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Stories Before 1850. 0092: Thomas Day, The History of Sandford and Merton

Author: Day, Thomas
Title: The History of Sandford and Merton, Abridged from the Original. For the Amusement and Instruction of Juvenile Minds. Embellished with Elegant Plates
Cat. Number: 0092
Date: 1813
1st Edition: 1783-89
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: Darton, Harvey, and Darton, Gracechurch-Street
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 107pp.
Size: 14 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus five engravings
Note: An abridgement

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0092

Introductory essay

Sandford and Merton was published anonymously in three parts in 1783, 1786 and 1789. Almost immediately, Thomas Day (1748-1789) was recognised as the author, and, much to his surprise, the book went on to become his most famous work. It was perhaps the most famous children's book of its own day, and was still being read a century later.

Day had at first intended a work of this sort to serve as a contribution to a larger project planned by his friend Robert Lovell Edgeworth, perhaps something like Day's own Children's Miscellany of 1787 (0090). In the event, Sandford and Merton took on a life of its own, and swelled to volume-length, and then to three volumes when its popularity became clear. Similarly surprising to the author would have been what would become most celebrated about his work. As his preface to the full edition makes clear (not reproduced in the Hockliffe editions), Day originally thought of his book as a collection of separate stories bound together by a frame narrative of his own devising. The narrative, he hoped, would have the effect of making each story 'appear to rise naturally out of the subject', and would therefore make 'a greater impression' on 'the tender mind of a child' (6th 'corrected' edn., 1791, 1:vi). For Day, the narrative was to be subordinate to the individual inset stories and lessons - some moral tales, some lectures on anything from astronomy or zoology - which fill the book. What Sandford and Merton became known for, however, was this connecting narrative, the account of the friendship, and fallings out, of the two boys, Tommy Merton and Harry Sandford. Day drew their characters, and more especially their relationship, too well to allow the frame to remain as unobtrusive as that of, say, the Arabian Nights.

That readers soon came to value the frame narrative more than the inset tales is evident from the emphasis of the many abridgements produced in the half century or so after Sandford and Merton's first publication. As early as 1790, just a year after the appearance of volume three, the book was abridged by Richard Johnson who produced a version for Elizabeth Newbery to publish. Although only one of the Hockliffe editions of Sandford and Merton is advertised as being abridged, both in fact omit large sections of Day's original. The earlier edition, dated 1813 (0092), can be regarded as a 'traditional' abridgement of the full text. It condenses long passages, removes those sections on educational theory ('not one word of which any child will understand', as Day admitted in his preface) and omits several of the longer inset tales, but for the most part, it stays true to Day's overall plan. The abridger of the later edition in the Hockliffe Collection (0091) adopted a different approach. Here almost the entirety of volume one is retained, but in volume two, several passages are excised, some small and some large, and as for volume three, which was over 300 pages long in the full version, it has been condensed into just five and a half pages. Volume three of the original edition was dominated by three long inset narratives, with Tommy merely an auditor and Harry entirely absent, and this surely explains why it has been almost wholly excised. What has been cut from volume two - amongst much else, a long discourse on the use of telescopes, the natural history of the whale, a lecture on the use of levers, the story of Leonidas the Spartan - is similarly irrelevant to the story of the two protagonists, although it had surely been central to Day's design. Oddly, however, this digest of Day's original omits what was probably the most dramatic moment in the book - Harry's rescue of Tommy from an angry bull and his subsequent decision, in the very moment of his victory, to leave Tommy to his new, fashionable friends and to depart for home. (Had this been included, it would have fitted into 0091 at p.215, but it does appear in 0092 at pp.73-74.)

In these abridgements much of what was controversial about Day's text is also omitted, although this cannot be ascribed to deliberate censorship since such large chunks of the original text are missing. Out, for instance, go Mr. Barlow reflections on wealth:

the accumulation of riches .. can never increase, but by the increasing poverty and degradation of those whom Heaven has created equal; a thousand cottages are thrown down to afford space for a single palace. (6th 'corrected' edition, 1791, 1:36)

or, more concisely, 'the rich do nothing and produce nothing, and the poor everything that is really useful...' (6th 'corrected' edition, 1791, 3:91). And out, also, go those sections which Mary Wollstonecraft praised in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Most instructional writing, she lamented, 'which has hitherto been addressed to women, has rather been applicable to ladies', but from this general censure she specifically exempted 'the little indirect advice that is scattered through "Sandford and Merton"' (Wollstonecraft 1792: 81). Later she quoted the particular passages she meant, and it is easy to see just why they gained her approval. 'If women are in general feeble both in body and mind,' Day had written,

it arises less from nature than from education. We encourage a vicious indolence and inactivity, which we falsely call delicacy. Instead of hardening their minds by the severer principles of reason and philosophy, we breed them to useless arts, which terminate in vanity and sensuality. (Quoted in Wollstonecraft 1792: 126-127n.)

