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Stories Before 1850. 0217: Rev. Thomas Smith, Lucinda; or, Virtue Triumphant

Author: Smith, Thomas
Title: Lucinda; or, virtue triumphant: a moral tale. Designed for the instruction of youth
Cat. Number: 0217
Date: 1801
1st Edition: 1801
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: E. Newbery
Price: 2s
Pages: 1 vol., 187pp.
Size: 13.5 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0217

Introductory essay

See below for a synopsis.

The moral tales of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they have figured at all in the histories of children's literature, have been the target of much disparagement. They are seldom considered in any detail, and when they do receive scholarly attention, it is usually to act as a foil to the work of 'better', more 'progressive' kinds of books for children. This is unfair. Many moral tales do not deserve this vilification. But by the same token, some do. Thomas Smith's Lucinda is one that does.

Reading Lucinda makes one realise just how superior is the work of writers such as Maria Edgeworth, or Dorothy Kilner, or, slightly later, Mary Sherwood or Barbara Hofland. Reading books like Lucinda, one can also more fully understand the criticisms of contemporaries, notably the romantic poets, who lambasted contemporary children's literature. Lucinda is a quintessential work of 'goodyness', to use Coleridge's phrase. Lucinda could not more accurately fit his description of the moral tales whose authors depict what they believe is virtue, but is in fact vanity (Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, II, 13; quoted in Avery and Briggs, Children and their Books, p.234). Its protagonists are so ludicrously virtuous that they lack any semblance of reality and would surely have alienated, rather than inspired, the children who read them. It has been assumed that Coleridge was attacking the work of Edgeworth and Barbauld when he wrote of his disdain for the moral tale. Perhaps he meant them too, but when his charge is levelled at Smith it suddenly seems far more convincing.

Yet however disagreeable such works seem from a modern point of view, it is imperative that they are not ignored. The publishers of works like Lucinda were not fools. They knew what sold. Lucinda and its like, it seems reasonable to conclude, had a ready market. This is something that needs to be explained. Alternatively, it is possible to argue that the very staleness of this kind of work points to an important truth about the state of children's literature at the turn of the century. Staleness, in this sense, is another word for maturity, or even for decadence. The market for children's books had developed so far, that demand was outstripping supply, and even mediocre (or worse) works such as Lucinda were snapped up by publishers and public. These issues, and a number of others touched on below, are clearly central to any full understanding of the development of children's literature. Denigration can be a legitimate critical approach when it comes to books such as Lucinda, but neglect is not.

The synopsis below will give some idea of how contrived the plot of Lucinda is. The heroine's sudden lottery win, her abrupt matamorphosis into a woman of astonishing beauty, the arrival of her long-lost brother to illuminate her obscure background, provide a more audaciously preposterous denouement than many another author would have dared. And these rewards of virtue are matched by the equally stark consequences of vice. The punishment proposed by Mrs Manners for Miss Wilful, still a very young girl and one whose offence (albeit her third) has been merely to hide a portrait and attempt to pin the blame on Lucinda, is unambiguous:

As a liar and intentional murderer [of a dog], you have suffered in a slight degree; but as a thief (for such you undoubtedly are) you must abide by the consequences of the laws: I therefore desire that a constable may be fetched, and you may now reflect amidst the horrors of a prison on the effects of that vice which you have so carefully cherished.... (pp.114-15)

Even in the era of the 'Bloody Code', this proposed punishment most certainly does not fit the crime. Only Lucinda's intercession prevents incarceration. But ultimately, Miss Wilful's fate turns out to be even worse than prison anyway. She is cast out of the house, and, after roving about as a common beggar, we are given to understand that she dies in extreme distress, lamenting, when too late, that pride which Heaven had so deeply humbled, and that malicious mind which bought her at last to so wretched an end. (pp.116-7)

