Robins: representations of benevolence or xenophobia?
Curator Alison Bailey gives an insight into the work behind the exhibition Animal Tales now open at the British Library.
The writing of exhibition labels can be both a terrible tyranny and an exhilarating exercise. In the attempt to distil everything that might put an item into a specific context in about a hundred words there are always some questions unanswered, some matters unaddressed. Moreover, there is no room for footnotes, and the cagey use of “perhaps” or “seems” has to be rationed – so inevitably the tone is more dogmatic and definite than might be the case with more space. Luckily for me, the label writing for Animal Tales was shared between Matthew Shaw (Lead Curator) and Barbara Hawes and me (Co-Curators) and a blog provides me with a chance to give a taste of a few of the things I couldn’t cover in my label for History of the Red-Breast Family.
Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810) is an important figure in the history of children’s literature and education. She taught her own twelve children at home, wrote several books, founded one of the first Sunday schools (in Brentford) and advised Queen Charlotte about Sunday schools. In 1786 she published her most famous work, Fabulous Histories, which remained in print for many decades, and was also adapted for younger children, as in the copy above. The subtitle of her original work gives an indication of her ostensible purpose “designed for the instruction of children respecting their treatment of animals”.
In my label, I have given a fairly straightforward account of the storyline and the role of the robins within it: “she interwove the related stories of a family of robins and a human family…the behaviour of the robins is presented as an exemplar to the reader while the attitudes of the Benson children and their friends to the robins provide lessons in the proper treatment of animals”. I also included a couple of lines about Mrs Trimmer but even then my text had to be cut down, so there is no reference, for example, to Mrs Trimmer’s influential reviews of children’s books in her periodical The Guardian of Education (June 1802 – September 1806). Equally there was no room to allude to critical discussion of Mrs Trimmer as an establishment figure, concerned to uphold the status quo. Quoting from the text, I referred to the message of “universal benevolence” that the book seeks to inculcate, but Moira Ferguson, in Animal Advocacy and Englishwomen 1780-1900, suggests that, far from presenting images of kindness and compassion, the behaviour of the robins can be identified with that of the British Redcoats in and after the American Revolutionary War and their attitudes to alien or foreign birds, such as the cuckoo and the mocking-bird, reflect xenophobia.
To turn to bibliography: the British Library is the only location given in ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) for a copy sold by Darton and Harvey dated 1793. A copy sold by Darton and Harvey and dated 1799, held by the National Library at Wales, is also recorded in ESTC and there is an entry (G468) in The Dartons (the standard listing of works issued by the firm of Darton) for a copy printed and sold by Darton and Harvey in 1801 which is in the Renier Collection at the National Art Library.
There is also the question of the manuscript inscriptions on the paste-down. Is it too fanciful to identify one with Caroline Fry the Christian educationalist? The “Caroline” seems to match a later signature in her married name. Work on provenance is continuing – but any help would be warmly welcomed.
Laurence Darton, The Dartons: an annotated check-list of children’s books issued by two publishing houses 1787-1876. London: British Library, 2004. YC.2006.a.11349.
Moira Ferguson, Animal advocacy and Englishwomen, 1780-1900: patriots, nation, and empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. YC.1999.b.6076
Matthew Grenby, “Introduction” to Sarah Trimmer, The Guardian of Education: a periodical work. Volume I: From May to December inclusive, 1802. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2002. YC.2003.a.17249.
Visit Animal Tales – a free British Library exhibition open until Sunday 1 November 2015