Harvey Darton on the place of the Taylors of Ongar in English children's literature

The Taylors of Ongar
and others of their family




Writers on
the Taylors

Harvey Darton on the Taylors

In 1932, F.J. Harvey Darton published Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life, a pioneering study in its field. In his preface, he wrote:

The story of English Children's Books has not yet, so far as I know, not been written as a continuous whole, or as a minor chapter in the history of English social life, which is what the present volume is meant to furnish. It has in fact been told only once with any completeness, in Mrs Field's The Child and His Work (1892).

F.J. Harvey Darton was a descendant of William Darton, the Quaker publisher who put the first writings of the Taylors of Ongar into print. Harvey Darton, the last of his family to be involved in publishing after about 140 years, was "known to be an expert in this matter and he had been working on the subject for more than 20 years", wrote Kathleen Lines, in the introduction to the second edition of his book, published in 1958.

The book, although it sold slowly to begin with, "slowly found its way into libraries, schools and training schools for librarians", wrote Lines, and eventually it became accepted as an authority.

It is probably safe to say that Darton will never be supplanted. His interest was life-long and his personal knowledge immense. His opportunities for detailed information about and round the subject were unique, for his family had maintained a continuous connection with publishing for 140 years. (Katherine Lines)

In Chapter XI of his book, The Moral Tale: (ii) Persuasive; chiefly in verse, Darton deals with the Taylors and their contribution to children's literature.

— Steve Painter

The Moral Tale: (ii) Persuasive; chiefly in verse

BETWEEN Isaac Watts's day and the early years of the nineteenth century, very little verse was written specially for children ... Nursery rhymes and rhymed alphabets, even if they were widely circulated in print, as to which the evidence is of a negative kind, were no more than traditional. Watts held a field which few people deemed worth tillage. It would be nearly true, but not quite, to say that between 1715 and 1804 no "original poems for infant minds" were uttered.

Ann and Jane Taylor, who used that title with good warrant, were in fact both the successors of Watts and the creators of the Moral Tale in verse. But in the interval there were three writers who stand out as separate figures. They made verse, respectively, for, at, and about children.

The earliest was John Marchant, Gent., who, from the little that can be gathered from his works, must have been a strange fellow. He pub­lished some sturdy and even violent anti-Papist books, and two very unusual volumes of verse for children-Puerilia (1751) and Lusus juveniles: or, Youth's Recreation (1753). The sub-title to Puerilia, which is a well-printed book with a folding copperplate frontispiece and an engraved title-page, runs Songs for Little Misses, Songs for Little Masters, Songs on Divine, Moral, and other Subjects, which sounds like a mixture of Watts and Newbery, but is no more than common form. The interesting feature of both works is what he calls "other Subjects" ... But he had no true imagination. He was simply very much alive, very inquisitive, abruptly serious; as if he were immensely delighted with the bright surface of things and then suddenly remembered that he was a Puritan: an odd mixture, a little like Partridge in Tom Jones. So far as I can see, his books attracted little attention and were not reprinted.

Nathaniel Cotton, the second of these lonely figures, lived from 1705 to 1788, which, even had he not achieved it, would have been his proper span and sphere. He wrote Visions in Verse, for the Entertainment and Instruction of Younger Minds (I75I). It went into many editions; Dodsley did a pretty one with a frontispiece of cherub heads. It will be remembered that Dr Cotton was a capable and humane alienist who had Cowper among his patients. His verse has deserved less long recollec­tion. It is bland and equable, and the Visions instruct "Younger" minds excellently, within their professed range; thus:

See, the lark (preens) his active wings,
Rises to heaven, and soars, and sings.
His morning hymns, his mid-day lays,
Are one continued song of praise ...
Shall birds instructive lessons teach,
And we be deaf to what they preach?

There was nothing in such fancies to excite any particular emotion, good or evil. It is creditable to the author and his epoch that they were highly esteemed at the time. It would have been strange if thev were not. That is their historical value to-day.

The third author is solitary and unique, in essence neither of his own period nor of any other, for genius is lonely. In that period, so far as children were concerned, he was little known. He transcended then and always all other poets whom children could read; but it is only in the last fifty years or so that his spirit has become a living spark in poetry meant for children. One can call his a new voice in 1789. It is still a new voice in 1932. Then and now its music is for those who are themselves the poets, the dreamers, World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams. It has never become a detail of history, a mere emblem or witness from ordinary English life.