This is on top of the misfortunes which Providence has already inflicted on her - a needle penetrating under her finger-nail, an encounter with an enraged bull, and the death of her mother which left her a penniless and unfriended orphan. Similarly summary justice is also inflicted on Lucinda's wicked uncle. Perhaps Smith thought such a flagrant use of Providential revenge in the narrative would be attractive to children as well as edifying, and certainly the reader can derive a certain malicious yet still pious pleasure from these scenes of injury and death. But this was scant compensation for the tediously upright conversation of the heroes and heroines of the tale. Lucinda's protestation of innocence when Miss Wilful first attempts to frame her for a theft, for instance, is prolix, self-pitying and self-righteous to the point of nausea (pp.36-38).The chosen pasttimes of Lucinda and her friends when they are left alone - they agree 'to devote their time to the most rational entertainment, by reading some interesting tale' - must have made any reader with an ounce of spirit want to throw the book away, lest he or she become like them (p.50, and pp.46-47). Likewise, Lucinda's reply to Frederic, who has asked her to marry him, is so prim in its determination to leave the decision up to his mother that any reasonable suitor would surely have interpreted it as a refusal (pp.157-59). Nor does Smith allow suspense to enliven his narrative. Chapter titles give the game away: 'Malice Defeated in its Last Attempt' (p.104) tells the unlucky reader not only how this chapter will end, but reveals that the only engaging character in the story, Miss Wilful, is to enliven no more of the tale with her plots to undermine Lucinda's good fortune (and we are only a little more than half way through the book).Miss Wilful had been a character straight out of a melodrama, appealing because of the purity of her malice. 'Thy death is certain, and my vengeance must be satisfied!' she rants - to a puppy. That her attempts 'to dash its little brains out' end in her being chased around the countryside by the puppy's irate mother and a wild bull complete the transition from melodrama to farce (pp.61-64). That Smith is deadly serious in his moral endeavour is very evident though. Should any reader be 'too volatile or regardless to pursue these pages to their profit', he warns, it will be the worse for them. 'Tho' flutt'ring now in life's high glitt'ring day,' he brutally admonishes the reader, 'Thou soon must change to lifeless putrid clay' (p.4).

This stark morality and hectoring style comes straight from the Puritan tradition of children's literature of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Miss Wilful, whose very name seems to come from some schematic Bunyanesque allegory, is the sort of transgressor from birth who the Puritans were determined to save from perdition through religious instruction. For such writers, books like Lucinda existed not to entertain, but to convince their readers of the pleasure of doing right and the perils of doing wrong. This hectoring, hellfire-or-salvation approach accords with what little can be discovered of the life its author. Thomas Smith was a minister, based at the non-conformist Trinity-Chapel in Spa Fields, London. Two published sermons from the early 1790s appear to be attributable to him - Free grace exemplified in the conversion of Thomas Smith, late of Talgarth-College, South-Wales, author (London, 'published by J. Axtell [etc.], and Trinity-Chapel, Windmill-Street, Upper Moorfields', 1792?) and The sinner's cry; being the substance of a sermon, preached at Trinity Chapel, Windmill-Street, Upper Moorfields, on Sunday evening, January the 27th by the Rev. Thomas Smith (London, J. Axtell, 1793?) - and their titles alone chime with the apparent Calvinism of Lucinda. Smith had written one earlier moral tale, The Shepherd's Son, also published by Elizabeth Newbery and selling for 1s.6d. (sixpence cheaper than Lucinda). After this he seems to have taken on work as a hack-writer of children's primers, for by 1805 he had 'revised, corrected and enlarged' Henry Boad's The English Spelling-Book, and Expositor and (by 1811) James Alderson's Orthographical Exercises: in a series of letters.A more prestigious project was to abridge the notes to the Rev. Matthew Henry's Holy Bible, with notes and annotations (1815).But the publication which reveals most about Smith is The Origin and History of Missions, as substantial two-volume survey of Christian missionaries, first published in 1832 (and in its sixth edition by 1842) as 'By the Revd. Thos. Smith, Minister of Trinity Chapel London, and the Revd. John O. Choules A.M., Buffalo, N.Y.' Smith and Choules were to work on the book together, but, as Choules' preface records, Smith had died on December 21 1830, in the fifty-fifth year of his age, before his share could be completed. He must have been born, therefore, in 1775 or 1776.

