About noon Mrs Pipchin presided over some Early Readings. It being a part of Mrs Pipchin's system not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster, the moral of these lessons was usually of a violent and stunning character: the hero—a naughty boy—seldom, in the mildest catastrophe, being finished off anything less than a lion, or a bear. — Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, chapter 8 (added by GPL)

The grim morality and religious emphasis apparent in The Children's Friend provides an apt example of the contents of evangelical periodicals throughout the Victorian period. In fact, the Rev. W. Carus Wilson's macabre matter-of-fact portrayal of the death of pious children follows the tone and subject matter used by the Puritan and other religious tract writers of the earlier century.

Rev. Wilson wrote directly to address the sinfulness of his young audience. He notes in the January 1824 Address to the Reader that he was publishing "a new work wholly for the young, which I call "THE CHILDREN"S FRIEND." And, dear Reader, your friend, I trust, you will always find me" (1). Drawing on the established tradition of didactic moralism, Wilson continues to state his aims as being:

to bring you to know and to love Jesus Christ who died for us. Hence I shall hope to tell you much about him. I shall tell you of what he did many hundred years ago in this our world. I shall tell you what he is now doing for his people in heaven. I shall tell you of his work of grace on earth; amongst the poor heathen in distant lands, as well as in our own happy country, England. And I shall love to set him before you as a pattern; and to remind you of his commands; that you may give the best proof of your loving this dear Saviour, be seeking to be like him, and to do as he bids you. [2,3]

Titlepage and frontispiece of Wilson's The Children's Friend.
[Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]

The manner in which Wilson, and other religious children's authors, attempt to instill Christian faith and offer salvation to their young audiences is apparent in the short story, "Bite of a Mad Dog" which appears in the same volume of the Children's Friend. Here, Wilson's detached journalistic tone and targeted young audience contrasts with the exact detail and gruesomeness of little Johnny's death. After showing an apparent return to health following being bitten by a dog, Johnny quickly declines and dies two months later at ten o'clock on Sunday, the 10th of December. Even as Johnny begins to convulse and shudder, the narrator takes the reader on a short aside. While Johnny's mother stays with the boy, his father and the narrator go to church and we are reminded of the biblical comparison presented by this situation: "Abraham, who offered up, at the command of God, 'his son, his only son whom he loved" (12).

Having reminded the audience that the sad story of Johnny's death must be studied and understood from a religious standpoint, Wilson dives back into the details of Johnny's death with relish:

he screamed, struggled, and shook with extreme terror... Nothing was done from this time, but now and then they wiped from his mouth the foam which came up, when the attacks were the strongest. He felt a weight at his breast, and could scarcely breathe; which shewed the progress of the disease. All this time, John only once spoke a word of complaint, and that was a very slight one. He said, 'it is very sore to die.' When a little free from sharp pain, he begged his mother to read him out of a little book of Bible stories. At other times, he wished her to sing some hymns. His dear mother was in too much trouble to be able to sing; but she now and then read to him the words of a hymn.

"When tears flowed down her cheeks, he would say, 'don't cry, dear mama, I am quite happy.' But when her Christian feeling got the better of her sorrow as a mother, she once asked him, 'whether he did not know that he had been a great sinner in the eyes of Almighty God.' - He replied, 'Oh! yes, mama; but Jesus Christ died on the cross for me.' 'But, Johnny (she added) do you feel sure you shall go to heaven?' - 'Yes, mama; and when I am an angel, I will fly behind you, and take care of you.'

"At the times when his attacks were most strong, he would never let his mother go near him, lest he might chance to bite even her. He never would confess to her that he was in pain; but always said that he was 'quite willing to go to heaven.' By degrees his strength failed him, and he grew feebler and feebler; and after two hours' slumber his soul left its prison without any pain or struggle.

"It was about ten o'clock at night, that he ceased to breathe. I was surprised to see no marks of the pain he had gone through, in his face - it was sweet even in death. [14-5]

Johnny remains the quintessential stoic evangelical child protagonist. He faces death with equanimity, and even comforts his poor mama! The awful, even unnecessary manner of Johnny's death contrasts with his peacefulness in death. And Wilson drives home the moral in finishing the tale:

Such is the story of poor little John, who was bit by a mad dog, and died. I am sure, my dear readers it must greatly affect you, even to tears. But so long as dear Johnny got safe to heaven, it does not much matter by what way he went to it. True it is, that his was one of the most shocking kinds of deaths, that any of us can die: but you see his Saviour, in whom he trusted, was with him to comfort him; and though he felt it "a sore thing to die," and above all to die in such a way, yet he looked to Jesus dying for him on the cross, and he had a good hope of going to heaven for his sake... There he is far out of the reach of this world of sorrow and sin; and there his God will do more for him, than the fondest mother could.

May you, dear children, be made ready to follow little John to heaven! [16-7]

Wilson's wish that his readers be moved to tears strongly recalls James Janeway's asking his young readers in A token for children whether they had "shed ever a tear since you begun reading?" (8). Furthermore, Wilson's grim reminder that death can appear at any moment and to whomever makes shocking reading for young children when evaluated by modern standards. Yet Wilson, and his contemporaries, believed that they were offering spiritual sustenance and temporal comfort by adding that heaven and God will offer eternal salvation.

These themes of death and acceptance, the promise of heaven and the macabre desire that children be prepared to "follow little John [and the host of other pious, dead children] to heaven" appear in almost identical format in thousands of evangelical publications that were published, distributed and, one can only hope, enjoyed by young English-readers throughout the period.

References

Janeway, James. A token for children: Being and exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children. Boston: Printed for Nicholas Boone, 1700.

Wilson, Carus W. The Children's Friend: for the Year 1824. Vol. 1. Kirkby Lonsdale: A. Foster, 1824. Reproduced online by The Hockliffe Project , Centre for Textual Scholarship at the De Montfort University, Leicester.


Victorian Web Overview Genre, Technique, and Style Children's Literature

Last modified 21 August 2009