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Stories Before 1850. 0074: Martha Blackford, The Eskdale Herd-Boy

Author: Blackford, Martha (pseud., really Isabella, Lady Stoddart)
Title: The Eskdale herd-boy, a Scottish tale, for the instruction and amusement of young persons. By Mrs. Blackford. Second edition
Cat. Number: 0074
Date: 1824
1st Edition: 1819?
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: J. Harris, Corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., xii + 201pp. plus two pages of advertisements
Size: 14 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece
Note: Book-list at end of volume

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0074

Introductory essay

See below for synopsis.

'Martha Blackford' was the nom de plume used by Isabella, Lady Stoddart (c.1775-1846). She was the daughter of the Rev. Sir Henry Moncrieff Wellwood (1750-1827), a clergyman from Blackford in Perthshire who later became a celebrated preacher in Edinburgh. In 1803 Isabella married the noted lawyer and journalist Sir John Stoddart (1773-1856, whom she presumably accompanied during his postings to Malta from 1803 to 1807 and 1826 to 1840. The Eskdale Herd-Boy, first published in 1819, was the first of several fairly similar works, all by 'Mrs. Blackford.' The Scottish Orphans: a Moral Tale followed in 1822 (with a second edition in 1823), then came Arthur Monteith: a Moral Tale (also 1822, expanded for its second edition in 1823), Annals of the Family of McRoy (1823), The Young Artist (1825), which was continued as William Montgomery; or, the Young Artist (1829), and The Orphans of Waterloo (1844). Her Scottish Stories were still popular enough to receive a Boston edition in 1857. The Eskdate Herd-Boy appeared in a second edition in 1824 (from which the Hockliffe Collection copy derives), a third in 1828, with a 'new edition' appearing in 1850.

Mrs. Blackford had no qualms about announcing what she hoped her book would achieve. Her 'Introduction' explains what each of her young characters is supposed 'to impress on the minds of her young readers'. John Telfer's story will demonstrate 'the permanent advantages of early integrity and gratitude' while William Martin's will 'show the duty that is incumbent on all young people to subdue that disobedient and self-willed temper, which may otherwise undermine, not only their own comfort and happiness, but those of their parents and friends'. Helen, on the contrary, will 'illustrate the inestimable value that a dutiful daughter may be of, both to father and mother' (p.xi). These hopes she repeats in the her short epilogue. There she confirms that it is John Telfer, the poor, honest, humble orphan who works hard and makes good, who she has chosen to carry the main burden of her didacticism. And there she addresses her 'dear young readers' directly, 'as a friend and a mother', ramming home the lessons to be learned from John's exemplary behaviour (p.200).

None of this is at all surprising. Most authors of moral tales such as this were hardly shy of broadcasting their didactic intentions. Nor were Blackford's chosen lessons unusual. What does seem curious though is the form Blackford chose. The Eskdale Herd-Boy is essentially a novel for children. At over two hundred pages, and well-bound in marbled boards and leather (as all existing copies are), it cannot have cost less than two or three shillings - twenty or thirty times the price of the children's books available at the cheaper end of the market. If her target audience was really the likes of John Telfer, then such a book would surely have been out of his reach. It is doubtful that even a benefactor or Sunday school would have provided such an expensive book as a prize or reward.

It seems likely then that the book was actually intended for a more affluent audience, the children of the middle classes, who might also be supposed to benefit from an account of John Telfer's universally applicable virtues. Yet these readers would surely have found some Blackford's lessons inappropriate. John is praised for his humility, for 'performing his duty, as a servant in the day, and improving his mind, with Mr. Martin, in the evening', and even for allowing Mr. Martin to decide whether he should remain a shepherd all his life, or become a servant instead (pp.134-35). Such stuff would have been fitted to children's books in the tradition established by John Newbery. His Goody Two-Shoes or Giles Gingerbread, for example, followed the progress of orphans from poverty to riches via good behaviour and a willingness to learn, just as happens with John. But such lessons were out of place in a volume which, for example, also endeavoured to teach the satisfactions of charitable giving. Helen's quandary over how to spend the half-guinea she has been given, and her eventual realisation that 'I am glad that I did not buy a new dress, instead of the frocks for the poor children' (p.129), belongs to a different tradition of children's literature, practised most influentially by Arnaud Berquin and Maria Edgeworth.

