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Stories Before 1850. 0212A: Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of Theophilus and Sophia

Author: Sherwood, Mary Martha (née Butt)
Title: The History of Theophilus and Sophia. By Mrs. Sherwood, Author of "Little Henry and his Bearer." etc. etc. Sixth Edition
Cat. Number: 0212A
Date: 1822
1st Edition: 1818?
Pub. Place: Wellington, Salop.
Publisher: F. Houlston and Son
Price: 2s (for 4th edition - see advertisement at end of volume)
Pages: 1 vol., 127pp. then 4 page book-list
Size: 14 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: None
Note: Pages 15-24, 37-50 and 59-60 missing. Bound together with Sherwood's Little Henry and his Bearer (1825: 0212B). An inscription at the beginning of the volume is dated 1850

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Page 003 of item 0212A

Introductory essay

The History of Theophilus and Sophia was first published not later than 1818 when a second edition was certainly published. That it reached this sixth edition by 1822 bears testament to the fact that it shared in the huge popularity enjoyed by almost all Mrs. Sherwood's many works.

Mrs. Sherwood was born Mary Martha Butt in 1775. Her early life was comfortable although strictly disciplined. In her autobiography Mrs. Sherwood describes roaming freely in the countryside around the village of Stanford, near Worcester, where her father was rector. But from the ages of five to twelve she was also forced to wear an iron collar and a back-board - she called them the 'stocks' - for several hours a day to improve her posture (compare the girls who are forced to sit in stocks to improve their posture in Dorothy Kilner's The Holyday Present, 157: pp.38-42). Sherwood began to write when very young. She may have been influenced in this by her father, who had moved in intellectual circles in his own youth in Litchfield, socialising with Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day, Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and Anna Seward. (He had also briefly been chaplain to George III.) By the time she was twenty Sherwood had been published. She had produced The Traditions in 1795, which she followed in 1799 with Margarita. Both were fairly standard lightly-gothic novels published at William Lane's Minerva Press (although it has been asserted that The Traditions was published by subscription for the benefit of the master at the Abbey School, Reading, where both Sherwood and her sister Lucy, later Cameron, had both been pupils - Dawson 1996: 272). The sudden death of Sherwood's father in 1796 led to an enforced removal to a much more retired existence in Bridgnorth. It was perhaps here that Sherwood, along with her sister, first began to develop the Evangelical style of writing for which they were both to become so celebrated. Influenced by the example of Hannah More, they produced simple, religious tales, ostensibly for the pupils of the Sunday School at which they had begun to teach, for example Sherwood's The History of Susan Gray which she published in 1802. Sarah Trimmer approved of the work, commending it in the usually vitriolic Guardian of Education because 'all the arguments which Reason and Religion can furnish [are] enforced by the most striking examples of persevering Virtue' (v.1 [1802], p.267). But even Trimmer's exacting standards became too lax for Sherwood, and by the time the book was reissued by Houlston's in 1815 she edited out what she thought of as the book's doctrinal faults and further 'evangelized' it (Darton 1910: 202; Cutt 1974: 28-29).

What had changed in the time between the first and second publication of The History of Susan Gray was that Sherwood had been to India. She had married her cousin, Henry Sherwood, in 1803. He was a soldier, and within two years of their marriage he was posted to Calcutta. Sherwood decided to accompany him, leaving their infant child in the care of her mother and sister. The rest of the Sherwoods remained in India until 1816. It was here that her Evangelical agenda developed fully, partly through her own reading and her growing conviction that the impiety of both the 'pagan' Indians and the British army needed redress, and party under the influence of the certain Evangelical army chaplains whom she met. Sherwood decided to concentrate her attention on the children who fell within her ambit. Her attitude is summed up in her journal. An early entry, for example, records her reaction to meeting the son of an eminent British family in Calcutta. The four-year-old could speak hardly any English, but was fluent in the 'Native language', prompting Sherwood to write,

