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.