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Stories Before 1850. 0140: Jane West, The Sorrows of Selfishness

Author: West, Jane
Title: The Sorrows of Selfishness; or, The History of Miss Richmore. By Mrs. Prudentia Homespun
Cat. Number: 0140
Date: 1812
1st Edition: 1802
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: J. Harris, St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., xviii + 53pp.
Size: 14 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: 12 woodcuts

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0140

Introductory essay

'Prudentia Homespun' was the pseudonym frequently used by Jane West (1758-1852). West was a novelist, playwright and poet, as well as - in this single instance it appears - a writer for children. She also produced conduct books for men - her Letters Addressed to a Young Man - and for women - her Letters to a Young Lady. Her work was always politically and socially conservative as well as zealously Anglican. Indeed, if her prefaces are to be believed, it is only because of her deep anxiety about the precarious position of the political, social and religious status quo that she permitted herself to write at all. For a working woman such as herself, she held, writing was a waste of time. But in the 1790s and early 1800s, West felt that the French Revolution, and the British radicals who drew their inspiration from it, constituted such a menace to church and state that she was obliged to take up her pen. She even overcame her hostility to the novel, which she had mocked in her first prose work The Advantages of Education, to produce one anti-Jacobin novel after another from A Gossip's Story in 1796 to The Loyalists in 1812. Her trepidation about doing this was clear, but so was the logic of her rationale:

The rage for novels does not decrease; and, though I by no means think them the best vehicles for 'the words of sound doctrine'; yet while the enemies of our church and state continue to pour their poison into unwary ears through this channel, it behoves the friends of our establishments to convey an antidote by the same course; especially as those who are most likely to be infected by false principles, will not search for a refutation of them in profound and scientific compositions. (West 1802: I, ii)

It was very much the same rationale that caused West to write a children's book, as the 'Address to Parents' and 'Introduction' which open The Sorrows of Selfishness make clear. She may not have had quite so low an opinion of children's literature as she had of novels, but she still considered that, 'Every serious person must lament the striking alteration which has taken place in the fabrication of children's books within these few years...' (p.ix.n). Worse, as West saw it, children's books had also become the vehicles for Jacobinism, just as had been the case with novels. In her self-justifying 'Introduction' West has Eliza, a young friend of hers, relate that

A great many very entertaining books are made, but my mamma will not let several of them come into the nursery; for she says, that they are written by people who call themselves philosophers, and teach very naughty doctrines: I am almost afraid to tell you, but she actually says that she has read in these books that, when little children say their prayers, they talk nonsense; that kings are generally bad men; and that we need not obey our parents and tutors unless we like it. (pp.xiii-xiv)

This was levelling and infidelity, the 'new philosophy' of the British 'Jacobins' such as Thomas Paine and William Godwin. West was determined to fight it wherever she found it, evidently even if it meant introducing politics into children's books herself, albeit always in a greatly simplified form. However, the inclusion of these prefaces, in which West carefully explains her reasons for writing and depicts Eliza repeatedly begging her to write, still betrays a certain rather surprising trepidation about writing such stuff for children.