It is simplest to quote outright the first poem in William Blake's Songs of Innocence, for it can serve as a text for all that can be said of him in a record of real children's books. It is often quoted as "The Piper", but that is not its title nor its strict connotation. The Songs of Innocence are usually treated as if they were songs for Innocents, whereas they are nothing of the kind. This is their


Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me.

Pipe a song about a Lamb:
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper pipe that song again
­So I piped, he wept to hear

Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe
Sing thy songs of happy chear.
So I sung the same again
While he wept with joy to hear

Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read
­So he vanish'd from my sight.
And I pluck'd a hollow reed

And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs,
Every child may joy to hear

... Blake, when he produced — ­literally produced: wrote, drew, engraved and put forth — his Songs of Innocence (1789, dated) and Songs of Experience (1794), was himself, in a spiritual sense, a child happy on a cloud, singing and desiring such songs as few but he could write. But he was also setting down what a child had thought, setting it down as an expression of human nature as he saw and had observed it-as innocent experience recorded, not as an offering to innocence; and the Introduction, to that extent, explains the very root of that experience, the immediate ecstasy of joy without shadow or reflection.

A great imaginative writer had, in fact, broken into this narrow library that others were toiling so laboriously to fill for children. Those others, the Edgeworths, the Watts's, the Taylors, the Lambs, the Trimmers (for they are all in the same gallery in this task), had their ideals, high, practical, long, severe, whatever you like to call them. But they never dreamt of knocking at the gate of heaven or playing among the tangled stars. At best they could only laugh a little and break a few weak chains of solemnity. They never saw the strange distance that is sometimes lifted up almost into sight beyond the clear clean horizon of sunset. They were never taken out of themselves. They always were themselves in a world of selves mutually communicable. Blake did not fit into their library, excellent though its accommodation was beginning to be. But to-day it is his spirit that its poets would like to recapture ...

In the 'eighties and 'nineties of that century, and earlier, it was doubtful whether the verse form itself ought to be on the shelves. Isaac Watts and Mrs Barbauld were far from sure of its value to the young intelligence. Their eyes were holden by the period's strong sense of hard clear pattern, a pattern not of colour but of well-proportioned shapes fitting one another. By poetry they meant metre and scansion, which were the antithesis of prose: and poetry, by involving these artifices, was unnatural and difficult to children. They were underrating their own public, really. They spoke as grown-up patrons, aloof though affectionate, kindly but alien.

The book that awoke the nurseries of England, and those in charge of them — Original Poems for Infant Minds, "by Several Young Per­sons" (1804) — might well have fallen under the same suspicion of condescendingness, if its preface were to be taken as literally as its authors seem to have expected. This introduction begins with a modest claim to a moral purpose, not very happily phrased:

If a hearty affection for that interesting little race, the race of children, is any recommendation, the writers of the following pages are well recom­mended; and if to have studied in some degree their capacities, habits, and wants, with a wish to adapt these simple verses to their real comprehensions, and probable improvement — if this has any further claim to the indulgence of the public, it is the last and only one they attempt to make.

"Piper, pipe that song again." The several young persons heard the words, but in a different voice. The writers were Ann Taylor, aged 22 in 1804; Jane Taylor, aged 21; Isaac Taylor (third of that name in the family), aged 17 — these of the younger generation; their friend — was he? — Bernard Barton, aged 20; possibly Isaac Taylor II, their father; and Adelaide O'Keefe, aged 28, who apparently was foisted into the volume by the publishers. Though "young persons", once grown-up, were fully grown-up, the backward, downward glance, by writers of years so tender, at "that interesting little race" is a trifle complacent. Were they really as mature as all that in 1804?

As a matter of fact, Ann Taylor herself had commenced author when she was only sixteen, so that perhaps there was some warrant for the adult attitude. But any fears that it would be dominant in the book are greatly allayed by the poems themselves. They were "original", as no previous poems for the young had been, in that you can see the authors, as it were, talking lovingly and naturally to real flesh-and-blood middle­class children whom they knew: almost to themselves, indeed.

It is not to tease you, and hurt you, my sweet,
But only for kindness and care,
That I wash you, and dress you, and make you look neat,
And comb out your tanglesome hair.
I don't mind the trouble, if you would not cry,
But pay me for all with a kiss;
That's right-take the towel and wipe your wet eye,
I thought you'd be good after this,

wrote Ann in Washing and Dressing; and you feel sure that "Mrs Taylor of Ongar" had been kissing Ann herself in just that simple family way not so many years before.

