Gaskell House Blogs

Children’s books in the Study

29th March 2023
in blog, Collection, Literature

Although we call our lovely museum Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, it was of course a home to a family. The family was steeped in literature. Not only was Elizabeth a successful, published author, William also wrote poetry and hymns and taught English Literature and composition. When Elizabeth and William moved to Plymouth Grove in 1850 they had four daughters, aged 15 to 3 years old. They would all read widely.

 Most of the books in our collection are found in William’s study and we describe them as books which we know the family read, could have read or are likely to have known about. It is very fitting that amongst our books are some examples of titles aimed at children.  It must be remembered that at this time you were only really considered to be a child until the age of 12 years. After that a young person might be likely to read the same popular publications of the time as other older members of the family. Certainly authors such as Charles Dickens would be read from quite an early age by the whole family, often out loud as a communal activity.

Publishing for children didn’t really take off until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and this was a time during which some writers and publishers realised the existence of a potentially enormous audience of children. Several authors represented in our collection published hundreds of works.  Our currently small number of titles for children in the study contains, in my view, an interesting representation of the range which existed at the time. Several of them were published after Elizabeth had died in 1865, but the house would have continued to be visited by the children of family and friends. This is just a quick overview of some of the titles we have.

There are some classics whose titles remain familiar today, such as Black Beauty, Swiss Family Robinson, the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm.

We have The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, a reforming story which exposes the exploitation of working children. In a letter in 1849 Elizabeth Gaskell describes Kingsley as ‘my hero‘ and they continued to correspond. After her controversial biography of Charlotte Bronte was published in 1857, Elizabeth valued Kingsley’s support  ‘I valued it (i.e. letter he had sent)  and value it now, more than perhaps you would like to have me tell you’.

We have one or two examples of books by prolific authors, often moralising or religious in tone and purpose. Examples of these are three books by Jacob Abbott, a Unitarian clergyman and American children’s author. In 1857 Elizabeth Gaskell writes ‘I know Jacob Abbott’s books and like them much’. We have two of his novels,  Caleb in Town and Rollo and Lucy as well as an instructional book called The Little Philosopher.

Other religious works include The Young Cottager by Legh Richmond, a Church of England clergyman who wrote simple tales set in the countryside, first published in The Christian Guardian. Our volume has brightly coloured illustrations.

Think Before You Act is an intriguingly titled work by Mrs ( Mary Martha) Sherwood. She was a Christian evangelist who wrote over 400 works. She wanted her works to reflect Christian principles and family life and was at one time one of the most well-known children’s authors in Britain and the USA, but how many of us remember her now?

Other educational works include A Child’s Guide to Knowledge by A Lady ( now known to be Mrs Fanny Ward) and Dr Brewer’s Guide to Science. Our copy of The Child’s Guide is, remarkably,  a 47th edition published in 1873 and seems to be mostly about food. It was updated regularly and our edition includes mention of The Suez Canal which had opened in 1869.

Dr Brewer’s Guide to Science also sold in huge numbers and went into many editions. Ours is the 23rd edition published in 1867. It follows a simple catechism-style format, posing questions with answers. Writing as a clergyman, many of his questions have religious answers.

We have one or two examples of works by authors we know Elizabeth was well aware of. The Little Duke by Charlotte Yonge is one of these.  In 1855 the publisher Louis Hachette asked Elizabeth if she could recommend other living English authors that could potentially be published in Europe. She provides him with a long list of ideas and includes Miss Young, now known to be Charlotte M. Yonge , a prolific high Anglican author, saying of her work ‘One reason of their great sale…is that they are considered ‘safe’ books, which any mother may place in the hands of her children…

Worth mentioning in this context is one volume not currently in the study, but in the bedroom.  Hymns in Prose for Children is by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a Unitarian who was the daughter of a senior tutor at the Warrington Academy.  She was also an acquaintance of Elizabeth’s relations, the Hollands. It is known that Elizabeth used this title in her Sunday School lessons.  I like to think of her reading it with her younger children by the bedroom fireside.

Just as today, some early publishers of children’s books wanted to make them attractive to hold and look at. Some of our titles such as Andersen’s Out of the Heart are in a very small “dainty” format.

The smallest “book” is a tiny paper covered volume called Soldiers and Citizens published in 1848. Measuring only 7 x 10cm with 32 pages, this is one of a series called The Waterloo Series edited by Elihu Burritt who founded the peace organization the League of Universal Brotherhood in 1846. These tiny books were sent to Sunday Schools to further the cause of peace. On the back cover is a call by Burritt for the establishment of a Peace Press on the field of Waterloo.

The books described above, and a few others, can now be found shelved together just to the left-hand side of the doorway as you enter the Study. Do take a look next time you are in the house

Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

We've got a certainly is a beauty...I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can.’

Elizabeth Gaskell, in a letter to her friend Eliza Fox in 1850.