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Stories Before 1850. 0243: Sarah Trimmer, Fabulous Histories. Thirteenth edition

Author: Trimmer, Sarah (nee Kirby)
Title: Fabulous Histories or, the history of the robins. By Mrs. Trimmer. Designed for the instruction of children, respecting their treatment of animals. Thirteenth edition. With wood cuts by Bewick
Cat. Number: 0243
Date: 1821
1st Edition: 1786
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: N. Hailes, Juvenile Library, London Museum, Piccadilly
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 164pp.
Size: 18.5 x 11 cm
Illustrations: Title-page vignette and 18 further wood engravings by [Thomas?] Bewick
Note: Inscription: 'Maria Belcher / the gift of Miss Marryat [?] / Dec.r 25th 1828'

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0243

Introductory essay

See below for synopsis.

Fabulous Histories was Sarah Trimmer's most successful work, and Trimmer herself was one of the most successful children's authors of her age. The book was continuously in print from its first publication in 1786 until after the First World War. From about 1820 onwards it generally appeared under the name The History of the Robins or simply The Robins.

Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810) married in 1762, and, as she recounted, the inadequacies of the children's literature which she encountered while educating her own six sons and six daughters drove her to produce books of her own. She did not publish until 1780 when her Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature appeared. This was followed by Easy Lessons for Young Children (0655 and 0656 in the Hockliffe Collection) and her Fabulous Histories, which established her as a major children's author. A range of different kinds of publication appeared over the next two decades, including,The Charity School Spelling Book (0654), a Concise History of England (), many sets of annotated prints depicting Roman, English and Scripture History (1142 to 1152; 0451 to 0460), and her famous periodical, the first systematically to theorise and review children's literature, The Guardian of Education.

On the face of it, Trimmer's purpose in her Fabulous Histories was to teach children to behave with Christian benevolence towards all animals. Most of the book is spent inveighing against children and adults who torment animals, and also those who fall into the 'contrary fault of immoderate tenderness to them' (p.v of 0242). Both were common themes in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century children's (and adult's) literature. So too was the more overarching purpose of teaching the reader his or her place in the grand hierarchy of the universe. The reader learns that humans are at the head of creation, with power over all other living beings. Though this gives them the right to kill other animals and plants for food and to protect themselves, they may not without reason kill or hurt any creature without transgressing against the 'divine principle of UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE' (p.172).

Trimmer aimed to teach these lessons by presenting the reader with two families, one of humans and one of robins. Both families, individually and through their interaction, are a microcosm of society. The reader is meant vicariously to learn the proprieties of family life and of behaviour to other parts of God's creation through the education by their respective parents of the two human children, Harriet and Frederick, and the four robin nestlings, Robin, Dicky, Flapsy and Pecksy. (The latter two names were apparently borrowed from John Newbery's Valentine's Gift, 1765.) The human family, the Bensons, is fairly typical of the usual inhabitants of moral tales. They are affluent and landed. There is a largely absent father, and a loving if somewhat stern and pontificating mother. And there is one obedient and thoughtful child, Harriet, and another, younger sibling, more imprudent and thoughtless, but good at heart and responsive to a painstaking education. Though the family of robins was constructed on similar lines, with doting but stern parents and a brood which ranged from the docile and considerate Pecksy to the rash and conceited Robin, is was surely their presence which secured the book's lasting popularity. Talking animals were not new to children's fiction. Aesop's Fables, for example, had been popular for centuries. But seldom had a family of birds been endowed with such full characters or had their adventures, growth and feelings charted at such length.

In fact, it was initially Trimmer's main concern to ensure that none of her readers should believe her account of talking and thinking birds to be literally true. She wrote in her 'Introduction' that the origins of her work lay in 'a book which gives an account of a little boy named Henry, and his sister Charlotte' (namely Trimmer's Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature, 1780). It was to be supposed, she continued, that these children's mother composed Fabulous Histories to satisfy their wish that animals could talk and that humans could understand them. 'But before Henry and Charlotte began to read these Histories,' Trimmer insisted, 'they were taught to consider them, not as containing the real conversations of birds (for that it is impossible we should ever understand), but as a series of FABLES, intended to convey moral instruction applicable to themselves, at the same time that they excite compassion and tenderness for those interesting and delightful creatures, on which such wanton cruelties are frequently inflicted' (pp.vii-viii).

