Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                                                            Pages 90-98

Fact and Fantasy:

Jane Austen’s Childhood Reading



St. Joseph’s Academy, St. Louis, Missouri


Jane Austen’s childhood includes her life up until the completion of the Juvenilia (1793), when she was seventeen.  Documentation of her reading or her acquaintance with specific works has been provided by Chapman’s notes on the early writings1 and a list of books which she either owned or shared with the family, some of them bearing her signature.2  I have gleaned the remainder from children’s books referred to in the novels, autobiographies of contemporaries, and reading lists for young women of the period, as well as social histories and histories of children’s literature.  Books that were known to be in Jane’s family or were alluded to in her writings are marked thus, +.


*     *     *


At the beginning of the eighteenth century, children’s reading was meant to be instructive and was limited to school texts and works on conduct.  If the children were sophisticated or bored, they might find alternative reading in fables, romances and folklore (in chapbooks), early editions of such fantasies as +A thousand and one nights, though such literature was meant for adults.  Fairy tales had been banned by the Puritans because of their subversive, superstitious and terrifying nature and this opposition continued so that the ubiquitous chapbooks, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), with its grisly and graphic details of executions, and the Bible provided all the frightening and fanciful elements demanded of escapist literature.  Avid young readers consumed adventure books such as The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which became enormously popular, the last two quickly becoming chapbooks although no children’s edition of Bunyan’s work was available until the nineteenth century.  Bradbrook feels that Jane read no fiction earlier than Pilgrim’s Progress3 while Honan suggests that her last words, “Nothing but death,” might have come from that book, “ ... now Christian looked for nothing but death.”4

Royalist households may have resisted Puritan works such as Pilgrim’s Progress, A Book for Boys and Girls (1686), and Janeway’s Tokens (1672), but few would have excluded Watt’s Divine Songs attempted in easy language for the use of children (1715), known as Divine Songs (1812), verses that remained popular for well over a hundred years until they were finally sabotaged by Lewis Carroll’s ridicule in 1865.  Divine Songs was popular because of Watts’s success in making them fun to learn, easy to remember, and appropriate for general daily or weekly use.  No other poetry was as popular until the Taylors’ Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804) when “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” became part of the social fabric.  By this time Jane was a sophisticated lover of adult poetry, having quoted from Scott and other poets included in Dodsley’s anthology, even in the Juvenilia.  Blake had written his Songs of Innocence (1789) but was not regarded as a children’s poet until long after that time.

In the village of Steventon, the ordinary cottager would have had no printed matter of any kind except the Bible and the Prayer Book and the ballads “pasted on the wall” of “Joan of France,” “English Moll,” “Fair Rosamund,” and “Robin Hood.”5  Mrs. Trimmer (1741-1810) would have added “The Berkshire Lady,” “Chevy Chace,” and “The Lamentations of Jane Shore,” as favourites of the peasant’s wife; according to her, none of them were immoral, ridiculing religion or mentioning ghosts.6  Since at least two of these celebrated women were mistresses of kings and courtiers, it is difficult to understand the approval of the future “Guardian of Education.”  Jane knew about the mistress of Edward IV from Nicholas Rowe’s play, +Jane Shore, first performed in 1714.  It became a repertory staple and remained so throughout the century.

If the cottage wife with whom Jane spent her first year or so were literate or had learned the verses, she could well have heard rhymes from the earliest known collection, Tommy Thumb’s Song Book for all little masters and misses; to be sung to them by their Nurses till they can sing themselves.  By Nurse Lovechild.  To which is added, a Letter from a Lady on Nursing (1744).  This contained such verses as “Hush a by [sic] baby,” and “Patty Cake, Patty Cake.”  Its success was followed by Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, Voll. [sic] II (1744), which contained “Bah, bah a [sic] black sheep,” and an unbowdlerized version of “Little Robin Redbreast.”  The publisher of these volumes, Mary Cooper, had produced a reading book, The Child’s New Play-Thing (1742), which followed Lockean theory in entertaining as it taught.

Mother Goose’s Melody: or, Sonnets for the Cradle was published by John Newbery or his successors (publication dates vary from c. 1765 to 1791) and contained fifty-one rhymes including “Jack and Gill,” and “Se [sic] saw, Margery Daw.”  Oliver Goldsmith was fond of children and entertained them with a rhyming game now known as “Two little dickie birds,” printed in the Melody in its earlier form of “There were two blackbirds.”  This, together with other parallels, lends uncertain evidence that Goldsmith helped to write the book.

