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Stories Before 1850. 0233: Richard Johnson, Tea-Table Dialogues

Author: Johnson, Richard
Title: Tea-Table Dialogues, between a governess and Mary Sensible, Eliza Thoughtful, Jane Bloom, Ann Hopeful, Dinah Sterling, Lucy Lively, and Emma Tempest
Cat. Number: 0233
Date: 1803
1st Edition: 1771
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: Darton and Harvey
Price: 6d
Pages: 1 vol., 96pp.
Size: 11.5 x 7 cm
Illustrations: 11 wood-cuts

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0233

Introductory essay

The Hockliffe Collection copy of Tea-Table Dialogues dates from 1803. An earlier, identical edition had been published in 1796, also by Harvey and Darton. But the text has much in common with an earlier version, published by Thomas Carnan, successor to John Newbery, under a slightly different title, Tea-Table Dialogues; between Miss Thoughtful, Miss Sterling, Miss Prattle, Mast. Thoughtful, Master Goodwill, Master Foplin.... This was in print by at least 1771, but it too was largely derived from an earlier work, namely Madame Le Prince de Beaumont's The young misses magazine, containing dialogues between a governess and several young ladies of quality her scholars (1765), itself written in emulation of Sarah Fielding's The Governess (1749). Sarah Trimmer went so far as to say in her Guardian of Education (I [1802], 308) that the Darton and Harvey version of Tea-Table Dialogues had been largely copied verbatim from The young misses magazine and Ferguson's young Ladies' and Gentlemen's Philosophy. This was overstating the case, but these works did at least share their overall design, if not always their actual content. Each described the conversations of several young girls, apparently twelve years old in the Darton and Harvey version and fourteen in Le Prince de Beaumont's, generally in the presence of a governess, who corrects the errors of her pupils and entertains them with improving narratives. Many of these discussions take place while the girls are drinking tea - pictured on p.6 and p.81 - a fitting location for the girls to learn the rules of politenes which their governess is attempting to instil.

The original Carnan version of Tea-Table Dialogues was by Richard Johnson, a miscellaneous writer for children who produced many successful adaptations and new works. His surviving day-books reveal that he delivered the work to Carnan on15 May 1770, for which he charged five guineas. He presumably received this, but in June 1776 he submitted an invoice for the same title again, presumably revised, and asked for a further £5.5s. which he was paid on 12 February 1777. Johnson was one of the neglected figures who did so much to steer the uncharted course of children's literature in the late eighteenth century. He is usually described as a 'hack-writer', that is to say he would take on whichever kind of writing he was paid for. He was certainly happy to abridge the works of others, and even to plagiarise. His day-books reveal that he became reasonably affluent from little bits and pieces of work which were irregularly put his way, generally by the successors of John Newbery. We know, for instance, that he was paid sixteen guineas (though he was expecting eighteen) by Abraham Badcock, manager of Elizabeth Newbery's business, for pillaging Arnaud Berquin to construct the first edition of The Looking-Glass for The Mind, and that he asked for a further £1.11s. 6d. for 'writing Heads [i.e. contents, titles and headings] to the Looking-Glass' in 1792 (for details of Johnson's financial dealings see Weedon 1949; for The Looking-Glass for The Mind see 0149-0150). Furthermore, Johnson's routine use of pseudonyms makes it difficult to establish exactly what he was responsible for - he often used the name 'Revd. W. D. Cooper', but also worked under more generic names such as 'Master Tommy Littleton'. Yet neither his originality and influence, nor his commitment to his craft, should be underrated. His Juvenile Trials for Robbing Orchards, telling fibs, and other heinous offences (1771; second edition, 1774: 0167 in the Hockliffe Collection) can be credited with starting a vogue for narratives which sought to educate their readers into good behaviour through the description of a trial and consequent punishment. Likewise, his The Oriental Moralist (c.1791) was the first translation of The Arabian Nights designed specifically for children and had many descendants. Moreover, the prefaces to The Looking-Glass for The Mind and his other collections of moral tales sound every bit as sincere and thoughtful as any of the more approved writers of moral tales of the era. Johnson may well have been the 'faithful friend and sincere well-wisher' of 'the Misses and Masters of Great Britain', which is how he portrayed himself in the dedication to his Juvenile Rambles through the paths of Nature (0925-0927), rather than the mercenary writer who simply wrote what he was told would sell. (See also 0092, 0161, 0147 and 0148, 0479, 0604 and 1101 for other examples of Johnson's work in the Hockliffe Collection.)