That is the revolution made by Original Poems, and its successors Rhymes for the Nursery (1806) and Hymns for Infant Minds (1810). They rendered the "little race" natural, and the monitor's attitude to it also as natural as contemporary manners permitted. On the other hand, the Original Poems themselves, when they became tales in verse instead of comments on life or spontaneous little pictures of pleasant and beautiful things, as they sometimes were, lost much of their originality, and were no more than rhymed moralities. But they were that too with a difference. Miss Edgeworth had let foolishness or misconduct lead inevitably — by "Nature" — to retributive justice. The other moral fabulists in prose had done the same, less dexterously, or had brought in the tutor or schoolmistress to point out the offence. The Taylors just made things happen. Meddlesome Mattie spied the pretty snuff box, and her idle hands mischievously opened it: "she could do nothing else but sneeze", and so she broke her grandmother's spectacles. There is no real moral in that: the box might have been Pandora's, for all Mattie knew, or a chest in King Solomon's mines, or have held a genie. The only lesson honestly conveyed is that you should never open any boxes at all. Equally untrue, didactically, is The Little Fisherman. Harry, who would catch fishes (though Mrs Trimmer had given excellent reasons for proper use of the brute creation), was himself caught by the chin on a meat-hook — quite capriciously and un-morally, because he was doing what any prudent angler would have done, putting to­morrow's breakfast in the larder. The Taylors, in fact, invented the "awful warning" school of poetry, which has led to a thousand cheerful parodies very remote from the authors' intentions.

However, in spite of their moral purpose, they never lost their humanity: they were still too close to childhood, and too happy a family, to become prigs when they started writing. And they had a sense of humour surpassed, among contemporary writers for children, only by Maria Edgeworth's. The Notorious Glutton

A duck who had got such a habit of stuffing
That all the day long she was panting and puffing

is a timeless and jolly piece, in spite of Mrs Duck's unhappy end. The awful warnings, unlike Mrs Sherwood's in prose, are really quite cheerful. They had also a gift for legitimate pathos, as in The Last Dying Speech of Poor Puss, and for sheer unhesitating simplicity, as in Learning to go Alone (from Rhymes for the Nursery):

Come, my darling, come away,
Take a pretty walk to-day;
Run along, and never fear,
I'll take care of baby dear:
Up and down with little feet,
That's the way to walk, my sweet.

Now it is so very near,
Soon she'll get to mother dear.
There she comes along at last:
Here's my finger, hold it fast
Now one pretty little kiss,
After such a walk as this.

You must like the Young Persons who could write in that style. Some of their pieces, notoriously, have suffered, like Watts's, from the attrition of the school entertainment platform, or from the obloquy of easy parody. My Mother is one, Twinkle, twinkle, little star another, to meet that undeserved fate. But when it appeared, and for sixty years later, My Mother was admired (as it was probably meant to be) for its moral tone as much as for the honest sentiment it expresses so fluently and yet so gracefully. It was by Ann. De Morgan, the mathematician, writing of it in The Athenaeum in the austere 'sixties, called it "one of the most beautiful lyrics in the English language, or any other language", but thought that the "bit of religion thrust in" spoilt it. He suggested that Tennyson should be asked "in the name of all the children of England", to rewrite this verse:

For God, who lives above the skies,
Would look with vengeance in His eyes,
If I should ever dare despise My Mother.

He did not know that Ann — by then Mrs Gilbert — was still living, at the age of eighty-four. She at once agreed that she would no longer put the matter so straitly, and sent an alternative:

For could our Father in the skies
Look down with pleased or loving eyes,
If ever I could dare despise My Mother.

"Vengeance", she wrote, "is not a word I should now employ." But "anger" had been the word used in the first edition: it was intensified into "vengeance" at the recollection of "a painful piece of far back family history".

That perhaps is the secret of the Taylors' freshness, which still lingers in the best of their children's verse, though the mode is nearly outworn. They were a large compact family, all alert. They wrote for and about real children — themselves — and did not press the moral issue for philo­sophical reasons, like Miss Edgeworth, or for theological, like Mrs Sherwood. The whole circle — in that generation Dissenters, in the next represented by Canon Isaac Taylor of Words and Places — could write, and most of them could also draw and engrave. They followed all these occupations in order to make a living, but they sought neither wealth nor fame. They did not go into public or literary circles to any great extent. They lived quietly in a middle-class fashion, serene and cheerful in the midst of tremendous happenings which are hardly hinted at in their writings. (But that silence is common to all domestic writers of the period.) What that meant in the way of circumscribed intercourse and mutual tolerance is best described in Ann's own words about their home at Lavenham, an old home of Pilgrim Fathers whose descendants occasionally try to transport its buildings to America to-day. The Taylors spent their early years there:

Nurseries at Lavenham, and at that time of day, I do not remember. The parlour and the best parlour were all that was known beside the kitchens, and thus parents and children formed happily but one circle ... My father and mother were soon noted as good managers of their children; for little as either of them had experienced of a wise education themselves, they had formed a singularly strong resolve to train their young ones with the best judgement they could exercise, and not to suffer humoured children to disturb either themselves or their friends. There is scarcely an expression so fraught to my earliest recollection with ideas of disgrace and misery as that of a "humoured child", and I should have felt truly ashamed to exhibit one of my own at my father's table.