John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) was a milestone in the history of children’s literature, providing the first book of “instruction with delight” that combined all the forms of literature available to children for the past two centuries.  Newbery’s motto was “Trade and Plumb-Cake for ever, Huzza,” and his commercial genius added toys to accompany each volume.  This cheap but valuable book opened the door for contributions by authors, Newbery himself befriending and employing several, notably Goldsmith and Johnson, as hack writers.  +The History of Goody Two-Shoes (1765) which many believe to have been written by Goldsmith, was the first children’s story to have a continuous plot.  It taught that industry and true worth entitled a worker to his or her aspirations.  Darton considers it the foundation of the moral tale and of the unimaginative “virtue-is-its-own-reward” type of story.7  The story was first used as a pantomime theme in 1803 and by the second half of the nineteenth century was a standard title.

R.W. Chapman says that Mrs. Austen probably had charge of the girls’ early education and Jane may have learned to read using Mrs. Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (1778).  This immensely successful work proved that children could easily be taught to read if given simple narratives of familiar domestic life.  This manual inspired Richard Edgeworth, father of the celebrated Maria and a disciple of Rousseau, to begin his own work Practical Education (1780) after two of his children learned to read in six weeks.  Jane admired Maria’s novels but as a child would not have had the dubious advantage of her earlier works.

The prohibition on fairy tales was lifted when the Perrault collection, Histoires, ou contes du temps passé.  Avec des moralitez, charmed the French courtiers and made its way across the Channel in Samber’s translation (1729) to become Histories or Tales of Past Times, told by Mother Goose.  These eight tales included “Cinderilla” [sic] and “Sleeping Beauty,” and were an immediate success, the accompanying morals making them acceptable.  Perrault’s version of Cinderella concluded with two moralities, the first declaring that charm is more valuable than beauty and the second that, whatever your gifts or talents, you need a godfather or godmother to make them effective.  Bilingual versions were advertised by 1741 and were considered proper for children in boarding schools as well as in private families.  By about 1785, Cinderilla; or the Little Glass Slipper began to appear separately as a chapbook.

Fanny Price is certainly a Cinderella-type heroine as Simpsons8 and Fraser9 have pointed out.  Anne Elliot is another candidate with Sir Walter combining the role of both mean stepmother and neglectful father in the pantomime tradition of Baron Hardup.  Cinderella was first performed as a pantomime at Drury Lane in 1804.  Prince Charming was borrowed from “The Blue Bird” of Mme. D’Aulnoy’s collection of twenty-five fairy tales, Contes de Fees or Tales of Mother Bunch, which also included “Finette Cendron,” a combination of Perrault’s “Hop o’ my Thumb” and “Cinderilla.”  The first English version of these invented stories was published in 1773.

Fables continued to be part of education in the eighteenth century.  Fashionable in schools and society as a teaching device for language and moral instruction, they were heavily politicized in various versions by L’Estrange (1692), Croxall (1722), and Richardson (1739-40).  Each author had aimed at children, however, the versions by L’Estrange, Croxall and Dodsley (1761) standardized the stock human characters of the animals for young readers.  Jane did not have a classical education requiring the Greek or Latin texts of Aesop for grammar and syntax but she did have a copy of +Fables Choisies of La Fontaine in French prose and may have been familiar with Moore’s Fables for the Female Sex (1744).  This volume was popular in spite of its style while Gay’s Fables (1727, 1732) delighted Jane and others with their lively rendering of Aesop according to the times.  Newbery was to cash in on the popularity with his Fables in Verse for the Improvement of the Young and the Old by “Abraham” Aesop, Esq., in 1757.

Jane went briefly to school in Oxford with Cassandra and this experience relieved their mother of her teaching duties and freed their rooms for their father’s paying pupils.  Honan suggests that the Oxford plan was designed to increase their marriage chances by making their accomplishments more ladylike.  Later on they attended the Abbey School in Reading which was run by a woman called Mrs. Latournelle.  Mary Martha Butt (1775-1801), also the daughter of a minister, attended the same school sometime after Jane (1790-92) and provides a wonderful account other childhood and her educational experiences.10

