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Stories Before 1850. 0055: Elizabeth Penrose?, Amusements of Westernheath

Author: Penrose (Cartwright), Elizabeth?
Title: Amusements of Westernheath; or moral stories for children: volume I. Containing The Mischievous Boy. The Proud Girl. The Inquisitive Girl
Cat. Number: 0055
Date: 1824
1st Edition:
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: John Harris, Corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 155pp.
Size: 14 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0055

Introductory essay

See below for synopsis.

Marjorie Moon, in her bibliography of John Harris's Books for Youth ascribes Amusements of Westernheath to Elizabeth Penrose (1780-1837) (Moon 1987: p.89). Mrs. Penrose was the daughter of Edmund Cartwright, who has been credited with inventing the power loom, and the niece of Major John Cartwright, the political reformer. She 'devours folios of history with much more appetite than her meals', he wrote of her in 1796, when she was only sixteen (D.N.B.). This was clearly good preparation, for her greatest literary success was A History of England from the First Invasion by the Romans to the end of the Reign of George III ... For the Use of Young Persons which first appeared in 1823 (1111 in the Hockliffe Collection). It was astonishingly successful. Being used in both schools and families, it reached its tenth edition by 1843 and continued to be published well into the 1870s. The Dictionary of National Biography records that it had sold 88,000 copies by 1856. Using the same pseudonym, 'Mrs. Markham', derived from the Nottinghamshire village where she spent much of her childhood, Penrose went on to produce a History of France which lasted almost as long. Her other works were A Visit to the Zoological Gardens (1829), New Children's Friend (1832), Historical Conversations for Young People (1836) and Sermons for Children (1837), and Amusements of Westernheath, her first book which was publihsed in 1824.

The copy of volume one of Westernheath in the Hockliffe Collection (it was a two volume work) is apparently the only copy now in existence. Indeed, its 'permanent disappearance' was being lamented as early as 1866. Then, the North American Review printed a handsome encomium of the book when discussing the children's books of its own age:

Another book, whose permanent disappearance seems now inexplicable, was 'The Amusements of Westernheath.' That book was our Comedy of Errors, our Artemus Ward, our 'seeing Warren.' That was, by some singular chance, a Sunday-school library book, and it revolved through that calm solar system with such unprecedented rapidity that it frequently flew from its orbit, and was lost; and there were long intervals of darkness, when we inquired for it and it was not there. Perhaps the teachers demurred, before replacing it, whether it might not be too delightful to be strictly religious. Yet this uncertainty of reappearance increased the thrill of every perusal, and the satiated little reader reverted to the common fare of Miss Hannah More's 'Coelebs,' as one who has dreamed a dream, and is tremblingly uncertain whether the vision will ever reappear.'
(North American Review, January 1866, p.239; quoted at https://www.merrycoz.org/books/BOOK1866.HTM)

This is high praise indeed. It demonstrates how far, in both time and space, the influence of such books was felt. It suggests that Sunday schools were instrumental in their distribution. But, above all, it should act as a salutary warning that the moral tales of the early nineteenth century, though they may appear laborious fare today, have not always been regarded as at all dull.

Yet at first glance, Amusements of Westernheath does appear to be very little more than propaganda for good behaviour. Very little is introduced into its three narratives which does not advance its warnings against mischievousness, vanity and pride, and inquisitiveness. These are hardly the most grievous sins in the canon, but they are clearly those which the author thought her audience would be likely to be guilty of, and would need to be warned against. The tales also delight in showing how little failings can, in time, amount to significant misfortunes.

By the end of each of Westernheath's three separate tales, the protagonists have reformed. What might seem surprising is that they have not done so because of any reasoned understanding of the error of their ways, nor even because their parents or teachers have coaxed or coerced them into their good behaviour, but because of divine intervention. Each erring child either prays or hears a sermon, and suddenly they realise their iniquity and instantly reform. For example, Cecelia , the 'Proud Girl' of the second narrative, may have been urged to pray by her teacher, but her prayer produces a purely internal epiphany:

It seemed to her as if a thick curtain had been withdrawn from before her eyes, as if her mind had recovered from blindness. Those vanities in which she has so lately placed her whole happiness, now appeared contemptible to her, and she felt humiliated by a sense of her own unworthiness. (p.121)

The sudden introduction of a religious dimension, absent from the tales until their denouements, makes almost redundant the didacticism of the foregoing narratives. A strong rational case against the particular character trait being condemned will have been made, but it is rendered obsolete by the sudden epiphany. One might even go so far as to suggest that good parenting, as had been advocated in the tales, is nugatory, since in the end, it is not the rigid discipline of Rollstones, nor the salutary chiding of Mrs. Revet, which effects a reformation. By implication, not even books, such as Westernheath itself, form good character, for only divine grace, apparently, propels the sinful child into the virtuous adult.