("A child should never have anything he cried for": Newbery, Rousseau ...) Their little world was repeated, probably, in almost every parish in England. Its difference from others lay in the fact that all its members were articulate and eager. "It was", as E. V. Lucas has excellently said, "almost impossible to be a Taylor and not write."

His centenary edition of the Original Poems gives a crowded little picture of the family's life and writings. Of the non-Taylor contributors to that volume, Bernard Barton is known for his friendship with Lamb, as well as by his own not very exciting work. Adelaide O'Keefe (I776-1855)  — the author of one of the best and best-known poems in the collection:

The Dog will come when he is called,
The Cat will walk away;
The Monkey's cheek is very bald;
The Goat is fond of play.

The Parrot is a prate-a-pace.
Yet knows not what she says;
The noble Horse will win the race,
Or draw you in a chaise.

— deserves a few lines of comment. Her position is peculiar. She seems not to have been acquainted with the Taylors personally. There were thirty-four poems by her in the whole collection, and some of them, as compact narratives (Idle Richard and the Goat, for instance), are among the freshest. But she was neither a Quaker — like Barton and the publishers — nor at all in the same kind of social milieu as the amiable Taylor family. Her father was John O'Keefe, the genial and for a time very successful Irish dramatist and song-writer, author of at least one song still known, The Friar of Orders Grey. O'Keefe, in spite of help from the Regent, finally declined in wealth and popularity, and Adelaide ... cared for him devotedly until his death in 1833. She lived with him first at Chichester, where they were "much respected and esteemed", and afterwards at South­ampton. She acted as his amanuensis and wrote for him the whole of his lively but untrustworthy Recollections (1826): her hand was nearly incapacitated by the strain. She managed his finances, and did her best to make money by writing herself. For her children's verses she re­ceived from my ancestors £100 in all: the Taylors, by her account, got more, but she seems to have been treated not unfairly as regards actual cash. Her chief other books, all her own work, were Original Poems calculated to Improve the Mind of Youth and Allure it to Virtue (1808?), National Characters (1818: verse), Dudley (1819: a novel), A Trip to the Coast (1819), Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (1814), Patriarchal Times (4th ed. 1826) and Poems for Young Children (1849 ?). Many of these were published by Darton and Harvey, but not all: she was therefore in some general demand. They were successful to a certain extent, but the Taylors remained in higher esteem as writers for children, while for her  — as a pathetic inscription by her in one of her own copies of Patriarchal Times records — "the Pen burned, and no Phoenix". She is rather a melancholy and incongruous figure.

As for that lively family at Lavenham and Ongar, the Taylors them­selves must here remain a representative assembly, and no more. Isaac the son wrote The Natural History of Enthusiasm and many other meritorious works: Isaac the father, inter alia, Self-Cultivation Recom­mended; or Hints to a Youth leaving School (1817) and Bunyan explained to a Child (1825): his wife, Reciprocal Duties of Parents and Children (1818), The Family Mansion: a Tale (1819), and many other stories and didactic treatises, notably Correspondence between a Mother and her Daughter at School (1817), in which Jane collaborated as the daughter. Jane here and elsewhere showed a keen eye for kindly satire, and with a little greater freedom of circumstance might have stood near to Maria Edgeworth as a novelist for adults, if not, indeed, to Jane Austen herself. Ann wrote little independently. Another brother, Jefferys, too young to get into print in 1804, except possibly as the subject of one of the poems, produced Aesop in Rhyme, ... Ralph Richards the Miser (1821), and several other "instructive and amusing" little books.

Original Poems had an enormous success. Miss Barry records a seventh edition in the year of publication, 1804. I have not seen this, but have seen a seventh edition of 1808, and a fourth edition (Vol. II only) dated 1808 also. Others were, 18th, 1818; 26th, 1828; 30th, 1834. Kate Greenaway did a famous set of illustrations in 1883: In 1925 Miss Edith Sitwell "introduced" a selection under the title of one of the poems, Meddlesome Mattie. I do not think they have ever been wholly out of print.