Mary Butt read +Margery Two Shoes, Robinson Crusoe, two sets of fairy tales (one d’Aulnoy’s), Aesop’s Fables and The Little Female Academy.  She had a prayer book full of pictures, read the Bible every morning, shared her father’s copy of Paradise Lost and, like Jane, was familiar with +The Arabian Nights.  She had acted in one of Hannah More’s Sacred Dramas (1782), envied her cousin’s copy of Plutarch’s Lives and met a young lady who knew Cecelia by heart.  Her stern but loving upbringing included Latin, never sitting in her mother’s presence and existing on dry bread and milk.  This made her appreciate the permissive atmosphere of the Abbey School more than Jane who would have missed the warm and lively atmosphere at Steventon.  At the school, Mary performed in “La Bonne Mere” from Mme. de Genlis’ Theatre of Education, followed by an entertainment of some part of Arnaud Berquin’s +L’ami des Enfans (1782-83), which was translated into English as The Children’s Friend in one version and The Looking-Glass for the Mind in another.  The school had more of a French atmosphere than in Jane’s day, being run by an émigré, Mr. St. Quintin, who gave refuge to many compatriots after the Revolution.  Mary Butt felt they were, in fact, leading what Mme. de Genlis called “la vie de chateau.”

Sarah Fielding’s Mrs. Teachum in The Governess or The Little Female Academy (1749) could have been a model for Mrs. Latournelle of the Abbey School, both of whom left pupils mostly to their own devices.  The fictional pupils in the care of the older Jenny Peace, spent their considerable free time in an arbour where they regaled and comforted each other with real and imaginary stories.  Mary Butt relished the liberty which her class had after their lessons for an hour or so each morning with Mr. St. Quintin, after which, “… no human being ever took the trouble to consider where we spent the rest of the day between our meals; whether we gossiped in one turret or another; whether we lounged about the garden, or out of the window above the gateway.  No one so much as said, ‘Where have you been?’ ”  Shy Jane would have been free to read and to observe amid the historic and reputedly ghostly Abbey ruins which later became the Northanger Abbey of her novel.  Fielding’s novel combined moral instruction told in an entertaining fashion and became the prototype of the English girls’ boarding school story.  It was admired and copied by Mme. De Beaumont in +Magasin des Enfans, translated into English as The Young Misses Magazine in 1757, Newbery’s The Rival Pupils, or A New Holiday Gift for a Boarding School (1766), Fenn’s The Female Guardian (1784), Mme. de Genlis’ Tales of the Castle (1785), and Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1788).

After the Abbey School, Jane’s education continued at Steventon where she was free to use the family library as her schoolroom.  Her histories were those of Hume, +The History of England (1759-62) and Robertson, History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI till his Accession to the Crown of England (1759), from which she may have gained her allegiance to the unfortunate queen and her dislike of her executioner.  She probably read Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on Richard III (1768) and definitely knew Goldsmith’s +The History of England, from the earliest times to the death of George II (1771) which was the schoolroom staple at Steventon and which she was later to parody.  Religious works abounded in collections of sermons but there is little evidence that she was familiar with more than Blair’s Sermons (1777-1801), Secker’s Lectures on the Catechism of the Church of England (1769) and Vickers,1 +A companion to the altar (?1793) together with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  Her knowledge of the physical world was gained by observation, perhaps guided by Goldsmith’s +An history of the earth, and animated nature (1774) and her geographical world enlarged by Gilpin’s Tour to the Highlands (1789) and Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands (1775).  Her knowledge of French was gained more from her cousin Eliza than the fake “Mrs. Latournelle,” whose real name was Miss Sarah Hackett.  Jane’s recreational reading would have included anthologies like Knox’s Elegant Extracts (1784) containing passages from Blair, Hurd, Sterne and Smollett, D’Israeli’s +Curiosities of literature (1791) and, of course, copies of The Loiterer which her brothers were producing as part of their Oxford education.

In the Memoirs, Jane’s nephew says that Jane was well educated though not highly accomplished.  Courtesy and conduct books would have been required reading for accomplished young men and women and the family collection included Thomas Percival’s +A father’s instruction to his children (1775), Ann Murry’s +Mentoria: or, The young ladies instructor (1780) and the +works of the Marchioness de Lambert which would have contained A Mother’s Advice to her Son (1726) and Advice to her Daughter (1728).  Devlin says she was doubtless familiar with the Marquess of Halifax’s Advice to a Daughter (1700) and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son (1774) which condemned the reading of romances such as +Orlando Furioso (1783) and Sophia Lee’s +The Recess (1785).11