On the other hand, what the introduction of the religious element does achieve is a sense that the children reform themselves, rather than having their maturity forced upon them by the lessons or discipline of their parents or teachers. This is an agreeable contrast to the general pattern of moral tales, in which all-wise adults lecture children into virtue. In Westernheath the children discover for themselves the error of their behaviour and make amends through their own volition. This contributes to a sense that the protagonists of Westernheath are more independent that is customary in books of this type. Their lives are also sketched in more, and more appealing, detail than was usual. Most of the characters are more than mere ciphers representing particular vices or virtues, and the description of their activities and thoughts seems designed to establish an empathetic relationship between them and the reader. Just as it is difficult for a reader not to put him or herself in Catharine Morland's place when reading Northanger Abbey, say, so it is difficult not to be engaged by Sophie's adventures in 'The Inquisitive Girl' when she retrieves a scrap of a letter from the fire which seems just as portentous as the laundry list in Austen's novel (see below for synopsis). Indeed, the reader's curiosity to know what the letter denotes - curiosity which Penrose surely intends should be aroused - means that the reader becomes complicit with Sophie in her crime of inquisitiveness which gives unusual force to the didacticism of the tale. Ultimately though, it is not so much Sophie's curiosity which has to be curtailed, but her tendency to gossip about what she has discovered, or thinks she has discovered. When her urge to find out new things is re-routed into the study of botany it becomes more than acceptable.

The vivacity of some of the characters provides another reason why Westernheath might be seen as more appealing than its moral rigidity alone would suggest. For instance, the ten-year-old Cecelia, the eponymous 'Proud Girl', may have laid herself open to the contempt of school-mates and readers alike by her desire to spend her only guinea on hiring a coach and touring the town, but it is certainly a grand gesture and not without a certain engaging brio (especially since her desire to ride in a coach turns on its head the fabled symbol of success which John Newbery generally held out to his protagonists and readers as the reward of hard work - see Giles Gingerbread [0240] or A Little Pretty Pocket-Book). Cecelia's sister, Jane, is also an appealing character - more than merely a virtuous foil to her misguided sister. She might have piously refused to play 'hare and hounds' with her brothers, because she 'recollected that in that unlucky play she generally tore her frock, and that her mother had said it was too romping for little girls' (p.80), but she was not a prim paragon either. Instead of 'hare and hounds',

It was then proposed that Jane should act the part of an unfortunate damsel, detained by some invisible giant in an enchanted wood, and that her brothers should be knight-errants, and should work her deliverance by the prowess of their arms. Dreadful indeed were the combats which ensued between the heroes (armed with wooden swords and bullrush lances) and the lady's unseen enemies .... Jane's dress was certainly a little worse for the adventures of the morning; but fresh shoes and stockings and a clean frock set all to rights, and with a face glowing with health and cheerfulness she sat down to table.' (pp.80-1)

What such a game does do, of course, is enforce gender roles. The virtuous Jane, aware of the limits of propriety, would certainly not have asked to play a knight-errant herself. And the author of Westernheath praises her female protagonists for excelling in drawing, playing the piano and botany, all well-established as activities comfortable within the female sphere. One might also argue that most of Westernheath is dedicated to eradicating 'female' vices - vanity in 'The Proud Girl' and curiosity in 'The Inquisitive Girl'.

But despite this, overall Westernheath is a rather liberal and appealing moral tale. Most of its characters are not simply stereotypes. The exception is Harry Brown in 'The Mischievous Boy', whose sententious behaviour serves to highlight the vivaciousness of Penrose's other protagonists. Nor are they forced too soon into the straitjacket of responsible adulthood. Unlike the central characters of Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife, cited in the North American Review, they are not paragons of virtue, devoid of any pretensions to realism or independence of spirit. Rather, like 'Artemus Ward', also cited, they are very likeable characters. Ward, the creation of Charles Farrar Browne, became famous on both sides of the Atlantic for his comic letters written in his own particular dialect of bad grammar and misspelled words. Like him, the protagonists of Westernheath were engaging precisely because of their errors of judgment, their tendency to excess, and their lively spirit.


'Story I: The Mischievous Boy' (p.1)

On 28 June 1817 three boys are taken in to spend the summer with the childless Mr and Mrs Rollstone at Westernheath cottage. The are taken to live there either because they have ill siblings at home or because their parents are moving house.

Harry Brown is 11 and is a delightful child, religious and aware that his widowed mother had scrimped to send him to school and that he must repay her with hard work. His chief delight, when home from boarding school, is to play with, teach, or mend things for, his two sisters and one younger brother. David Jenkins is slightly older and is indolent and a glutton. Frederic Dixon is clever and cheerful, but he is also very mischievous - which he calls having 'fun'.