Naturally, both the originality and the success bred imitations almost at once, some of them deprecating comparison with the Taylors work, though obviously inspired by it, others simply following the fashion without admitting it. The greater number do but accentuate the virtues of Ann and Jane in respect of rhythm, ease, and the one quality their title claimed, originality. One — Rhymes and Pictures for the Nursery and School, By a Lady ... ­deserves quotation for that purpose. A little girl, as in so many poems and tales of that day, would eat forbidden fruit:

They went on a little, but Anna complain'd
Of pain in her stomach and head,
And very soon follow'd most terrible pains,
She shriek'd out with anguish and dread ...
She died from not doing what Ma had desired,
And eating the fruit of the wood.

Not all the imitations were so remote as that. Two other workers in this trim if narrow field survive to-day in a manner they can hardly have expected. One of them might scarcely be known as a writer for children but for her illustrious surname. The other lives, it is not too much to say, through the unholy mirth she has provoked in later generations. This was the redoubtable but mysterious Elizabeth Turner, about whom nothing, outside her books, seems to be known except that she lived at Whitechurch in Shropshire and died in 1846. She wrote The Daisy or Cautionary Stories in Verse adapted to the Ideas of Children from four to eight years old (1807), The Cowslip (1811) and The Pink (edited, with additions, by Mary Howitt, in 1835). There were imitations by other writers.

No moralist was ever more straightforward than Elizabeth Turner. Right was right, wrong wrong, and wrong invited and received the rod, and no questions asked — or, at least, very seldom, and then only for good reason.

... The other exceptional imitator of the Taylors was Sara Coleridge, the poet's charming daughter. She too suffered from lack of humour; but there is no doubt about her being in earnest. She said:

The Original Poems give too many pictures of mental depravity, bodily torture, and of adult sorrow; and I think the sentiments — the tirades, for instance, against hunting, fishing, shooting — are morbid, and partially false.

That is honestly and plainly expressed, and many would share the opinion. But Sara Coleridge went a very odd way to substitute, in her Pretty Lessons in Verse, for Good Children (1834), "nothing but what is bright and joyous" for the sentiments she thus deplored. A remarkable moral conclusion is reached in a poem called Disappointment. A boy named Colin, mountaineering with old and young friends, carried with him an orange, on which he expected, rationally and even greedily, to slake his thirst in due course. He could not help playing with it, dancing about and tossing it up as he leapt over the rocks. Suddenly it jumped out of his hand and rolled far out of reach:

For some little time he stood still as a stock,
His face wore a fixed vacant stare;
But soon he recover'd this terrible shock,
And turning away from the edge of the rock
Threw off his disconsolate air.

With thoughts of the basket he solaced his heart,
From thence real comfort might come;
For he in the sandwiches still had a part,
He perhaps might come in for a slice of the tart,
And there was the pineapple rum.

Since pleasure is apt through our fingers to slip,
And fate we can never withstand;
Whene'er the full cup is thus dashed from the lip,
Before we have taken the very first sip,
'Tis well to keep temper in hand.

Pickwick did not begin to appear till three years later, so that the author cannot be accused of making Colin an amalgam of the Fat Boy and Mr Stiggins. But none of the didacticists she criticized ever thought of quite such a "pretty lesson" as is afforded by the comfort of a picnic basket and pineapple rum if you carelessly lose an orange.

Her verses were for a time popular: they reached a fourth edition in 1845. But the Taylors, mental depravity and all, have outlived her in fact. She is of some historical importance because she is on the inner fringe of great literature. She proves that the idea of the Moral Tale was at least known to the loftier minds of the day, and she serves to provide here a transition to her father's friends, Charles and Mary Lamb.

The Lambs' writings for children certainly lay, to a great extent, well within the Moral Tale ring-fence. They were written for the market. On the other hand, the authors personally, like Blake and, in a less degree, Oliver Goldsmith, are apt to be a little one-sidedly viewed in this connection. Lamb, of all men, was least of any period, even when he was spinning his own epoch out of himself in delicately shot silk. England under George III contained him, but did not produce him­so far as Elia the man is concerned. If he lived to-day, he would not have to write or think differently to win the suffrages of the judicious (not that he ever sought them). But if he and his sister wrote their children's books to-day, they might very well not find an eager pub­lisher. Neither would the Taylors, Mrs Trimmer, Mrs Elliott, the Kilners; and even Maria Edgeworth would probably have to adapt her genius to altered forms. You can see small gleams of timeless genius in the interstices of the Lambs' juvenile books, but they are rare glints in a drab not of their own creating.


Comments welcome