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Senate House Library

The Children’s Book that Shaped the Victorian World


Written by
Dr Karen Attar

On the 200th anniversary of the publication of The Fairchild Family by Mary Martha Sherwood (1775-1851), we take a look at the prolific, didactic, evangelical author, whose writings dominated education for half a century and whose first generation of readers grew up to shape the Victorian world.

From humble beginnings...

Roehampton University; Sherwood, Mary Martha. The Fairchild Family. London, 1818. Source: Wikicommons

The Fairchild Family is the most renowned of Mary Martha Sherwood’s many works; ‘the quintessential reading experience for every nineteenth-century middle-class child’ (F.J. Harvey-Darton). Mary Sherwood began to write it as ‘The Child’s Manual’ in 1812, during her most evangelical period, whilst living in India and travelling from Cawnpore to Meerut. She finished it a year later and read its stories aloud to her own children – whose names, like those of the child protagonists in the book, were Lucy, Emily, and Henry – and the orphans in her husband’s regiment. The vignettes narrate the everyday domestic activities of a loving family. Intended, as the title page proclaimed, ‘to show the importance and effect of a religious education’ (with the parents drawing religious lessons from all events), the book was published in 1818 by John Hatchard, a major evangelical bookseller and publisher, and it became a bestseller. the illustrious heights of Europe

By 1848 it had reached its seventeenth edition, accrued illustrations, been translated into French (1834) and thence German (1839), and been joined by two continuations, of 1842 and 1847 (the latter written in collaboration with Mrs Sherwood’s daughter Sophia), which soften the Calvinism of Part One. It was popular for its vigorous prose style and exciting narratives, and because the young characters felt and acted in ways with which their child readers could identify; with, for example, Henry not wanting to do his Latin lesson because he fears it leading to harder ones and, Lucy being jealous of her sister Emily’s new doll.

Challenging perceptions in the twentieth century

The Fairchild Family, Mary Martha Sherwood, London: A. & C. Black, 1913 [Cory] 065 in Special Collections, Senate House Library

By the twentieth century, editions of The Fairchild Family abridged the original work. That shown here is illustrated by Sybil Tawse (b. 1886), a minor English artist and illustrator. The editor, Lady Strachey (1840-1928), was a suffragist and minor author who later acquired a Bloomsbury connection, moving in 1919 to Gordon Square (about a six-minute walk from Senate House). She summarised her changes in the preface:

“Mrs Sherwood’s theory of life was that of Calvinism in its most extreme form, and the work is overshadowed with those gloomy inexorable doctrines … and with a morbid insistence on death in its most terrible forms as a precursor of hell. In the present edition all these passages are omitted. Other omissions are those of the prayer and hymn with which every chapter ended, and of one or two rather too lengthy episodes. It is hoped that these alterations will succeed in opening out to the present generation of children a source of as much enjoyment as was found by their forefathers in The Fairchild Family.”

Lady Strachey furthermore omitted the third part of the tale, as being, ‘though exceedingly entertaining…better suited for older readers. She was sympathetic towards the original, referring among other things to its ‘well-deserved popularity. The author knew how to attract children by a lively picture of everyday family life.’

Mixed Reviews

A review in the Journal of Education (vol. 35, 1913) considered the illustrations ‘truly delightful’, rendering the book worth acquiring for their sake alone; The Athenaeum (no. 14, 1913, p. 474) described them as ‘careful studies of the dress and furnishings of the time’. Opinions about the probable success of Lady Strachey’s labours were mixed, from The Athenaeum’s opinion that nothing could redeem the ‘simply sloppy’ story to the Journal of Education’s cautious view of ‘wait and see’, to The Spectator’s enthusiastic endorsement: ‘We all know Mrs Sherwood’s The Fairchild Family by name, and now that it has been so well edited by Lady Strachey, its old popularity will be revived’ (15 Nov. 1913).

A collection like no other…

Over four hundred titles have been ascribed to Mary Martha Sherwood which is perhaps why, at the beginning of Nancy Cutt’s study ‘Mrs. Sherwood and her Books for Children (p. ix) in 1974, she declares: ‘No study of nineteenth-century children’s books in England can afford to ignore Mrs. Sherwood’.

The book joins several nineteenth-century editions of works by Mrs Sherwood in Senate House Library, most of them in the Martin Collection of children’s books. This copy was given to the Library by one of its former Librarians, Emma Robinson, from the library of her mother, Yvonne Cory. An earlier inscription reads: ‘Freda with much love, Xmas 1918’.

About the author

Dr Karen Attar
Curator of Rare Books and University Art