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Stories Before 1850. 0160: Charles and Mary Lamb, Mrs. Leicester's School

Author: Lamb, Charles, and Lamb, Mary Anne
Title: Mrs. Leicester's School; or, the History of Several Young Ladies, related by themselves. Eleventh edition revised and improved
Cat. Number: 0160
Date: 1836
1st Edition: 1809
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: Baldwin and Cradock
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., xii + 172pp. plus 8 pages of advertisements
Size: 18 x 11 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus title-page vignette
Note: Inscription reads: 'Sybella Gertrude Dammet [?] / a Birthday present from / her Mama Feb.y 11th 1839'

Images of all pages of this book

Page 005 of item 0160

Introductory essay

Mrs. Leicester's School was first published in 1809 by William and Mary Jane Godwin. It had gone through eight editions by 1823 and, as is evident from this version, at least eleven by 1836. The authors were initially anonymous, but they were soon revealed to be the brother and sister Charles and Mary Anne Lamb (1775-1834 and 1764-1847). Following the release of Mary from an asylum, where she had been placed after the murder of her mother, the Lambs had become established as successful children's authors with their famous Tales from Shakespear (published under Charles' name). This had first appeared from the Godwins' press in 1807, by which time a number of Charles' other works for children had also been published, such as The Queen of Hearts (1805: see 0800) and The Adventures of Ulysses (1806). The Lambs' joint Poetry for Children was to follow in 1811.

Mrs. Leicester's School contains ten separate inset tales bound together by the frame narrative which almost wholly recedes by the later stories. This frame is constructed in the 'Dedication' (beginning p.iii) and establishes that the tales are those told by pupils in a school, later written down by their teacher. This structure is similar to that used by Boccaccio in the Decameron, but a greater debt is owed to Sarah Fielding's The Governess (1749). The authors come close to admitting this when they have their narrator, the young teacher, explain that she had read 'in old authors,' - by whom she might mean Fielding (but could just as well be referring to Boccaccio or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) - 'that it was not infrequent in former times, when strangers were assembled together ... for them to amuse themselves with telling stories, either of their own lives, or the adventures of others' (pp.vi-vii). The Lambs' governess' plan is for each child who has come to the school, and is currently lonely and frightened, to tell the story of their life to the assembled class. This will break the ice and, of course, allow plenty of scope for moral and didactic observations.

Of the ten tales in the volume, Mary wrote seven and Charles wrote three which appear towards the end of the volume - 'The Effect of Witch Stories', 'First Going to Church' and 'The Sea Voyage' - possibly because Mary fell ill towards the close of the project. Each piece is labelled with the name of the teller and with a title too. The first, for instance, is called 'Elizabeth Villiers; or, The Sailor Uncle'. The publisher included an extract from the Critical Review's article on the book to premise this first tale (December 1808). 'The child or parent who reads the history of Elizabeth Villiers', it says, 'will, in spite of any resolution to the contrary, be touched to the heart, if not melted into tears' (p.xii). It is indeed an affecting story, a little sentimental perhaps, but not unlike the work of Wordsworth - 'We are seven', for instance. As with all the tales, the narrator is the child herself, looking back on her infancy. She tells of her life with her father, a curate, and of their daily trips to her mother's grave where she would be taught to read, 'the epitaph on my mother's tomb being my primer and my spelling-book' (p.2). Their felicity, as she sees it, is only interrupted when a stranger appears and asks Elizabeth to take him to her mother. The reader knows that this man is Elizabeth's uncle, her mother's brother, a seaman just returned who knows nothing of his sister's death. When the seaman is taken to the grave he is, of course, greatly saddened, and at his meeting with Elizabeth's father both men shed tears. Elizabeth hates her uncle for making her father cry and for bringing sorrow and an awareness of death into the family. Previously she had thought of her mother's tomb as a happy place. Now, for the first time, she associates it with loss and death.