Choules' eulogy of Smith presents a personality already familiar from Lucinda: 'Mr. Smith was a man of wonderful energy; the pulpit was his home, his high place; multitudes received their earliest convictions of the preciousness of Christ, as they heard this bold ambassador declare the curse of Sinai and the thunders of its law, while he closed by telling the story of Calvary, and the blessedness of the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.' (Origin and History of Missions, p.vii) Choules adds that Smith was a student of 'that excellent lady, the countess of Huntingdon'. This must have been Selina Hastings (1707-1791), an early patron of the Wesleys and Methodism, which ties down more precisely Smith's religious allegiance. In this light, Smith seems to be more an early Evangelical than a late Puritan. He clearly does not subscribe to the view, adhered to by leading Puritan writers for children like James Janeway and Benjamin Keach (see 0434), that all children are original sinners who were sure to be damned unless converted and saved. After all, Lucinda and her friends are all, from the start, paradigms of virtue. Of course, Smith does not take the opposite, more 'Romantic' view of childhood either, idealising children as nearest to God. Rather, he is prepared to judge children on their individual merits. In his world, there are good children and there are bad children, and they might come from any warp of life. Although it is with a sense of disappointed resignation that the modern reader finds that the poor, orphaned heroine of the early part of Lucinda turns out to be the daughter of a rich merchant after all, thus locating virtue, as usual, among the middle and upper classes, Smith does go out of his way to emphasise that vice, wherever it is to be found, is always reprehensible. No matter how wealthy and respectable Miss Wilful's family may be, he asserts on a number of occasions, her crimes are just as bad as any other child's, and her punishment should be just as harsh (p.35 and p.42). This is a typically Evangelical emphasis, developed most influentially by the theologians of the Clapham Sect from the 1780s, and in the writing of Hannah More, whose Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great (1788) insisted that a reform of the élite was the necessary first step in the reform of the nation.

Lucinda, then, can seem a precursor to the later work of Evangelicals like Mary Martha Sherwood (0211-0214). Yet the book is not quite all it seems. It has been characterised here as a religious book, but in fact, there are very few religious passages in the text. Lucinda and her friends are not virtuous because of their piety. We never see them going to church or reading religious books. They are praised because of ordinary, temporal qualities - charity, honesty, avidity for learning. Similarly, Miss Wilful and Lucinda's uncle are not iniquitous because they are irreligious; they are arraigned for secular crimes - jealousy, spite, theft, avarice. Mrs Sherwood and her ilk could never have been guilty of such apparent ambivalence to the religious dimension of ethics, and nor, for that matter, could the Puritan writers of a hundred years earlier. The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a secularisation of children's literature, and even of the moral tale. Writers like Arnaud Berquin and Maria Edgeworth were producing work which was clearly highly morally didactic, but which did not inundate its readers with specifically religious injunctions and lessons. This would change with a new wave of Evangelical writers in the early part of the nineteenth century. But it is indicative of how far this secularisation had permeated that even such a fire-and-brimstone preacher as Smith, a man who drowned his tale in overt morality, kept his writing for children free from any explicit reference to religion.

Lucinda; or, Virtue Triumphant was expensive at 2 shillings for a single slim volume (although adult fiction cost around fifty per cent more).It has a single illustration - a fine, engraved, uncoloured frontispiece. The absence of illustrations interspersed in the text and the high quality of the binding and paper suggest that the book was aimed at older, and probably affluent, children. With a title reminiscent of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740-41), and the use of conventional plot devices, such as the winning lottery ticket and the return of the long-lost brother, the book has the character of a sort of novel for young adults. This is surprising since the novel, along with the fairy tale, consistently came under attack in the moral tales of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Indeed, novels became probably the most frequent symbol of the corruption of youth to appear in moral tales. Maria Edgeworth, to take just one example, not only inserted anti-novel asides into her tales, depicting her anti-heroines reading a 'dirty novel', say ('Simple Susan', 0102: p.92), but even dedicated whole tales to the exposure of the wickedness of novels, her 'Mademoiselle Panache' for instance (0101). That a Methodist minister like Smith should have turned his hand to fiction for children is not in itself surprising. But it is remarkable, given the religious zeal evident from his other publications, that he should refrain from filling his book with the trappings of religion, and that he should, in effect, have produced a novel for children. The likely explanation for this is that, like so many other Evangelical writers, Smith was deliberately attempting to appropriate a literary form - the novel for children - as well the secular subject matter and tone which went with it - to push his own agenda. That he was not nearly as successful in this as Hannah More was with her Cheap Repository Tracts, which endeavoured to imitate and reform chapbooks, is clear. But Smith was just one of many engaged on this project. Why Smith's Lucinda is interesting is that his literary abilities were so limited that the tensions between his religious convictions and his awareness that he had to disguise them amid an appealing story are always very evident in the text. Here we see, at its most transparent, the central motivation behind the moral tale.