As the tale develops, Trimmer's less general purposes for her book becomes apparent. Natural history 'is replete with amusement and instruction', she writes. 'It leads the mind to contemplate the perfections of the Supreme Being, and also furnishes a variety of useful hints for the conduct of human affairs.' (p.58) Much of the description of the robins' lives, in other words, will function as an allegory for correct human behaviour. These lessons are various. The robins show how best to give and receive charity, for example. They should be meek in their approach when soliciting the alms offered to them by humans, they are told, and wait until they are noticed by their benefactors. In this way, the robins receive some bread from the children, and then make a return with their songs. Later, the young robins are told not to become presumptuous in their solicitation of alms. They are reproved for hopping onto a plate of bread and butter, for instance, of seeking to peck the sugar lumps, when they should be content with what is offered to them. (p.105). The rectitude and pragmatic advantages of the family as the principal social institution are also consistently emphasised. 'In a family every individual ought to consult the welfare of the whole, instead of his own private satisfaction', Dicky is told after he has eaten four worms himself without sharing them amongst his siblings (p.69). The robins' family is the epitome of a modern, nuclear family. The parents take care of their offspring, and even though the mother bird will be required to search for food as well as her mate, she will confine herself to the locality of the nest while the father scours a much wider area.

The Hockliffe Collection has five editions of Fabulous Histories. 0242 is the earliest, dating from 1798; 0241, the 'eleventh edition', dating from 1817, was split into two volumes (bound in one), but the text had returned to just one volume by the 'thirteenth' edition of 1821: 0243. Both the 'eleventh' and 'thirteenth' editions have several small but fine wood-engravings. On the title-page of the later of these two editions, the illustrations are attributed to Bewick (but this is no guarantee of authenticity, since such claims were often made to maximise the attractiveness of a publication). 0244 and 0245 date from sometime in the mid-nineteenth century.

Synopsis (taken from the 1798 edition (0242), from which all page references are taken).


A pair of robins hatches a brood of nestlings - Robin, Dicky, Flapsy and Pecksy. The parent birds discuss the best way to look after their hatchlings, and their domestic relations are plainly set out to provide an example for human readers. The mother robin knows of a nearby place where food is easy to come by 'for such birds as would take the pains of seeking it' (p.10). This is the home of the Benson family: Harriet, eleven years old, and her brother Frederick, about six. They scatter bread every day for the benefits of birds who seek their charity.


Mrs. Benson approves of her children's affection for the birds, but she is careful to warn them 'not to suffer it to gain upon you to such a degree as to make you unhappy, or forgetful of those who have a superior claim to your attention: I mean poor people - always keep in mind the distresses which they endure; and on no account waste any kind of food, nor give to inferior animals what is designed for mankind.' (p.14) The robins, meanwhile, continue to set an example to the humans. When out seeking worms, for instance, the hen bird returns with her prey as directly as she can: 'notwithstanding she had repeated invitations from several gay birds which she met to join their sportive parties, she kept a steady course, preferring the pleasure of feeding little Dicky to all the diversions of the fields and groves.' (p.17)

Chs.3 and 4

The education of the Benson children and the robins' brood proceeds in parallel. Young Frederick, for instance, learns that he should not forget to be polite to his parents in his rush to feed the birds. Robin, the eldest of the brood, argues with his siblings, asserting that he should have most room in the nest because he was born first. His parents chastise him for such selfish conduct, and he eventually learns to be more accommodating. Each of the young robins commits some infraction over the following days, save only Pecksy. She is serene and sweet, and her attention to every word uttered by her parents makes her unpopular with her siblings. The accuse her of being the favourite of their parents, until their mother grows angry telling her brood not to be so jealous of one another. In fact, all the birds have different qualities. Robin looks set to become a fine singer; Dicky is remarkable for his fine plumage; Flapsy is pretty because of her elegant shape; and Pecksy's character is mild pleasing. Meanwhile, Frederick contemplates trying to capture and cage the robins, or at least to follow them to their nest. His mother severely reprehends the idea, pointing out that such behaviour, though it might proceed from a wish to be kind, would in fact be very cruel. She defends her own caged canary birds, though, and caged larks, by telling her son that the birds, not native to Britain or not able to withstand winter weather, would die were they not so carefully looked-after within the house.


A 'monster' comes to the nest and scares the young robins witless. Their description of its 'great round red face .. enormous staring eyes, a very large beak, and below that a wide mouth with two rows of bones which looked as if they could grind us all to pieces in an instant' baffles their parents (p.34). At last the monster is identified as a man, the gardener in fact, and the fledglings are lectured for their pusillanimity.