If the uncle brings death into the infant narrator's paradise, he also brings knowledge. Thinking that he might mitigate the grief of both father and daughter by persuading them not to visit the mother's tomb, he purchases books so that Elizabeth's education can be continued by more conventional means. The reception Elizabeth gives to the books is perhaps representative more generally of children's attitude to their books:

He untied his parcel, and said "Betsy, I have bought you a pretty book." I turned my head away, and said, "I don't want a book;" but I could not help peeping again to look at it. In the hurry of opening the parcel, he had scattered all the books upon the ground, and there I saw fine gilt covers and gay pictures all fluttering about. What a fine sight! - All my resentment vanished, and I held up by face to kiss him, that being my way of thanking my father for any extraordinary favour. (pp.10-11)

The books were objects of desire, and such a gift can soon overcome her hostility to the giver. Over the next months Elizabeth is taught to read by her uncle. He teases her by calling her 'Little Red Riding Hood', and he tells her of his adventures on deserted islands like that of Robinson Crusoe (p.13), references perhaps to which books she has been using. When at last it is time for him to leave again Elizabeth is heart-broken. It takes a sermon from her father to teach her that all human life is punctuated by these departures and absences, either through force of circumstance or death. Sadness at parting is natural, but it must be borne. The central moral of the story, then, though never overtly stated, is that life must go on despite loss. This applies equally to Elizabeth, who loses the companionship of her uncle, and to her father, who by the end of the tale has come to terms with the loss of his wife.

Throughout the tale Lamb has managed to represent very realistically the innocent yet deeply felt feelings of the narrator. This is true for all of the tales. The delight of Louisa Manners, for instance, when she is allowed to ride in a post-chaise, and when she first sees green grass and young lambs, is well expressed (pp.22-23). She is a Londoner, and the whole tale is simply a description of her astonishment at the bucolic pleasures to be had in the countryside. This was possibly autobiographical on the part of Mary Lamb. Equally well expressed is the agony of Ann Withers, narrator of 'The Changeling', an altogether more serious tale (begins p.37). Its narrative relates that Ann's mother, wet-nurse to Sir Edward and Lady Harriet Lesley, substituted her own child - Ann - for the infant Miss Lesley. This went unnoticed for several years, with Ann growing up as the baronet's child and Miss Lesley being brought up by Ann's mother. The real Miss Lesley was invited to share in the education which Sir Edward and Lady Harriet were providing for their supposed child. Though sworn to secrecy by her foster-mother, Miss Lesley eventually lets Ann into the secret of their birth, but she is determined not to reveal the deception for the sake of her foster-mother. Some time later though, Ann is asked to write a play for the entertainment of some visitors to Sir Edward and Lady Harriet. Unable to think of a better subject she writes a history of the exchange of babies. She does not fear any repercussions from this for Miss Lesley and her foster-mother, she believes, will not be present, but in fact they do see the play, and their reactions betray the truth of the drama. Ann is therefore exposed as an impostor, albeit innocent of the crime herself, and she and Miss Lesley are swapped back to their rightful places. This then is the story, but the narrative is surrounded by the narrator's musings on her predicament and on the relationship between the two girls after the revelation of their true parentage. Naturally, this leads to some discussion of the importance of nature and nurture in forming character, and of the qualifications and qualities needful for the life of people in different social spheres.

The rest of the tales are shorter than 'The Changeling' and deal with a variety of subjects. 'Maria Howe: The Effect of Witch Stories' tells of the narrator's mistaking her aunt for a witch on account of the stories which have been told to her. This might have been written to prove John Locke's dictum that tales of the supernatural - of ghosts and hobgoblins - are likely to disturb young minds. 'The Young Mohomettan' describes the Moslem education a young Christian girl gives herself by poring over old books in her family's library. The last tale, 'Arabella Hardy: The Sea Voyage' tells of a journey of the young heroine, an orphan with no one to protect her, from India to Britain. Luckily she is taken under the wing of a brave sailor named Atkinson, but who his universally known by the name 'Betsy' because of his feminine appearance. By the end of the tale he has died of a wound inflicted while he was courageously defending his ship from attack.