Is it not dreadful to leave children to such an age as this to the entire management not only of servants but of Pagans, & the horrid profligacy of Pagans may be conjectured by what I am told is visible in their worship & religious ceremonies ... Please God I should ever be tried I will take warning from the experience of others and never will trust a Christian lamb within the jaws of the Lion who goes about seeking whom he may devour. I do not blame the poor natives of the country ... the time I hope will come when the glorious light of Christianity will shine upon them.Cutt 1974: 3

This missionary zeal, and her refusal to contemplate any assimilation of one culture into another, underlies Little Henry and his Bearer and the other tracts and stories Sherwood produced while in India. It also provided the motivation for the school she established, where she taught basic literacy and religion to soldiers, soldier's children, and such members of the indigenous population as were to be found in the military encampments.

The Sherwood family returned to Britain in 1816, settling near Worcester. From 1818 to 1830 Sherwood ran a boarding school for girls, as well as looking after her own five remaining children and two adopted orphans. But Sherwood was also at her most prolific as a writer during this period. For Houlston and others she, and her sister, produced numerous tracts, chapbook tales and longer pieces of fiction each year. Some of this output can be considered hack work, though always piously intended. Both Sherwood and Cameron, it is said, produced tales to accompany whatever wood-cuts Houlston happened to have in stock (Carpenter and Pritchard 1984: 484). Certainly many of these were rather thin works on tried and tested themes, even if they are among the most sprightly contributions to the genre (see for example 0213A-J). Other works constituted much more substantial projects, like Sherwood's The Little Woodman and his Dog Cæsar (1818: 0214) or her most famous story, The History of the Fairchild Family (first part 1818, published by John Hatchard). Other books added a more specific agenda to the always underlying Evangelicalism. Mary's The Nun (1833) and The Monk of Cimies (1834), amongst others, were virulently anti-Catholic. Her History of Henry Milner (published in parts, 1822-1837) was an attempt to rewrite Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton (1783-89: see 0091-0092) without the dangerous influence of Rousseau. Rousseau's idea of the natural child, inherently innocent, was anathema to the Evangelical understanding of the child as already corrupted by original sin. However, Sherwood's 'penny' books, of which several are in the Hockliffe Collection (0213A-0213L), generally adopted a milder tone. Not only were they less severe on their sinful protagonists, but they could relax literary proprieties too. Thus Sherwood often used fairy tales elements, as well as gothic settings, to engage the less committed reader.

Sherwood closed her school in 1830. She traveled in Europe for two years before returning to dedicate herself to writing once again. She was publishing new material right up until 1849, two years before her death.

For further analysis of Sherwood's work see Cutt 1974, Demers 1991 and Vallone 1991. For a sympathetic reconsideration of the life and work of Sherwood, a bibliography of her writing, and biographical material (from which much of the above has been taken), see Dawson 1996: 267-81.

Dawson, Janis, 'Mary Martha Sherwood', pp.267-81 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996

Darton, F. J. Harvey. (ed.), The Life and times of Mrs Sherwood (1775-1851). From the diaries of Captain and Mrs. Sherwood, London: Wells Gardner, Darton and Co., 1910

Cutt, M. Nancy, Mrs. Sherwood and her books for children, Oxford, 1974

Cutt, M. Nancy, Mrs. Sherwood and her books for children, Oxford, 1974

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

Cutt, M. Nancy, Mrs. Sherwood and her books for children, Oxford, 1974

Demurs, Patricia, 'Mrs. Sherwood and Hesba Stretton: The Letter and Spirit of Evangelical Writing of and for Children', pp.129-49 in Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, ed. James Holt McGavran Jnr., Athens, GE.: University of Georgia Press, 1991

Vallone, Lynne, '"A Humble spirit under correction": Tracts Hymns, and the Ideology of Evangelical Fiction for Children, 1780-1820', The Lion and the Unicorn, 15 (1991), 72-95

Dawson, Janis, 'Mary Martha Sherwood', pp.267-81 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol.163: 'British Children's Writers 1800-1880', ed. Meena Khorana, Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Inc., 1996