The Darton and Harvey editions, such as that to be found in the Hockliffe Collection, were substantially different from Johnson's versions. Darton added several extra wood-cuts, for example, and changed the names of the dramatis personae. Le Prince de Beaumont's Lady Tempest, for example, became Miss Tempest in Carnan's editions, and then Emma Tempest in the Darton and Harvey re-working. These alterations may reflect changes in the intended audience of this kind of children's literature. Lady Tempest and her titled friends were probably designed to appeal to those who moved, or wished to move, in high society, or at least those to whom the world of the nobility had some relevance or appeal. The subsequent change from Miss Tempest to Emma Tempest probably has more to do with the preferences of the Quakers like William Darton, the publisher, not to use any titles whatsoever. Textually, the most obvious difference between Darton's and Carnan's editions were the presence in the former of many more Biblical narratives, whereas Johnson's versions had preferred more historical tales. But otherwise, the different versions followed the same basic pattern. As the preface to the Darton and Harvey version puts it, each child is 'made to think, speak, and act, just as her genius, temper, or inclination leads her', in response to which the governess 'catches the opportunity to make her sensible of her infant errors' (p.iv). This is hardly a Wordsworthian, 'Romantic' approach to children, for it insists that their behaviour and opinions are full of errors which need to be corrected. But it is a somewhat more lenient approach that that adopted by some much earlier, and indeed subsequent, Evangelical, children's literature which was determined to root out children's errors before they manifested themselves, and which sought to alter each child's natural 'genius, temper or inclination' rather than merely to modify it.

In fact, the governess does not always appear in the dialogues, allowing the children even more freedom to be themselves, and to correct their own errors. In 'Dialogue I', for example, only Lucy Lively, Mary Sensible and Eliza Thoughtful are present, and they themselves play out an instructional tableau. Lucy and Eliza have come to visit Mary. To please Lucy, Mary has brought out an old doll for her to play with. This awakes the scorn of Eliza, who thinks twelve-year old girls too old to play with dolls. Rather, she says, Lucy and Mary should spend their time and money on books and tutors. Mary agrees, but Lucy says she is always thoroughly bored by her geographical tutor, disdains books of history, and promises that when she has grown up, she will do as she pleases and 'never read at all.' (p.7) Eliza warns that Lucy is a 'silly creature', and will never make an 'amiable woman'. She tells of her own meeting with Lady Lovelace, a beautiful but rather vapid woman who her father calls an 'automaton', and with two very plain women whom her father, despite their ugliness, calls 'amiable'. Eliza has it explained to her that however women look, they may earn the esteem of society by having wit and understanding, characteristics the amiable ladies got 'from books ... and by applying ourselves to our lessons when we were young.' It is this which has persuaded Eliza to throw away her dolls and to labour to acquire useful knowledge.

In 'Dialogue II', Mrs. Goodwill, the governess, enters the book. She hears Ann Hopeful recite her lesson - a description of God's creation of Adam and Eve, of their temptation, and of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When Ann has finished, some of the girls assert that they would never have been tempted as Eve was, so Mrs. Goodwill tells a fable herself. Two poor wood-cutters were describing how they would never have been tempted had they been in the Garden of Eden when they are overhead by a local lord. He invites them to his house, Paradise Hall, where they will be treated well and under no obligation to work. He seats them at a dinner table laden with food, and departs, letting them know that they may eat whatever the like, but they may not look under one particular platter. The wood-cutter's wife cannot bear not knowing what she has been forbidden, and she prevails upon her husband to lift off the platter's lid. A mouse runs out (pictured p.19). When their benefactor discovers their disobedience he expels them from his house, pointing out that for all their fine words, they were no better than Adam and Eve. The dialogue ends with Dinah Sterling's retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, and Jane Bloom's consequent resolution to be kinder to her elder sister.

Sarah Trimmer criticised the book's glosses from the Bible in her review in the Guardian of Education, noting that though they were well intended, the author had tended to bend scripture to make it applicable to the education of children. Though the book is dominated by discussions of scriptural texts, there are one or two anecdotes are told by the school-girls which are not from the Bible. Jane Bloom tells the story of a merchant who thought his ships had been lost at sea, but who later finds that they had merely been caught in a storm, diverted to an unknown island, and made a vast profit as a result (pp.67-68). But in fact, Mrs. Goodwill soon puts this into a Christian context. The main narrative drive of the work is the rehabilitation of Emma Tempest. A late arrival at the school, she had at first been proud and quarrelsome, but by the end of the book she has become the favourite of her fellow pupils and Mrs. Goodwill.

Weedon, M. J. P., 'Richard Johnson and the Successors to John Newbery', The Library, 5th series, 4, i (1949), 25-63