By the end of the eighteenth century, an increasing number of women were influential in providing manuals of conduct addressed to their own sex, such as Lady Sarah Pennington’s An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters (1761) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s poignant Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786).  Lady Sarah did not approve of novels which she considered unrealistic and leading to poor judgement and fatal mistakes in conduct.  The one exception which she found entertaining and instructive was Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).  Jane burlesqued a courtesy-book character, Julia Miller, in The Female Philosopher and was later to draw a fully-fledged courtesy-book heroine in Fanny Price.  A paragon of virtue, Fanny is “ … reserved and modest, shrinking from notice, speaking seldom in company, never attempting wit.  She blushes easily, shuns flirting and the company of rakes … and has been educated according to the Evangelical prescription to have fine moral principles and excellent judgement.”12  If Fanny is the quintessential courtesy-book character, Elizabeth Bennet is the quintessential feminist pitted against such satiric objects of scorn as the accomplished Miss Bingley, Miss De Bourgh, and Mary Bennet.13

Mary Wollstonecraft spoke bitterly from her own experiences in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, when she told of females educated and left without means who became nothing but upper servants as teachers and governesses.  She recounted the fate of young women isolated from their peers; “A young mind looks round for love and friendship; but love and friendship fly from poverty; expect them not if you are poor.”  Miss Watson told her sister Emma of the horrors of becoming a teacher at a school and Jane Fairfax echoed Wollstonecraft when she talked of becoming a governess to earn her living.  She likened her future to entering an order and giving up comfort in exchange for a penitential life.  She said, “There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect …  I was not thinking of the slave trade … governess trade … widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”  Jane rescues her namesake by the death of the wicked witch in a fairy tale ending.

From the 1740s on, a growing reading public which had the time, money, education and inclination caused literature to flourish, especially among young people and others newly literate.  Francis Newbery (who had succeeded his uncle) abridged Robinson Crusoe (c. 1768) and it was adapted for the stage by Sheridan as a pantomime in 1781.  Newbery also produced a one-volume abridgement of Clarissa Harlowe in 1768-69 and a summary of +Sir Charles Grandison together with Pamela in 1756.  Sir Charles Grandison was also translated or transposed into French by Berquin as Le Petit Grandisson [sic].  Chapbooks remained popular among the ordinary people and through them the old fairy tales stayed in circulation to re-emerge after the advent of the Grimm collection made them more acceptable.

As children became avid readers their fare became more moralistic following the example of Goody Two Shoes and the influence of the French, notably Mme. de Genlis and Arnaud Berquin.  Moral tales were concerned with slavery, cruelty to animals, and dispelling belief in fairies and resulted in such influential works as Mrs. Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories Designed for the instruction of children, respecting their treatment of animals (1786), Dorothy Kilner’s The Life and Perambulation of a Mouse (1783), and Thomas Day’s Sandford and Merton, published in three parts in 1783, 1786, and 1789.

Day’s collection of moralistic stories connected by the educational interaction of Tommy Merton and Harry Sandford became tremendously popular and was translated into French by Berquin in 1798.  Tommy Merton is a child spoiled by his indulgent mother and black servants in Jamaica who is rehabilitated by his education in England under his tutor, Barlow, and by his association with the good-natured Harry.  In his thinly concealed didacticism, Day requires Tommy to consider negroes as equals and the boy reflects upon the “ridiculous prejudices” and the “foolish distinctions which pride had formerly suggested.”  Day introduces a Miss Sukey Simmons whose upbringing required her to, “plunge into the cold bath at every season of the year, to rise by candlelight in winter, to ride a dozen miles upon a trotting horse, or to walk as many even with the hazard of being splashed, or of soiling her clothes.  By this mode of education, Miss Sukey … acquired an excellent character, accompanied, however, with some dispositions which disqualified her almost as much as Harry for fashionable life …  She was also … taught to believe that domestic economy is a point of utmost consequence to every woman who intends to be a wife or mother.”  Sukey, who later is as courteous and spontaneously pleasant to the uncomfortable Harry as is Emma Watson towards young Charles, reminds us of Elizabeth Bennet who, “continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace … finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”  Her dishevelled appearance causes the comment, “I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office.”