Chs.6 and 7

The gardener takes Frederick and Harriet to the robins' nest, and they marvel at the prettiness of the nestlings. The young birds are congratulated by their parents for not being frightened by the humans. But then both the hen and cock robins tell their children the stories of their previous families. Both had different mates, and both had their brood abducted and killed by cruel children. One mate was killed by the shock of these events, the other by a hawk. And yet, the parents insist, there is nothing in the world for the nestlings to fear, for prudence can protect against such calamities (although it is not immediately clear how).


Lucy and Edward Jenkins, two friends of Harriet and Frederick, arrive at the Benson house. Edward boasts of his many cruelties to animals - he ties dogs together to see them fight; he throws cats from high buildings; he chases dogs, calling them mad so that they are shot or beaten to death; he plucks live chickens of their features; he throws stones at cocks until they die; he drowns live puppies. Harriet and Frederick are outraged. Edward, accustomed to such brutality, cannot feel guilty, but his sister starts to be ashamed of her complicity in these actions.


Harriet joins in with the conversation of her mother and her companions. They discuss the intelligence of animals, debating whether humans can ever hope to understand how animals think. Reference is made to a 'learned pig', recently displayed as a spectacle in London. Mrs. Benson describes the pig and its tricks (pp. 59f.), and concludes that it had indeed been taught to recognise the letters of the alphabet, but that its keeper secretly signalled to it how to choose each succeeding letter of the word which it had been given to spell. Mrs. Benson deplores such shows anyway, thinking that cruelty must have formed part of the animal's training. Learned pigs were very popular in Trimmer's day. Especially famous was a pig which toured Ireland and Britain in the 1780s, just while Trimmer was writing her Fabulous Histories, and another, named Toby, in the 1820s (see Bonderson 1999: 19-35). Dogs which perform tricks similar to these learned pigs appear in several works of children's literature. The Dog of Knowledge (0179B) learns to spell out words using letter-cards, just as had the learned pig which drew Trimmer's fire. Similar episodes occur in Cato, or Interesting Adventures of a Dog of Sentiment (0082) and The Life of the Famous Dog Carlo (0162).


Lucy Jenkins has promised to resign the birds' nests her brother has given her, and the nestlings they contain, to Harriet and Frederick since she is ashamed of having accepted them, and is afraid that she will not be able to look after the chicks properly. However, by the time Harriet and Frederick arrive to collect the nests, most of the birds are dead. Starved of food, they have pecked one another to death. Only a few fledglings remain, which the Benson children take home.

Chs.11 and 12

The robins learn to fly. At first they are uneasy about the prospect of throwing themselves from such a great height as their nest, but they all reach the ground safely. There they are taught how to find food - worms, caterpillars, spiders and flies. They are then shown how to fly back to the nest, but Robin, vain as ever, refuses to be taught and tries to fly on his own. He crashes down to earth, and injures himself badly. His mother feeds him, but he will not be able to fly for some time.


Meanwhile Harriet is taken by her mother to another neighbour's house. Mrs. Addis, the owner, is meant as a contrast to the Jenkins. While they were cruel to any animal they encountered, Mrs. Addis goes to the other extreme. She dotes on her pets - a monkey, Mr. Pug; parrots; a lapdog; several cats; and various other caged creatures. She even ignores her daughter, confining her to the nursery, for fear her pets should be affronted by any diversion of her attention. The point is reinforced by Mrs. Addis' disrespect for her visitors, her cruelty to servant and her lack of charity, all caused by her ludicrous dedication to her pets.

Chs.14 and 15

Robin, unable to fly, is taken by his father to the gardener's shed where he will spend the night. The next day, the rest of his family visit him, and find him truly repentant of his former ungovernable pride. The young robins see a hawk, but they know that the hawk will not attack while the gardener is near. The agree with their parents that this human is certainly not a monster, as they had first thought, but is in fact a kind guardian. Indeed, the close relationship between humans and robins is one of the themes of the book (perhaps due to the kindly robins who covered in leaves the two dead children in the ballad of the Children in the Wood, says the cock robin: p.68 - see 0083, 0084 or 0085). Robin has gone missing, however, and the rest of his family conclude him dead. They return to the nest with heavy hearts. Only at the end of the chapter is the family reunited, when Robin is found being fed by Frederick at the tea-table.

Chs.16 and 17

In fact, Robin had been found by Frederick, and since he was injured, Mrs. Benson had allowed her son to take the bird home to supervise his recovery. This is where the rest of his family finds Robin, well-cared for and eating from the humans' table.