Blackford's integration of these two traditions may have been the result of deliberate policy. Her willingness to present the lives of the poor, and particularly the rural poor (or 'peasants', as Blackford has no hesitation in calling them), to an affluent readership as both picturesque and as moral exemplars was not without precedent in 1819. Wordsworth had chosen to do just this. So too had Elizabeth Hamilton in her celebrated Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808). James Hogg, whose Ettrick was not far, either geographically or ideologically, from Blackford's Eskdale, had done the same and was in the zenith of his popularity as Blackford was writing. On the other hand, Blackford's fusion of the two traditions of children's literature may also have been the result simply of confusion. She may not have tried too hard to harmonise the needs of her intended readership with the didactic thrust of the text, and she may not have been able to differentiate between the various strands of children's literature which had developed by 1819. Children's books had become more audience-specific by the nineteenth century, which was indicative of their proliferation and the increasing confidence of their producers. No longer was it necessary to maximise sales by appealing to all children. This is why Blackford's tendency to cram in all sorts of lessons for all sorts of children seems so antiquated and so out of keeping with what was, in many respects, a very sophisticated piece of children's fiction. Indeed, over the course of the book, Blackford's 'scatter-gun' morality introduces a whole miscellany of lessons: do not anthropomorphise (p.20); do not cry on trivial occasions (p.27); always ask when you do not understand (p.32); never lie, even to save another's feelings (p.39); and so on. She even includes lessons apparently designed for parents. 'May we,' says Helen, speaking when a married woman, 'in rearing our children, never forget the mournful but instructive lesson' of her brother William and his catastrophic disobedience (p.199). This confusion over the age, rather than the socio-economic class, of the intended readership was not so unusual in moral tales. Frequently, and despite their ostensible aim and audience, they offered as much training for parenting as instruction in how to behave well as a child.

In some ways, then, The Eskdale Herd-Boy is a fairly conventional moral tale. It lectures its readers on a variety of subjects, the chief of which are probably the importance of obedience and humility. It is hard, for example, not to read the episode when John is thrown from an ass when he tries to fix spurs made of pins to his feet as a warning not to attempt to get above one's station in life. The spurs, which he ties to his bare feet, symbolise his desired social prestige, his fall the impropriety of the wish (pp.35-36). Also, the tale contains the characteristic propaganda for reading. John is first distracted from his grief for his parents' death, and set on the road to success, by an encounter with Robinson Crusoe. Interestingly, it is the prints which accompany the text which attract his attention, particularly 'the one where Man Friday is saved from the savages' (a reference which, once more, suggests something about Blackford's expected audience, namely that they would be familiar with the classics of children's literature: pp. 3-4). Later in life, when John has achieved some material success, we are pointedly told that his idyllic home contains 'a bookcase, well filled with books' (as well as a couple of Raeburn portraits: p.197). But Blackford's tale is unusual of its kind for its novelistic qualities. Its overt moralising is set amid an exciting narrative, especially once Captain Elliott enters the fray. Once John is taken on as his manservant, the reader is treated to a sea-battle with the French, a shipwreck, John's imprisonment in a castle in the Pyrenees, and his escape, disguised as an old French soldier, with a mysterious parcel which he has promised his dying friend to deliver to London. All the while, the body-count has remained high, allowing Blackford every opportunity for pathos. The sudden denouement, which makes John rich and restores him to his child-hood sweet-heart, would be worthy of any contemporary novel. Some moral tales were all moral and no tale. The Eskdale Herd-Boy was equally split. It is not difficult to see why it ran to three editions, and was still being reprinted in 1850.


Ch.1 (p.1): It is 1807. John and Marion Telfer live in a neat cottage in a Dumfriesshire village. John's story is given as a flashback. His impoverished parents died when he was ten years old. His father was a shoe-maker. The local minister, Mr Martin, took him in and set him to dust some books. One caught his eye - Robinson Crusoe. He was given permission to read it and did so with joy, especially appreciating the illustrations. H could not read with great facility, his family having been too poor to pay the penny-a-week subscription for school. Mr Martin proposes to John that he become a herd-boy and that he will teach him for an hour every evening.

Ch.2 (p.12): The Minister and his daughter, Helen, with John running behind, go up the glen to visit a poor family. David Little, the father of the family, has broken his leg. They dispense some meagre charity, and Helen even lectures the boy, Tom, for saying that their dog 'told' his mother of his father's accident, when in fact it had only 'barked' to draw her attention to it.

Ch.3 (p.25): Archie Kerr, a local man, has found a hoard of Roman coins at the Roman Camp. When John rushes to tell Mr. Martin about the find, his impatience makes him fix spurs made of pins to his feet in order to make the ass he is riding go faster. As a result he gets thrown, although he lands safely. Marion Scott, the daughter of Mr. Martin's gardener, mends John's shirt.

Ch.4 (p.43): Helen asks her mother if she can use the half-guinea she was given by her grandmother to buy clothes for David Little's 'almost naked' children. Her mother advises that 'you may do exactly as you please with your half guinea, it is your own' (p.45), but counsels Helen to think it over before acting. Would she not want a new gown for going to Melrose the following Summer? And Helen's mother will not be able to afford a new gown this year. Helen remains undecided. The Martin household hears that Marion is unwell and that someone has been sent to fetch the doctor. Knowing that the messenger was prone to drinking, on his own initiative John ran down himself to fetch the doctor. Mr Martin is worried about his unexplained absence and chides him for not revealing where he had gone (which John had not done because he did not want to tell tales of the drunken messenger.

