems to undergo a form of moral torture: not allowed to eat unless he tends the vegetables, forced to listen to improving stories. Yet for children of the 1780s the stories were fun: the boys build a house of branches and brushwood; Mr. Barlow coolly subdues a bear who breaks loose from some travelling entertainers; Tommy becomes the hero of the village by saving a poor family from the bailiffs. The book also contains a mass of tales, from Androcles and the Lion to the conquest of Mexico and the Arabian Nights, but the moral is practical, in tune with the Lunar Society’s views: a sensible man will behave well to everything around him

because it is his duty to do it, because every benevolent person feels the greatest pleasure in doing good, and even because it is in his own interest to make as many friends as possible. No one can tell, however secure his present position may appear, how soon it may alter, and he may have occasion for the compassion of those who are now infinitely below him.

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