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Stories Before 1850. 0206: Elizabeth Sandham, The Twin Sisters; or, the Advantages of Religion

Author: Sandham, Elizabeth
Title: The Twin Sisters; or, the Advantages of Religion. By Miss Sandham; Author of Many Approved Works for Young Persons. Eighth Edition
Cat. Number: 0206
Date: 1816
1st Edition: 1805
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: J. Harris, Corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., viii + 208pp. plus two pages of advertisements
Size: 17.5 x 10 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece
Note: Another copy of 0205 - see there for page images

Introductory essay

Little is known about Elizabeth Sandham except that she was one of the most prolific and successful children's authors of the early nineteenth century. A list of her work, assembled from the British Library catalogue and Marjorie Moon's bibliography of John Harris's Books for Youth (Moon 1987: 109-11) reveals that she published at the rate of over a book a year for the entire first quarter of the nineteenth century:

1.The happy family at Eason House. Exhibited in the amiable conduct of the little Nelsons and their parents, 1799 (rpt. 1822)
2.Juliana; or, the affectionate sisters, c.1800-1801
3.Trifles; or, friendly mites towards improving the rising generation, 1800
4.The Red Book and the Black One, 1802
5.Addresses of an Affectionate Mother to her Children, 1803?
6.More Trifles, for the benefit of the rising generation, 1804
7.The Twin Sisters; or, The Advantages of Religion, 1805 (rpt.1807, 1809, 1810, 1812, 1813, 1814, 1816, 1817, 1819, 1821, 1824, 1825, 1828, 1830, 1832, 1835, 1839)
8.Select Fables [translated from Jean Pierre Claris de Florian], 1806
9.The Orphan, 1808
10.Adventures of a Bullfinch, 1809
11.The Adventures of Poor Puss, 1809
12.Alithea Woodley; or The advantages of early friendship founded on virtue, c.1810 (rpt. c.1806 and c.1813)
13.Pleasure and Improvement Blended, 1810 (rpt. 1819)
14.The Perambulations of a Bee and a Butterfly, 1812 (rpt. 1816)
15.The Travels of St. Paul, 1812
16.Dangers of Early Indulgence, c.1814
17.The History of William Selwyn, 1815
18.The Adopted Daughter. A tale for young persons, 1815 (rpt. 1822)
19.Conversations on Natural History, 1815?
20.Poetic Flowers. Selected by E. Sandham, c.1815-1822
21.The Grandfather; or, the Christmas Holidays, 1816
22.Conversations on Natural History, c.1818-22
23.Maria's first visit to London, c.1818
24.The Schoolfellows. A moral tale, 1818
25.The History of Britannicus and his sister Octavia, 1819
26.Lucilla; or the reconciliation, 1819
27.The Boy's School, 2nd edn. 1821
28.Chosros and Heraclius; or, the Vicissitudes of a century, 1821
29.The History of Elizabeth Woodville; or, the Wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster, 1822
30.A Visit to the Regent Iron and Brass Foundery, the Gas Manufactory, and the Royal Chain Pier, Brighton, 1824
31.Providential Care: a tale, founded on facts, 1825

Sandham worked mainly for the what was probably the principal children's publishing firm of the era, that of John Harris, successor to Elizabeth Newbery. Her titles were also brought out by Tabart, Hurst, Darton, as well as by a number of provincial firms, often in collaboration with Harris. Her single most successful title was The Twin Sisters; or, the Advantages of Religion, which reached its twentieth edition by 1839 (see below for synopsis). It had sold 12,000 copies by 1819 (Carpenter and Prichard 1984: 468). The Hockliffe Collection has two copies of the eighth edition of 1816. It is a highly Evangelical tale which deals with the spiritual and moral, and to a lesser extent, secular, education of two girls, Ellen and Anna, by their pious and charitable aunt. Sandham sets out in some detail what she considers to be the perfect curriculum for young children:
7.00 am: start the day;
8.00 am: start their lessons;
9.00 am: having learned their lessons, breakfast; having breakfasted they may play in the garden, walk with their nurse, or run charitable errands;
10.00 am: repeat the lessons learned before breakfast;
Remainder of the morning to be spent reading, writing, learning the Catechism or working according to Mrs. Irvin's directions.
Then, before dinner, they were to be tested on the lessons they had learned before breakfast a second time.
Some part of each day was to be employed in music. (pp.32-33). Sandham also clearly relied heavily on the works of Sarah Trimmer, for her various works are referred to in glowing terms on several occasions during the course of the book (e.g. pp.33 and 80.

