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Stories Before 1850. 0072: Anon., The Birthday Present; or, the Reward of Self-Control

Author: Anon.
Title: The birthday present; or, the reward of self-control
Cat. Number: 0072
Date: 1833
1st Edition:
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: Darton and Harvey, Gracechurch-Street
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 36pp.
Size: 14 x 9 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus two further engravings
Note: Book-list on outside back cover

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0072

Introductory essay

The moral tales of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century can be divided into two distinct groups. Some, drawing on the format established by John Newbery, were designed to speak to children from a fairly humble socio-economic background. These tales concentrated on the possibility of social advancement through good behaviour, and most especially through hard work, humility and a desire to learn. The second group of tales aimed at a very different audience, the sons and daughters of affluent families. The Birthday Present, following on from the influential moral tales of Arnaud Berquin amongst others, falls squarely into this category. The children who populate these tales might attend boarding schools or be taught by private tutors; they learned their moral lessons on substantial estates and in the presence of a multitude of servants. Their lessons were not arranged around the core question of how they might deserve to grow rich, but rather around the dilemma of how they ought to spend their money and behave virtuously in the influential position to which Providence had appointed them. The chief virtue they learn is generally charity, a virtue which symbolises their awareness of their duties as members of the lite and serves to bind society together. The Birthday Present refines this lesson, aiming to teach the right kind of charity. It also teaches those business-like, commercial, thrifty values which were sought after by parents, perhaps particularly middle classes parents, in eighteenth-century Britain. Thrift is recommended, or rather the squandering of money on undeserving causes is reprobated. This is not niggardliness, exactly, nor is anti-luxury (for Maria does, in the end, receive her coveted work box), but it does argue for wise consumption.

The Mortimers are a very happy family, and the children are, on the whole, good. But Maria is a spendthrift, and immediately fritters away any money that she is given. Her birthday comes, and she is given a crown-piece and a purse. She is determined to reform and refrains from spending. Her first plan is to spend the money on tea and sugar for her poor nurse. She has just had breakfast with the nurse and her family, and she has found them dining only on porridge. But her mother and father advise against this plan for the tea and sugar will soon be used up and both the nurse and her family will nevermore be happy with their plain porridge once they have tasted luxury:

Always consider, my dear, before you make a present to a poor person, if you are not creating a want, by given them things they are not able to procure by their own exertion, and that are no absolutely necessary for their comfort.' (p.15)

Such considered charity was not always insisted upon in children's books. Compare, for example the much more unthinking, and liberal, donations made by children to their social and economic inferiors in 'The Fiddler Boy' in Meilan's Children's Friend (0069).

Maria asks Arnold the old gardener for some cherries but he rips his shirt in getting them. She determines to make him a new one and arranges with her mother to buy some calico to do so. She has to go without a much desired pretty work box to do so. She spends the money and begins the shirt, but she does not persevere until she is shamed into it by seeing Arnold in his old, torn clothes. She finishes the new shirt, hands it over, and has never been so happy. She there and then vows never again to spend money on toys and trifles.

Maria is rewarded by her mother with the very workbox she had wanted. She spends the remainder of her money on cotton to fill it and a needle case to replace that belonging to her sister, which she had torn. The tale ends with her mother advising her to be as good as she has been recently and to obey God's edicts. She ends up 'a very amiable woman; and all her relations loved her.' (p.36) The author hopes that they will follow Maria's example, and promises some other stories of the other Mortimer children (which were presumably never forthcoming).