In fact, a more direct inspiration for West's children's book than even Eliza's entreaties might have been Sarah Trimmer, with whom West had been corresponding since June 1801, the year before the first publication of The Sorrows of Selfishness. Trimmer had been impressed by West's early novels, and had sought out her acquaintance (Trimmer 1825: 429-31). They became firm friends - 'sister authors' was Trimmer's term, which West borrowed for her eulogy of Trimmer, published in the Gentleman's Magazine (March 1811). Trimmer and West certainly shared their hostility to contemporary children's literature. Trimmer's response was to publish her own books for children, and to produce The Guardian of Education, a periodical dedicated to reviewing children's literature which would excoriate bad books and commend good. Her criteria were not literary, but ideological and religious. The same criteria were clearly the basis for West's judgments too. 'Our nurseries are stored with very liberal publications,' she wrote, no longer Christian, but 'equally adapted to the instruction of Jews, Turks, Pagans, or infidels. No degree of cleverness in the composition,' West insisted, 'however superlative it may be, can atone for this insuperable contamination.' (p.ix) What West most objected to was the tendency of modern children's writers to place plot before religious truth, and to show virtue always leading to material and worldly happiness and vice always ending in earthly misery. On the one hand, such an approach was foolish because readers would see through it: 'Nothing is more contrary to general experience,' she wrote, 'than the expectation that virtue is sure to be rewarded by visible prosperity.' (p.vii) And on the other hand, this idea that virtue could be significantly rewarded on Earth was in itself suspect. It was only in Heaven that true felicity could be arrived at. Sufferings on Earth were to be welcomed, because they helped a soul to arrive at a state of grace. It was a 'wholesome truth, that man is born to suffer.' And it was only 'Philosophism' - that is to say Jacobin 'new philosophy' - which denied this, and pretended that a paradise could be achieved on Earth (this was probably an attack on William Godwin's ideas of 'perfectibility' - that the practice of virtue would ultimately lead man to perfect his nature and live in perfect happiness - (p.viii). Rather, then, the author of children's books should acknowledge the suffering of life, show the reader that things do not always end happily in this life, and thus prepare him or her 'for disappointments ... [and] to endure calamity with dignified patience.' (pp.x-xi)

In the event, West did not follow her plan through. Despite what she had written in her 'Introduction', her tale does end with the selfish Miss Susannah Richmore punished and the virtuous Sally Bloomfield rewarded, both in distinctly worldly terms. Sally ends up happy, prosperous and well-married. Susannah ends poor, childless and close to death, having run off with Captain Harebrain. This, then, is as conventional as any of the novels West professed to loathe. Indeed The Sorrows of Selfishness does read very much like a contemporary novel, save that the heroine's childhood (generally taking up no more than a chapter or two of a novel) takes centre stage, and her elopement and unhappy marriage (usually the novel's main subject) is compressed into a few paragraphs. Throughout Susannah has been the major figure. It is her fits of anger, her self-absorption and her wilfulness which the narrator, her cousin Prudentia, has been observing and condemning, occasionally wishing that she had brought, and been allowed to use, 'that useful instrument called a rod, which is a very fine invention to humble pride, and to soften hard hearts by making them acquainted with suffering.' (p.16) Sally Bloomfield plays only a small part in the narrative, acting merely as a foil to Susannah. She is the embodiment of all West values in a young girl: she could not sing, play on the harp, dance, draw, paint or talk French, but she was a good needlewoman, could say all Dr. Watt's hymns by heart, wrote with a neat hand, and was always commended by the clergyman for saying her catechism in a very 'sensible' manner (pp.32-33).

The Hockliffe copy of The Sufferings of Selfishness is the fourth edition, published in 1812, ten years after the first printing. The fourth differs from the first edition in several respects. Whereas the first edition was brought out by T. N. Longman and O. Rees, and John Harris, the fourth was published by Harris alone. Harris substantially altered the layout of the text, compressing the more than 80 pages of the main body of the story into just 53. He also added twelve wood-cuts, a rather outdated form of illustration by 1812, whilst removing the engraved frontispiece which had been the first edition's only image. These wood-cuts are somewhat crude but are all very lively. The illustration of a fair and a Punch and Judy show on p.7, for instance, is almost Hogarthian in its composition and depiction of everyday life.

The Hockliffe copy is encased in unusual diamond-patterned Dutch boards. An inscription on the fly-leaf reads 'Louisa Mashiter from her mother'. Several books in the Hockliffe Collection were owned by the two Miss Mashiters (0128, 0180, 0186, 0210, 0256). Those which are dated record that they were purchased, or at least inscribed, in the mid-1830s. If The Sorrows of Selfishness was also in use in the mid-'30s, more than twenty years afterits publication, this inscription might be taken as testament to West's enduring appeal.

See The Guardian of Education, I (1802), 66-67 for Trimmer's very favourable review of The Sorrows of Selfishness, and Grenby 2001 for an examination of West's anti-Jacobin fiction and its contexts.

West, Jane, The Infidel Father, London, 1802

Grenby, M. O., The Anti-Jacobin Novel. British Conservatism and the French Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001