In the Day book, Miss Sukey’s singing is compared to that of Miss Matilda:


… among the rest, Miss Simmons sang a little Scotch song, called Lochaber, in so artless, but sweet and pathetic a manner, that little Harry listened almost with tears in his eyes; …  After this, Miss Matilda, who was allowed to be a perfect mistress of music, played and sang several celebrated Italian airs; but as these were in a language totally unintelligible to Harry, he received very little pleasure, though all the rest of the company were in raptures.  She then proceeded to play several pieces of music, which were allowed by all connoisseurs to require infinite skill to execute.  The audience seemed all delighted, and either felt, or pretended to feel, inexpressible pleasure …


Dusinberre reminds us of a familiar passage in Pride and Prejudice:14


Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.  Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well; and Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who, with some of the Lucases, and two or three officers, joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.


Further similarities between Austen and Day occur when the accomplishments of young ladies like Miss Darcy and Miss Matilda are commented upon.  Mrs. Merton, Tommy’s mother, comments:


“Indeed … one may see the excellence of her education in everything that Miss Matilda does.  She plays most divinely upon the pianoforte, talks French even better than she does English, and draws in the style of a master.  Indeed, I think that last figure of the naked Gladiator the finest thing I ever saw in my life.”


Miss Bingley is equally effusive when she tells Darcy:


“Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp; and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley’s.”


Sandford and Merton was widely read and as late as Mrs. Molesworth’s day (1839-1921), she was to say, “ … not only had no children many books, but everywhere children had the same.  There was seldom any use in little friends lending to each other, for it was always the same thing over again: Evenings at Home, Sandford & Merton, Ornaments Discovered, and so on.”  As Townsend notes, these three titles were of the greatest respectability in the most selective homes and there was much more less recommended material.  We can all be grateful that the Austen family was tolerant and eclectic in their reading.





1  R.W. Chapman, Minor works in The works of Jane Austen (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 458-61.


2  David Gilson, A bibliography of Jane Austen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 431-46.


3  Frank W. Bradbrook, Jane Austen and her predecessors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 83.


4  Ibid., 141-2.


5  Park Honan, Jane Austen: her life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), p. 404.


6  F.J. Harvey Darton, Children’s Books in England, 3rd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 174.


7  Ibid., p. 129.


8  Janice C. Simpson, “Fanny Price as Cinderella: Folk and fairy-tale in Mansfield Park” Persuasions, No. 9 (December 16, 1987), 25-30.


9  Katharine Fraser Miller, “The archetype in the drawing room: fairytale structures in the novels of Jane Austen, Dissertation Abstracts Vol. 41, No. 12, June 1981.


10 F.J. Harvey Darton, editor.  The life and times of Mrs. Sherwood (1775-1851), from the diaries of Captain and Mrs. Sherwood (London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., 1910).


11 D.D. Devlin, Jane Austen and Education (New York: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1975), p. 25.


12 Marian E. Fowler, “The courtesy-book heroine of Mansfield Park,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 44 (1974), 31-46.


13 ____ “The feminist bias of Pride and Prejudice,” Dalhousie Review, 57 (1977), 47-64.


14 Juliet Dusinberre, Alice to the lighthouse: Children’s books and radical experiments in art.  (New York: Macmillan Press,  1987), pp. 41-42.





Altick, Richard D. The English common reader.  A social history of the mass reading public 1800-1900.  University of Chicago Press, 1957.


Blackham, H.J.  The fable as literature.  Athlone Press, 1985.


Carpenter, Humphrey & Mari Prichard.  The Oxford companion to children’s literature.  Oxford University Press, 1984.


Chapman, R.W.  Jane Austen: Selected letters.  Oxford University Press, 1985.


Complete Novels of Jane Austen.  Modern Library, n.d.


Day, Thomas.  The history of Sandford and Merton.  Hurd and Houghton, 1865.


Dictionary of National Biography.  Oxford University Press, 1917.


Drabble, Margaret, editor.  Jane Austen: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon.  Penguin Books, 1974.


Fergus, Jan.  Jane Austen and the didactic novel.  Barnes & Noble Books, 1983.


Gardiner, Dorothy.  English girlhood at school.  A study of women’s education through twelve centuries.  Oxford University Press, 1929.


Jane Austen: Love and Freindship and other early works.  The Women’s Press, London: 1977.


Lascelles, Mary.  Jane Austen and her art.  Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1939.


Roth, Barry.  An annotated bibliography of Jane Austen studies 1973-83.  University Press of Virginia, 1985.


Todd, Janet M., ed.  A Wollstonecraft anthology.  Indiana University Press, 1977.


Townsend, John Rowe.  Written for children.  New edition.  Penguin Books, 1983.

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