The action begins when Frederic lets the pigs into the flower beds and hides Mrs Rollstone's keys. As a punishment the boys are all deprived of cake. While David spends his time sleeping and eating, Harry saves the day by chasing away pigs and retrieving the keys.

Frederic plays various tricks. He pins the words 'Mad Dog' to the schoolmistress's back and he puts a pebble in a tart in the pastry-shop. He is detected in both, and is chased by the teacher's sons, and hurts his tooth as he bites into the tart. Later he lets loose the boat that has taken the boys to an island and he is punished by being made to stay there all night. Back home, he spoils the cooking and is served up the horrible food he has created, while Harry is taken to dinner with the Rollstones.

Letters from home arrive for the boys. David receives one from his brother telling of the excitement of their moving house. Harry gets a letter from his recovering sister. He writes back warmly and appreciatively.

Another trick - letting a horse loose - almost results in Frederic being whipped. On Harry's prompting he reforms and commits no more mischief. The other agency of his reformation is prayer. The words 'Lead us not into temptation' vibrate upon his ear. He returns home and his parents, in token of their gratitude, send Harry a box of paints. He has reformed the mischievous boy through his good example.

'Story II: The Proud Girl' (p.69)

Cecelia and Jane Dawson are sisters. Both are cheerful and kind, but they grow up differently because Cecelia is taken away to be raised by a rich relation, Lady Greatly, in London. There Cecelia is spoiled and becomes proud and vain. Jane though remains happy and humble. She is helpful, learns her lessons, and plays with her brothers and parents.

At the age of ten, Cecelia and Jane are both sent to school, run by Mrs Revet in B----. Their parents are worried because Cecelia is so proud and vain. She dresses in ludicrous clothes and is unpopular at school. Lady Greatly endows two prizes of a guinea each for the piano playing and drawing. Cecelia wins the first and Jane the second. Cecelia spends her guinea on an 'airing', hiring a coach and going abroad, hoping to see fashionable people or for them to see her. Jane, meanwhile, orders bread and butter and cakes for the whole school. Cecelia refuses to attend this feast, thinking it being beneath her.

The agent of Cecelia's 'metamorphosis' is Margaret, the crippled daughter of a draper. Jane meets her when the school (save Cecelia, who declines to be seen in a draper's house) goes to B--- to see the chairing of the new MP, and she decides to teach Margaret to read and write. Cecelia is very contemptuous of this plan, which causes Mrs. Revet to reprimand her and to explain that the exterior is nothing and that what is within is important. On Mrs. Rivet's urging, Cecelia prays for a to 'renew a right spirit', and she comes to see the error of her ways. Her contrition lasts, and she even starts to teach Margaret music. Miraculously, the change of scene and exertion of her lessons effects a change in Margaret and she recovers the use of her legs.

'Story III: The Inquisitive Girl' (p.125)

Sophie is both inquisitive and a gossip. Her love of gossip and her tendency to secrete herself where she can hear other people's conversations results in a servant being unjustly discharged. Sophie's inquisitiveness leads to several other misfortunes. Two families fall out when Sophie thinks she hears that her brother is about to elope with a certain girl, but in fact what she heard was a scene from Racine. And then after being locked in her room for this, Sophie sees a note arriving at her house and, having retrieved it from the fire, interprets it wrongly. She sees only half the note [but what is in brackets is later revealed]:

'Will you [as soon as you receive this]
be kind enough to go to [your opposite neighbour,]
Mr. McNeal, and tell him [I find by looking at his bill]
he has made a great mistake [as to the price of]
the last stockings he sent; [and it seems to me (by not]
charging them as silk) he has cheated [himself as he'll see]
of several pounds. I am sorry to say [of our new dog,]
that he has behaved very ill [and worried two sheep,]
and Mr. Arden tells me that [he very much fears]
it must end in his being hung [or he'll kill all the flock.]
I am extremely grieved [for he is a noble animal,]
but fear this will be the end [of my poor dog.]
[I am, dear Louisa, yours truly, Mary Arden.] (pp.143-44 and 147)

Having seen only half the note, Sophie gossips that McNeal is to be hanged, and he gets a reputation for cheating which drives custom away from his shop. Sophie is called upon to make a public apology, and her father threatens to send her to school in France. Her reformation is effected by hearing a sermon on the text 'Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer amongst thy people' and by her desire to please her kindly brother. In the end she finds that she can receive much greater delight from discoveries in botany rather than gossip.

Moon, Marjorie, John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843, revised edition, Winchester, 1987

Lee, Stephen (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1892 and after