The tale opens with a description of the burial of a 12-year-old girl, Lavinia Manners, the darling of the quiet village near the Severn in which the tale is set. Lavinia's mother, the well-to-do widow, Mrs Manners, is distraught of course. Mr Felix, the local clergyman, proposes that she take in a 7-year-old girl from the village, Lucinda, who has been newly orphaned. The girl's uncle came to arrange the burial of her mother, but has since absconded with all their property. The arrival of Lucinda at the house of Mrs. Manners is depicted in the frontispiece.

Lucinda's exemplary behaviour endears her to her patron but makes an enemy of Miss Wilful, a rich, spoiled, jealous girl who attends the same school. Miss Wilful attempts to get Lucinda into trouble and she accuses her of stealing her pocket-book. When Lucinda is searched the pocket-book is not found, and Miss Wilful's accomplice admits that she had been bribed to secrete the book about Lucinda's person, but had not yet had time. Miss Wilful is punished, although her accomplice, because of her honesty, is forgiven.

Miss Wilful nurses her malice and plots revenge. In a singular display of partiality, the Governess of the school has given Lucinda a pet puppy. Miss Wilful determines to kill it, and is about 'to dash its little brains out' (p.61) when the dog's mother breaks the cord which ties her to the kennel and chases Miss Wilful into the next field. A notoriously wild bull is in this field and it chases Miss Wilful around the field until finally tossing her over the hedge, to the amusement of Lucinda and the other school-children.

When her bank fails and her creditors demand immediate payment, Miss Wilful's mother is ruined, and she soon dies under the stress. Her daughter is left to wander the village without money, without a home, and without a friend. A few villagers extend their charity to her, but memories of her past bad behaviour and her continued surliness alienate them. Eventually Lucinda begs her benefactress to take in Miss Wilful too, and though Mrs Manners is astonished by the extent of Lucinda's forgiveness and charity, she agrees to do so.

But Miss Wilful still attempts to deprive Lucinda of her patron's favour. She plants a miniature portrait of Mrs Manners' husband in Lucinda's chest and then accuses her of the theft. The plan almost succeeds, but is foiled when the blacksmith whom Miss Wilful had employed to open the chest returns for a forgotten chisel. Mrs Manners threatens Miss Wilful with prison, but Lucinda's intercession mitigates the sentence and Miss Wilful is simply turned out of the house. We are told that she became a common beggar and soon died, very repentant.

Years have passed, and Lucinda is now 17 and superlatively attractive. One day a fine young man is thrown from his horse near the house and is taken in. He turns out to be Lucinda's long lost brother, Augustus, identified by a locket containing their mother's portrait. He reveals that Lucinda's father was a rich merchant. He had set out on a voyage to America, then the East Indies, with his son, but after being shipwrecked he had died, leaving Augustus to be brought up in India. We are also vouchsafed the recent history of Lucinda's miserly uncle who had absconded after her mother's funeral. His house caught fire and he lost his entire fortune. He turned to highway robbery, but was in turn set upon by thieves who left him for dead in a ditch in the very village where Lucinda lives. His last sight before expiring is Lucinda.

Cousins of Mrs Manners arrive. Frederic falls in love with Lucinda and they are wed at the same time as Augustus marries Miss Felix, the daughter of the village's clergyman. Lucinda wins £5000 in the lottery.