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Stories Before 1850. 0195: Thomas Percival, A Father's Instructions

Author: Percival, Thomas
Title: A Father's Instructions; consisting of Moral Tales, Fables, and Reflections; Designed to Promote the Love of Virtue, a Taste for Knowledge, and an Early Acquaintance with the Works of Nature ... A New Edition
Cat. Number: 0195
Date: 1789
1st Edition: 1775 (pt.1) and 1777 (pt.2)
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: Robert Dodsley
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., xx + 217pp.
Size: 17 x 10 cm
Illustrations: None

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Page 002 of item 0195

Introductory essay

Thomas Percival (1740-1804) was born into a prominent dissenting family residing in Warrington, Lancashire. He is said to have been the first student to enrol in the Warrington Academy, established in 1757, which would go on to become the most prestigious college for non-conformists in the mid to late eighteenth century. In Warrington, Percival would surely have known his near contemporaries John and Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Barbauld (1747-1822 and 1743-1825). Their father, also called John Aikin, was one of the first appointees at the Warrington Academy, where he carried on teaching until his death in 1780. His children grew up in a community centred around the Academy. Later, of course, both would go on to become celebrated children's authors, most famously with their joint project, Evenings at Home, published in parts in the 1790s (see 0052, 0053 and 0054). Like John Aikin junior, Thomas Percival trained as a medical doctor before turning to children's literature. Percival and Aikin both studied in Edinburgh and then Leyden in Holland. By the time Percival had completed his training, he had been elected as a fellow of the Royal Society (he was reputedly the youngest person who had been, up to that time, elected for fellowship). He published various medical, scientific and mathematical papers during the course of his life, but became best known for his humanitarian endeavours, mostly on behalf of the inhabitants of Manchester, where he lived for most of his adult life. He wrote, for instance, against the prevailing conditions of factory working and in favour of schemes of public sanitation.

A Father's Instructions appeared in three parts. The first was published in 1775 and, after an apparently enthusiastic reception, a second followed in 1777. These two sections are published together in this edition of 1789. The third part was forthcoming in 1800, and it contains material more theological in nature, such as a rather lengthy article 'On the Divine Permission of Evil, Natural and Moral'. Some additional articles were also added to the earlier parts. The whole project was hugely successful. A tenth edition was published in 1806, although in fact, with provincial and Irish editions, there had been almost double that number of separate editions published. There were also at least nine editions in the United States before the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as several anthologies which relied heavily on Percival's work, such as The Young Gentleman's Pocket Library, or, Parental Monitor (1792). Percival himself published two works which he billed as sequels to A Father's Instructions - A Socratic discourse on Truth and Faithfulness (1781) and Moral and Literary Dissertations (1784).

It is not immediately easy to account for this popularity. A Father's Instructions is filled with a rather miscellaneous collection of anecdotes, each one teaching a fairly simply factual or moral lesson. Percival clearly believed that he was making these lessons more interesting and engaging than they usually were, for he railed against the standard dry didacticism of the age which, he said, usually caused an aversion against the precepts that it was trying to instil (pp.xi-xii). Some of the anecdotes are new, and some are appropriated from other sources. Stories or epigrams attributed to Voltaire and various classical authors frequently appear, as does the work of more recent authors such as Mrs. Barbauld (e.g. pp.146-147). The author and his children, for whom, Percival claimed, he originally assembled the collection, appear in some of the anecdotes. Percival refers to himself as 'Euphronius', and provides Latin pseudonyms for his children too. Percival stated his three aims in the 'Preface'. He wanted to inspire moral excellence by showing 'the beauty of virtue and the deformity of vice' (p.xi). Second, he wanted to awaken curiosity and convey knowledge of 'the works of God', which, he insisted, could only be achieved by writing of such things as his readers might expect to see in their day-to-day lives (p.xii). Third, and rather idiosyncratically, he wanted to use his writing to promote familiarity with new vocabulary and idioms (p.xii).

Leaving aside this last aim, Percival seems to be on the right track to success in his main objects - to promote good morals and expand knowledge. As was so often the case in eighteenth century children's literature, certain emblematic themes are taken up as signifiers of virtue. Cruelty to animals, for instance, is deplored throughout the work, and it functions as a synecdoche of all vice. Factual information is also present in large doses. The two combine in 'The Ass', for example (starts p.132). Here, some Manchester labourers, are condemned for gambling over whether to use their scanty cash to buy provender for their asses or to get drunk themselves. By implication, they are criticised for their gambling and their drunkenness, but the sin most reviled in the text is their cruelty to the animals which represents the totality of their corruption. Alongside this moral lesson, there is also a long disquisition on the natural history of the ass. Amongst the many other stories and anecdotes there are those which warn against too much study ('Immoderate Study': p.202), which suggest simple experiments with snow ('An Easy and Instructive Experiment': starts p.202) and which criticise a young boy for not waiting around to observe the predatory habits of a rattle-snake, but fleeing as soon as the snake rears up (pp.211-212).