The Twin Sisters seems a bleak, prim and, above all, excruciatingly pious tale to modern eyes. Sandham is not afraid of including a sermon in her text, although, for the most part, it is the narrative which proves her point that a life of religion is both more satisfying in the short term, and more lastingly important, than a life of secular pleasures. The narrative does contain its share of deaths and weddings, the staple incidents of so much fiction. But Sandham has a curious habit of announcing that a death is about to happen before the victim is even ill (e.g. p.159). The marriage of her heroine occurs right at the close of the 'novel' and is described in less detail than is generally used in the announcements column of a newspaper (p.207). What is perhaps most curious is that one of the eponymous twins is killed off just half way through the book. Though this allows an edifying lesson in how to die, and how to respond to the death of a loved one, this cannot but affront a reader who has been promised two heroines in the book's title and who has just become interested in both their fates.

The Hockliffe Collection's other Sandham title is The Adventures of Poor Puss (1809: 0204), an animal tale narrated by two cats themselves. By 1809 there was a well-established tradition of such books.

Synopsis of The Twin Sisters


Mr. and Mrs. Stanley live a fashionable life in London. The have two children, Ellen and Anna, whom their mother hardly ever sees, for they are consigned to the nursery and the care of servants. After many invitations, their aunt, Mrs. Irvin, Mrs. Stanley's sister, finally visits the family in London. She has been a widow for two years, and lives a simple, charitable life in the country. She is upset to find Mr. and Mrs. Stanley so deeply in debt and so alienated from their children. When the financial affairs of the Stanleys come to a head, she offers to arrange a posting to the East Indies for Mr. Stanley and to take care of the two children herself while their father and mother are abroad. This is joyfully acceded to by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, who, for a short while, promise to reform their extravagant behaviour.


The children accompany Mrs. Irvin to her rural home, and, never having been out of London before, are entranced by all that they see there. Their first jaunt is to see the poor of the neighbourhood, whom Mrs. Irvin takes care of. Indeed, in order that the extra expense of looking after the children should not interfere with her charitable activities, she has relinquished her coach and various other luxuries. She funds a school for the local poor, and looks after their more urgent needs too. Ellen and Anna have never seen poverty before, but they immediately wish to help to relieve it. They offer to give their old frocks away, but their aunt cautions them that this would be a useless gesture. 'Did you not observe what very coarse things they had on? very different from what you wear: and if you were to give them your muslin frocks, they would be of no use to them; some time hence, I hope, you will be able to buy what will suit them better.' (p.25) Further, their aunt lectures them for the motive of their charity. They wish to give because they will be thanked for their gifts. Thus 'your charitable expressions arise more from pride than good-nature' (p.26)


Since it is Sunday, the children attend church - for the first time in their lives. Mrs. Irvin is insistent that they should remember that the attraction of church is that the word of God is spoken there, not that they will meet many people there. And she urges them to pay great attention to the sermon, although they must remember that what they hear is the word of God, not the word of the minister, Mr. Herbert. They are much impressed with the service, and return that afternoon, after having visited the Sunday school too. Mrs. Irvin gives them Isaac Watts' 'Catechism for Children' to read, and some of his hymns, which they beg to be allowed to learn.
On the following day they began their education. Mrs. Irvin is pleased by their willingness to learn, but in other respects, she has cause to censure Ellen. She had seen a blind girl at one of the poor people's cottages, and she had wished to make her acquaintance. Mrs. Irvin had promised to take her there, but rain intervenes. Ellen impatiently fulminates against the rain, prompting Mrs. Irvin to remind her that it is God who has made the weather, and humans have no business lamenting His decision. Worse, Ellen complains to her nurse that she has not made a cap for her doll, as promised. Since the nurse has been employed in making clothes for the poor, Mrs. Irvin points out that it is the height of wickedness to put the doll's clothes first.


Mrs. Irvin and the two girls visit the blind girl, Mary Forbes, and her family. They find Mary covered in blood and lying on the floor, and her widowed, invalid mother in an agony of worry. Mrs. Irvin steps in and finds that Mary is only slightly cut. She cleans the wound and reassures Mary's mother. Mrs. Irvin points out to Ellen that it is just as well that they came on this day, rather than on the day before, as they had planned to do before the rain set it, for they have had a greater opportunity to do good. 'It was in this manner Mrs. Irvin made every incident productive of instruction to her nieces' (p.52). Mrs. Irvin begins to look after the interests of the Forbes family. Just before Mrs. Forbes dies, she learns that Mrs. Irvin has arranged for the elder girl to be taken into the local school, and Mary to be sent to an institution in London where she will learn how blind people may make a living.
Five years pass.
Mary returns, and is reunited with her sister. When fully employed she can earn seven shillings a week. Ellen and Anna have made much progress with their studies. Their parents sometimes write, but have returned to their old habits of 'balls' and 'entertainments'.