Ch.5 (p.54): John has to run to the village of Langholm for the doctor, for both Helen and Marion have measles. He finds Archie, the original messenger, drunk and fallen in the road and has to get help to rescue him. The Minister reads Archie a lecture, and he reforms, thanking John and warning him against drinking.

Ch.6 (p.66): John goes to see Marion and gets given some large pots which he carries home to Mr. Martin's manse with the help of Tom Little and Peggy Oliphant. He hears that the Minister's brother-in-law, Captain Elliot, a naval officer, has landed with a French prize.

Ch.7 (p.79): John becomes a herd-boy. The jolly shepherd, Will, takes him under his wing and teaches him to knit, to manage sheep and sheep-dogs, and to make and play a whistle. John faithfully goes to his lessons with Mr Martin who allows him to take a copy of Robinson Crusoe to the hills. Two months pass and John makes a basket for Marion made out of rare moss.

Ch.8 (p.91): Mr and Mrs Martin's other child besides Helen is called William. He has always been violently tempered and has been sent away to Mr. Lamont's strict school in Kelso where he remains. The Martins are going over to see William on their way to Melrose to Mrs. Martin's sister. Captain Elliott, just arrived, will also visit the school. Helen did indeed use her money to buy clothes for David Little's children. She purchased a couple of dresses, of coarse woollen stuff, and a little jacket and trousers made out of an old coat. For herself, she has trimmed an old frock with a piece of new ribbon.

Ch.9 (p.104): William is found 'playing at golf, (a game something resembling cricket)' (p.134). He speaks to his uncle about going to sea, something which he knows his parents will oppose, but his uncle is unwilling to go against Mrs. Martin's wishes. Later that month William runs away from school and can be traced only as far as Edinburgh, where the trail vanishes.

Ch.10 (p.114): William has run off to his uncle in Chatham and begs to be allowed to join his ship and set sail for India. Captain Elliott writes to his Mr. and Mrs. Martin to gauge their opinion, and they reluctantly give their permission. However, Mrs. Martin is so saddened that she falls ill and eventually dies. She makes Helen promise to look after the family, and her grandmother comes to take care of the family.

Ch.11 (p.130): Helen is stoical in the face of her mother's death. Only her example, her grandmother points out, has kept Mr. Martin alive, for he surely would have died of grief had he not had Helen's example. John has meanwhile grown into a 'stout lad'. He has been steady in 'performing his duty, as a servant in the day, and improving his mind, with Mr. Martin, in the evening' (p.134). William Martin is to return home from sea. He reformed immediately on hearing of his mother's death and has since prospered. He will be received in the Martin household, but his grandmother will return to Langholm fearing that she will die if she sees the grandson who caused the death of her daughter.

Ch.12 (p.143): William has entirely reformed and is well-received by his family. He and John rescue Marion from a snowstorm. When he has to go back to sea, John is taken with his as Captain Elliott's manservant.

Ch.13 (p.158): The grandmother dies. At sea, William is sent on a mission in a stormy sea, and does not return. He is presumed drowned. Captain Elliott the dies during combat with the French. John and the rest of the crew are captured and imprisoned near Toulouse. Helen is informed of this first. She cries but is quite stoical, but she knows she will have to tell her father. She does not. By chance, he hears from a sailor that his son has drowned. He collapses and dies.

Ch.14 (p.169): With the death of her father and brother, Helen has to seek a new life. After a while she goes to Edinburgh as an apprentice dress-maker and lives a hard life with one Miss Maxwell, who had prospered after taking the same course in her own youth. Helen's only consolations are Sundays, when she can hear good preachers and read from the library. A new minister takes over in Eskdale. Marion, meanwhile, has gone to London as a servant. John's friend and protector in the French prison dies, giving him a package to deliver to London if ever he should gain his freedom. John plans his escape from the castle in the Pyranees in which they are all held. He does escape in the disguise of an old French soldier.

Ch.15 (p.183): John delivers his erstwhile friend's package to a house in Portman Square and finds that Marion now lives there as an upper servant. The package contains crucial documents and a will which awards the bearer, John, £500. He and Marion decide to marry and move back to Eskdale. Her parents buy them the house and farm which John had so much admired early in the novel, dreaming of one day living there. They prevail upon Helen to live with them. She had had to look after her mistress, Miss Maxwell, who had been ill, and the business, in which Helen had become a partner, had suffered. John has portraits of Mr and Mrs Martin copied by Mr Raeburn, 'the celebrated artist' (p.197). In less than a year, Helen marries the widowed minister in Eskdale, Mr Johnstone, he having fallen in love with her while she was educating his daughter. John and Marion have three children, the eldest of whom is named William Martin. He is Helen's favourite, but she stops herself doting on him, knowing that it was her grandmother's spoiling of William Martin I which caused him to be so troublesome and disobedient, which had such terrible results. She urges Marion and John 'to train him from his earliest days in habits of obedience' (p.199).