By now the Redbreast family can fly well, and they visit the other birds of their neighbourhood. Each has a different character which the mother and father robins can describe, and from each species a moral can be drawn. The magpies, for instance, are criticised for all talking at once, so no-one can understand what they say. The chaffinch is denounced for telling tales. The cuckoo is condemned in severe terms for stealing the nests of others. And the mocking bird is even drafted in from North America, 'for the sake of the moral' as a note puts it (p.110n.).


The Bensons visit the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and their children. There they are shown chickens and pigs, both kept in humane conditions. The important thing is to be kind to animals while they are alive, but this good intent should not shift into a prejudice against killing the animals to eat the meat. 'I often regret, said Mrs. Benson, that so many lives should be sacrificed to preserve ours; but we must eat animals, or they would at length eat us, at least all that would otherwise support us.' (p.115)


The children see bees in a glass hive and learn that bees will not sting if not provoked. The sight of the soldier bees defending the queen prompts Mrs. Benson to venture a political sentiment: 'I wish our good king could see all his subjects as closely united in his interest! - What say you, Frederick, would you fight for your King? Yes, mamma, if Papa would. - That, I assure you, my dear, he certainly would do, if there were occasion, as loyally as the best bee in the world: and I beg you will remember what I now tell you as long as you live, that it is your duty to love your king, for he is to be considered as the father of his country.' But in human affairs, she continues, it is not a queen who governs the nation, but a king, 'as your papa governs his family.' (119f.

They debate whether it is permissible according to their codes of kindness to animals to kill spiders if, say, they are dirtying the house with their cobwebs. The question is ducked, for Mrs. Wilson reveals that whenever she moves into a new home, she is sure to 'destroy' the 'nests' of the spiders, so that they learn to forsake the house. They debate whether cats and dogs should be allowed in the home (no, yes, respectively, p.131) and Farmer Wilson notes that he treats his farm animals like servants, who get paid in food not money, but still have the Sabbath without working.

Chs.23 and 24

The Redbreasts, meanwhile, have ventured out of the nest on a tour of the world, and the father shows them some of its perils. They escape a bird-catcher and a hunter shooting at birds, both of which episodes add some drama to Trimmer's text. The young robins initially misjudge what they see, thinking the bird-catcher a philanthropist, spreading seed for their benefit - but appearances can be deceptive. The same is true in the next place they visit - the gardens of a wealthily landowner. Here they find an aviary, where every need of the birds kept there seems to be provided. How happy they must be, the young robins think. But they overheard them expressing their hatred of their confinement (save for some canaries who claim they would not know what to do with greater freedom, and who compare their present freedom with previous incarceration in smaller cages). In a nearby menagerie, the robins meet partridges, pheasants and a stork. They find that men come and kill the partridges periodically, and realise that some animals eat birds just as the robins eat worms.


The parent robins prepare to say farewell to their offspring. The father lectures them on their duties and the mother takes her leave with much greater regret, embracing her children but regaining her tranquillity almost immediately. The action then switches to the humans, who note with alarm that the parent robins have not arrived to be fed. Mrs. Benson attributes this, correctly, to their having divested themselves of their nestlings. And she delivers her final judgement on how humans should behave towards animals. It is lawful to kill animals for food, she suggests, but not to excess. Noxious and poisonous animals, like snakes or serpents, she concedes, it may be necessary to kill, for mankind's needs should always be attended to first.


This final chapter records what happens to all the protagonists after the close of the narrative. The human characters prosper, or otherwise, according to their benevolence to animals. Frederick and Harriet, for example, live happy lives, as does Miss Lucy Jenkins who has reformed. Her brother, on the other hand, is thrown from a horse and killed for beating it too severely, the extension of his childhood faults of torturing animals and birds. The robins also have various fates. Robin, the eldest child, never fully recovers from his injury, and remained a pensioner of Harriet and Frederick. Pecksy was also happy there in her native orchard, but Dicky and Flapsy found their home and parents too dull and flew further and further abroad. They were soon captured in a trap-cage, and spent the rest of their days confined in an aviary. Realising that they had better make the best of their situation, though, they reconciled themselves to their captivity and lived tolerably happy lives. 'From the foregoing examples,' Trimmer writes, 'I hope my young readers will select the best for their own imitation, and take warning by the rest, otherwise my Fabulous Histories have been written in vain.' (p.171)

Bonderson, Jan, The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History, Ithaca and London: Cornell Univesity Press, 1999