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Fables and Fairy Tales. 0003: Sarah Trimmer (ed.), The Ladder to Learning

Author: Trimmer, Sarah (editor)
Title: The ladder to learning: a collection of fables; arranged progressively in words of one, two, and three syllables; with original morals. Edited and improved by Mrs. Trimmer. Thirteenth ediiton, with seventy-nine wood engravings
Cat. Number: 0003
Date: 1832
1st Edition: c.1772
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: John Harris, St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., vi + 221pp. and two pages of advertisements
Size: 13 x 10 cm
Illustrations: Frontispieces plus 35 pages of coloured wood engravings

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0003

Introductory essay

By the beginning of the nineteenth century Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810) had become one of the most influential figures in the field of education and children's literature. In terms of the effect she had on the content and style of books for children she deserves to be placed alongside John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Newbery. Moreover, the circulation figures of her books place her amongst the best-selling writers of her day.

Trimmer married in 1762, and the inadequacies of children's literature that she identified while educating her own six sons and six daughters drove her to produce books of her own. She did not publish, though, until 1780 when her Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature appeared. Since she acknowledged that this was her first book, The Ladder to Learning in its original form cannot have been by Trimmer because its first known edition appeared in c.1772, published by Francis Newbery (certainly it was advertised in the Morning Chronicle and the London Advertiser on 30 December 1772). There were at least four more editions before 1801, when John Harris took over the Newbery firm. Harris continued to publish the title into the 1830s, as the Hockliffe Collection's copy shows. The claim on its title-page, that it is the thirteenth edition, is not at all unlikely.

At some point in the years around 1800, Trimmer set out to revise the work. The preface she added explains that she organised the text into levels of reading difficulty according to the number of syllables present in any word, following the practice established by Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Lessons for Children (firt part, 1778). This rearrangement cost Trimmer 'more labour than will be conceived', she complained, but she thought it an excellent means by which to teach language to young children. It seems Trimmer was attracted to the work because each fable had a moral which could be both understood and practised in the nursery. This did not stop her altering, or wholly rewriting, some of the morals which close each episode. In doing so, she undermined somewhat the force of her compaints against William Godwin's attempt to modify fables in his Fables Antient and Modern, published under the name Edward Baldwin in 1805. Each of his fables was 'spoiled', she wrote in her Guardian of Education, 'by endeavouring to improve it' (5:292). She objected vociferously to his embellishment of Aesop's originals and the addition of happy endings (5:282-96).

Trimmer's own alterations to the original fables were always designed to keep the moral uncluttered and to the fore. By and large the fables are conventional and their morals rather anodyne. This said, they do not shy away from depicting the cruel deaths of the various creatures which populate them. What distinguishes the book from others in the same vein (at least in the Hockliffe Collection's edition) are the 79 very colourful hand-coloured wood engravings which punctuate the text.

For more on Trimmer, see Yarde 1972 and 1990.

Other works by Trimmer in the Hockliffe Collection include Easy Lessons for Young Children (c.1786: HC0655-HC0656), The Charity School Spelling Book (c.1799: 0654), various editions of her very successful series of prints with text commentaries (0451-0460), and her most enduring work, Fabulous Histories, later known as The History of the Robins (see 0241-0245).

Yarde, D. M., The life and works of Sarah Trimmer, a lady of Brentford, Bedfont, Middx.: Hounslow and District History Society, 1972

Yarde, D. M., Sarah Trimmer of Brentford and Her Children. With Some of Her Early Writings 1780-1786, Bedfont, Middx.: Hounslow and District History Society, 1990