In fact, when Wollstonecraft first published her Vindication, it was not generally regarded as at all controversial (she only began to be demonised after her husband, William Godwin, published her Memoirs in 1798), and it would also be wrong to think of Sandford and Merton as adopting a radically feminist position. After all, as conservative a writer as Jane West would take a similar stance against female 'accomplishments' - dancing, playing the piano or harp, drawing, and so on - in her Sorrows of Selfishness (0140, see for example pp.32-33).

On the other hand, West or her ally Sarah Trimmer would surely have unleashed the full measure of their invective against Day for his thoughts on the wrongs of wealth had he published during the more politically fraught 1790s. In the age of the French Revolution and the anti-Jacobin response to it in Britain, Rousseau became a hate-figure. He was as much an enemy of the state, in the eyes of the conservative majority, as Robespierre or Marat, Paine or Godwin, or any of the Jacobins, French or British. Day (like Wollstonecraft) made no secret of his admiration of Rousseau, and his own well-known (and unsuccessful) attempt to take a young, uncorrupted girl from an orphanage and 'rear' her up as a perfect wife for himself testifies to his willingness to out-Rousseau Rousseau. The influence of Rousseau's mile is everywhere in Sandford and Merton. Harry is the personification of Rousseau's ideas. He abjures the decadence of modern life, as the reader sees when he is first taken to the Merton home. To the surprise of Tommy Merton and his parents, Harry is unimpressed, and even critical, of their luxuries, their fine food, their many possessions, preferring his own uncomplicated life of hard work, active virtue and simple pleasures. The narrative follows Tommy's conversion to these same values, the first step towards which is his return to the land, Harry and Mr. Barlow showing him how to work in the garden to produce what food he needs. Another indicator of the influence of Rousseau are the many Robinsonnades which are used as inset stories. Robinson Crusoe had been the one book recommended for mile, and no genre of stories better illustrates the pleasures of the simple, 'uncivilised' life (and for a discussion of Day's revision of a pseudo-Robinsonnade, 'The Gentleman and the Basket-Maker' (pp.17-23), for use as one of the inset stories in Sandford and Merton see the essay accompanying 0121).

Yet another hall-mark of Rousseau's influence is the absence of fairy tales from the inset narratives chosen by Day. In this contempt for the supernatural, Day would have found an ally in Sarah Trimmer, but she certainly would not have been able to stomach his Rousseau-inspired view of religion. Sandford and Merton is a religious book, but in a broad sense. Day wished to encourage an appreciation of the numinous, but even though his mentor-figure, Mr. Barlow, was a clergyman, he eschewed any discussion of theology or organised religion. Such writing for children may have been what West, Trimmer's lieutenant, had in mind when she wrote in her Sorrows of Selfishness (1802, rpt. 1812; 0140) that,

Every serious person must lament the striking alteration which has taken place in the fabrication of children's books within these few years; formerly the writers of these bagatelles remembered that they were addressing the offspring of christian parents. They frequently inforced their observations by quotations from scripture; they recommended a punctual performance of religious duties; and they reminded their young readers, that they were immortal beings. It is not from accident, but design, that these subjects are now avoided. Our nurseries are stored with very liberal publications, equally adapted to the instruction of Jews, Turks, Pagans, or infidels. No degree of cleverness in the composition, however superlative it may be, can atone for this insuperable contamination. (p.ix.n)

It seems likely that Day would have been proud of producing a book for children with such universal appeal. And in any case, in spite of West's admonitions, Day's deism did not hinder Sandford and Merton's success. It was still being read long after West, and even Trimmer, had been all but forgotten. It is ironic, though, that a text which in the era of its first publication was radical in so many ways, came to be regarded by the mid-nineteenth century as the embodiment of a conventional, priggish, overly-moral and obsolete form of children's literature.

The date of the later version of Sandford and Merton in the Hockliffe Collection is difficult to establish with certainty. The book was published by 'Darton and Co.' at 57 Holborn Hill, and it has been established that this imprint was being used at least from 1845 to 1847 (Brown 1982: 53). This loosely fits with the dates of publication of 'Peter Parley's Works', advertised in the book-list at the back of the volume, which were in print with Darton in the early 1840s. On the other hand, I have been able to find no record of those books advertised as 'now in the course of publication' on the final page of the book-list - 'Peter Parley's New Series' - until the early 1860s.

For a work which might perhaps have been written as a riposte to Sandford and Merton see 0208. For further discussion of Sandford and Merton see Darton 1983: 144-47; Rowland 1996: ch.14; and Jackson 1989: 157-59.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792; rpt. ed. Miriam Brody, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985

Wollstonecraft, Mary, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792; rpt. ed. Miriam Brody, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985

Brown, Philip A. H., London Publishers and Printers, c.1800-1870, London: British Library, 1982

Darton, F. G. Harvey, Children's Books in England: Five centuries of social life, Cambridge: CUP, 1932; third edition, revised by Brian Alderson, 1982

Rowland, Peter, The Life and Times of Thomas Day, 1748-1789. English Philanthropist and Author. Virtue Almost Personified, Studies in British History, Vol. 39, Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996

Jackson, Mary V., Engines of Instruction. Mischief, and Magic: Children's Literature in England from Its Beginning to 1839, Lincoln, Neb., 1989