Adventure into School Stories

Sarah Fielding’s The Governess

I returned to Toronto this week after tearfully ending my winter holidays in Calgary (I watched a movie on the plane hoping that the person next to me would think I was crying because it was a sad movie, not because I’m pathetic).

Now that I’m back at York, I’ve started reading for my second candidacy exam which is on school stories. Since this will take up the majority of my reading for the next few months, get ready for lots of posts on school stories! This is more exciting than it sounds. I promise. One would think that something with “school” in the title automatically equals boring. Sometimes this is true (like with the book I’ll talk about later in this post). But MOST of them are thrilling! Titles on my list like The Harry Potter series, Ender’s Game, the Percy Jackson series, Looking for Alaska, Diary of a Wimpy Kid are anything but boring. So I invite you to tag along with Wallace and me as we wade through the evolution of school stories over the next couple months!

The first book on my reading list that I tackled this week is Sarah Fielding’s (yes, the sister of Henry Fielding if anyone was wondering) The Governess: Or, The Little Female Academy which was first published in 1749. This book is the first entry on my reading list AND the first book I read because it’s arguably considered to be the FIRST EVER school story for children. Therefore, I am beholden to start my exploration with this book.

The story surrounds the pupils of Mrs. Teachum and her star student Jenny Peace. In order to better themselves, the students decide they will come together once a day to have Jenny read them stories with a good moral (because the only books worth reading are those with morals), as well as share their own stories of their lives before coming to the school (apparently this school has a rehab-like vibe, because the girls were all terrible human beings before coming until Mrs. Teachum’s tutelage). So the main portion of The Governess includes each girl telling her back story, two fairy tales that Jenny reads to the group, and a retelling of a play. Very simple story line.

This being said, I would not recommend this book to the average young reader. Why? Sarah Fielding was part of a literary movement called the Rational Moralists, some who like Fielding, wrote texts intended to be read by children. However, the Rational Moralist still wrote as if they were writing for adults. They believed if they changed their writing style to be easily read by children, they would not improve and be developed into more rational creatures by the reading. The outcome of the Rational Moralistic writing style is the language is elevated, the young characters are not very child-like, and the narrative is highly didactic and moralistic. The politically correct academic term is: the text is “heavy-handed.” However Fielding is not just heavy-handed. She bangs readers over the head with her didacticism. Readers tended not to appreciate this as much as, say, a reader in 1749.

So who would I recommend this book too? Well, if you are a young reader who is interested in seeing what the first ever school story is like, I urge you to give it a try! Otherwise, I assume it will only be people like me studying children’s literature and interested in the history of the genre that would willingly pick up this book today. The feelings and emotions in the novel are timeless (obey your parents, study hard, beauty is on the inside), but the way the text is presented is dated.

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Isabel’s Chains

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2008

Since reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel Speak, I’ve been wanting to read more by her. I picked up Chains during the Calgary Reads Book Sale and it sat on my shelf for a while. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it, quite the opposite. Chains follows Isabel, a slave in America during the 1760s, almost exactly one hundred years before the Abolition of Slavery in 1865. I knew this before reading it, and this is why I wasn’t rushing to pick it up. I knew Abolition wasn’t going to be the saviour in this story, so I assumed this would be a difficult read, especially with no promise of a happy ending (freedom) for Isabel. And I was right about it being a difficult read. But reading about slavery, even if it is historical fiction, shouldn’t be an easy read. Isabel’s story should make us uncomfortable and incredibly sad. And I shouldn’t want or demand a happy ending to make myself feel better, because for millions of once breathing human beings, who lived their entire lives as property, there was no happy ending.

Chains is incredible and different from other historical fiction about slavery in America I’ve read for several reasons. Often in narratives on this topic if it isn’t Abolition that swoops in to save the protagonists, its a caring white character. There are of course exceptions to this where the African slave does somehow manage to achieve freedom on their own, but even then usually there are some white characters who help them to do so. This often makes me uncomfortable, because it still places the power of agency strongly in white instead of black hands. Chains in much different.

The novel takes place during the American Revolutionary War. Both the rebel Americans and the British loyalists make promises to Isabel that if she passes on information, listens in on her masters’ conversations, finds valuable papers in her master’s home, smuggles information between those in prison and those on the outside (all things that could cost her her life if caught) they will secure her freedom. These are all empty promises. Both the rebels and the loyalists ultimately prove not to value Isabel’s life or their promises to her because she is a slave. Isabel realizes she cannot rely on these men for help, and she must take deadly risks to help herself.

There is a powerful scene in which an elderly aunt of the family that owns Isabel confesses on her deathbed the regret that she did not try harder to buy Isabel from her niece and nephew: “I should have demanded you be placed in my household. I was horrified by your treatment . . . I regret I did not force the matter” (261). Silence hangs in the air after this confession, and Isabel realizes the aunt is waiting for Isabel to expresses forgiveness, or gratitude. However, Isabel expresses something powerful to the reader “I tried to be grateful but could not. A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind” (261). Here Isabel refuses to allow a slave owner to be cast as her guardian angel. Isabel will take charge of her own destiny.

Chains is a powerful novel that I would highly recommend. It is a thrilling narrative, and gives the opportunity of having a history lesson at the same time. If you become attached to Isabel and her journey (which is hard not to) you can continue with her as Chains is part of a trilogy called The Seeds of America Trilogy.