The two Arnold sisters, daughters of a fashionable friend of Mrs. Irvin, come to visit Ellen and Anna. There education at school has taught them to be sceptical of all the virtues Mrs. Irvin has taught Ellen and Anna to hold dear. The Arnold girls are bored by prayers and hymns, and they call Mrs. Irvin 'methodistical' ('an appellations she was not afraid of' - p.72). Likewise, they sneer at charity, pointing out that the little the girls can give can seldom make much difference in the long run (pp.75-76). The two sets of sisters seem to try to outdo each other in their pity for what they regard as the misguidedness of the others.


Anna has consumption. Her condition deteriorates, and a doctor recommends removal to Bristol as a remedy. Mrs. Irvin and her two wards remove to Bristol, but no lasting change is effected, and Anna returns home to Milwood in a worse state of health. The rest of the chapter is made up of Mrs. Irvin's attempts to reconcile Ellen to the impending death of her sister. Anna herself is wholly resigned to her death. The chapter ends with an affecting death-bed scene (pp.103-104). Why should anyone fear death, the narratorial voice breaks in to ask, when rather than closing this world, it opens a view of the next.


After twelve years in the East Indies, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, Ellen's parents, return to Britain. They arrive at Milwood to collect their daughter. At first, Ellen is unwilling to leave her aunt. She fears that her parents will still be too 'fashionable', and that life with them will curb her religious and charitable occupations. But Mrs. Irvin spells out to Ellen her filial duty and her duty to submit to Providence, and in any case, Mrs. Irvin it to accompany her.


Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, Ellen and Mrs. Irvin move to the Stanley's house in Grosvenor Square, London. Ellen's mother, in her own words, exerts every effort 'to make her (in dress, at least), a little more like other people' (p.132). She is taught to dress fashionably, and is given dancing and music lessons. But Ellen is unhappy away from the country. Her parents do not share her enthusiasm for music and books, and they seem bored unless they are in company. Soon it is time for Mrs. Irvin to return home, and Ellen is left to her mother's care. She is taken to a pleasure garden (perhaps Ranelagh or Vauxhall), but finds little to amuse her there. Similarly, when the family goes to Tunbridge Wells for the Summer, Ellen would have been discontented had a clergyman friend of hers from Milwood not been there to accompany her on her searches for objects of charity and compassion.


Back in London, Ellen benefits from her father's new-found love of music. She becomes the star performer at the private concerts he organises at their home, until he asks her to play on a Sunday. Ellen's Sabbatarian principles forbid such behaviour. This causes an altercation with her parents, who call her 'impertinent' and accuse her of affecting 'more goodness than any body else' (p.149).


Mrs. Stanley falls ill. She and Ellen move to Windsor for the good of her health, but her condition steadily worsens. Despite Ellen's urging, Mrs. Stanley refuses to prepare herself for eternity with prayer and contrition. At last she dies, and her last words evince her terror of death. This makes a stark contrast with the peaceful, resigned death of Anna, a contrast which the narratorial voice makes explicit. Mr. Stanley, who has been absent during his wife's illness, gambling in London, seems shaken by her death and seems to contemplate reform.


Ellen returns to Milwood to see Mrs. Irvin. She quickly falls back into the life of religious observance and charitable activity which she had left a few years before. She makes the acquaintance of the Campbell family, whom she met at Tunbridge Wells and who share her sentiments. This new felicity is interrupted by news that her father is ill. Ellen rushes up to London to find that he is close to death, having wasted his entire fortune by gambling. She becomes his nurse.


Mr. Stanley is taken to Milwood by Ellen. Cared for by Ellen and Mrs. Irvin, he begins a steady recovery. He learns to value their quiet and retired lifestyle far above the life of the 'tavern, or coffee-house' (p.203) and he confesses that 'the truth was on their side' (p.205). Ellen marries Mr. Campbell, who has become minister of the Milwood parish, and when Mrs. Irvin eventually dies, Ellen and her husband inherit Milwood Lodge.

Moon, Marjorie, John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843, revised edition, Winchester, 1987

Carpenter, Humphrey & Pritchard, Mari, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford: OUP, 1984