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Review: 'Fabulous Histories', by Mrs. [Sarah] Trimmer

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Fabulous HistoriesThe modern era of talking animals in literature is generally believed to start with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (July 1865). That is the oldest novel still commonly published today, and the earliest that people (both children and adults) read voluntarily for pleasure. Yet there were quite a few stories in the late 18th century with talking animals.

Fabulous Histories. Designed for the Instruction of Children, Respecting Their Treatment of Animals, by Mrs. [Sarah] Trimmer. London, T. Longman, G. C. J. and J. Robinson, and J. Johnson, 1786, xi + 227 pages, 1/-.

Before about the 1750s, popular attitudes toward animals were about the same as toward inanimate objects. Children were allowed, if not encouraged, to treat pets and other animals as breakable toys. As an aspect of the Age of Enlightenment, such tormenting of dumb beasts began to be considered as cruel. One result of this was the development of uplifting children’s literature. Books were written for parents to give to their children for their moral edification, as didactic lessons of virtue and kindness to animals. One of the most popular of these was Mrs. Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories, which went through many editions from 1786 to late in the next century (retitled The History of or The Story of the Robins during most of the 19th century). A similar classic was Dorothy Kilner's 1783 The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse, in which Nimble the mouse relates his autobiography consisting mostly of being the victim of cruel pranks by children. Children continued to tie cans to pets’ tails into the 19th century, but after about 1770 they Knew It Was Wrong.

Mrs. Trimmer was careful to emphasize in her Introduction (as the other authors did in their introductions or forewords) that the story is a fantasy, because animals cannot really talk. She did not allow Fabulous Histories to be illustrated during her lifetime (1741-1810), for fear that pictures of the birds engaging in conversation would overly confuse children. Despite this warning, some parents worried that reading Fabulous Histories would lead children to believe that birds could talk; in Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1788 Original Stories from Real Life, a mother giving her child Fabulous Histories emphasizes “that birds never talk.” Apparently the grownups of this time were seriously concerned that stories of talking animals would be believed by children to be factual! As late as 1931, Alice in Wonderland was banned in China because it contains talking animals and therefore teaches an unreality.

The consequence of this was, that they [the children] contracted a great fondness for animals; and used often to express a wish that their birds, cats, dogs, &c. could talk, that they might hold conversations with them. Their mamma, therefore, to amuse them, composed the following Fabulous Histories; in which the sentiments and affections of a good father and mother, and a family of children, are supposed to be possessed by a nest of Redbreasts; and others of the feathered race are, by the force of imagination, endued with the same faculties: but before Henry and Charlotte began to read these Histories, 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 indicted, and recommend universal benevolence.” (pgs. vii-viii)

The very similar statement in Kilner’s The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse was:

But, before I proceed to relate my new little companion’s history, I must beg leave to assure my readers, that, in earnest, I never heard a mouse speak in all my life; and only wrote the following narrative as being far more entertaining, and not less instructive, than my own life would have been. (Kilner, p. 8)

In a hole which time had made, in a wall covered with ivy, a pair of Redbreasts built their nest. (p. 9)

Master Frederick Viewing the Young Birds in the Currant-BushThe mother Redbreast lays four eggs, which their father views with pride but concern.

We may promise ourselves much delight in rearing our little family, said he, but it will occasion us a great deal of trouble; I would willingly bear the whole fatigue myself, but it will be impossible for me, with my utmost labour and industry, to supply all our nestlings with what is sufficient for their daily support; it will therefore be necessary for you to leave the nest occasionally, in order sometimes to seek provisions for them. (p. 10)

Eventually the four eggs hatch into father Redbreast’s “little darlings, to whom, for the sake of distinction, I shall give the names of Robin, Dicksy, Flapsy, and Pecksy.” (p. 11)

The birds’ nest is in the wall of the home of Miss Harriet Benson, age 11, and her brother, Master Frederick, age 6. The children are eager to feed the birds, which their mother allows them to do but not too wastefully, “as it is not right to cut pieces from a loaf on purpose for birds, because there are many children who want bread, to whom we should give the preference. Would you deprive a poor little hungry boy of his breakfast, to give it to birds?” (p. 12)

Master Frederick collects a bit from each of the servants’ meals instead of taking fresh foodstuffs for the birds. Mrs. Benson approves of this moderation.

I am delighted, my dear children, with your humane behaviour towards the animal creation, and with by all means to encourage it : but, though a most commendable propensity, it requires regulation; let me therefore recommend to you, 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.” (ibid.)

Meanwhile the birds are getting along in their nest.

The hen bird, as I informed you, repaired immediately to the nest; her heart fluttered with apprehension, as she entered it, and she eagerly called out, Are you all safe, my little dears? – All safe, my good mother, replied Pecksy, but a little hungry, and very cold. – Well, said she, your last complaint I can soon remove; but in respect to the satisfying your hunger, that must be your father’s task, for I have not been able to bring anything good for you to eat; however, he will soon be here, I make no doubt.” (p. 14)

Fabulous Histories is also of interest for its picture of social customs of the era. The Bensons are an “average” family with the usual servants; a footman, a cook, a gardener, a coachman, etc. Those who do not have live-in servants are the miserably poor people, to be pitied. When Joe the gardener finds the Redbreasts’ nest high up in the wall, and the children beg to see it, Master Frederick is freely allowed to climb a ladder to do so; but Miss Harriet is only reluctantly given permission – climbing ladders is very unladylike. (The baby birds excitedly tell their parents about the giant monsters who looked in upon them.) The human children speak in a manner – “For shame! Master Jenkins, said Miss Harriet, how can you talk in that rhodomontade manner? I cannot believe any young gentleman could bring his heart to such barbarities.” (p. 53) -- which is either exaggerated by the author, or evidence that upper-class children of that time had a much more educated vocabulary than they do today.

The narrative is full of incidents as seen from the robins’ point of view of human children carelessly or maliciously using them as playthings, to be casually discarded when they “break”. Other menaces are acknowledged, such as a hawk, but it is made clear that these are natural predators merely following their instincts. Only humans know the difference between right and wrong, and mistreat animals through deliberately callous cruelty. The novel alternates scenes featuring the Redbreast family and the humans. The Benson children are contrasted with their thoughtless playmates who bring nests of baby birds home, at best not meaning to hurt them but invariably resulting in their starving to death in a few days; and who throw rocks and do worse to any cats, dogs, or domestic fowl that they catch, pull the wings off of flies, and so on.

A different example is that of lonely but rich Mrs. Addis, who coos over her beloved pet parrot, parakeet, macaw, squirrel, monkey, kittens, and lap-dog, but who relegates her own young children to the back rooms and her servants’ indifferent care. Her daughter Augusta is understandably jealous of the pampered animals. Mrs. Benson points out to Harriet that it is just as wrong to spoil animals as to mistreat them.

The lap-dog is, I am sure, a miserable object, full of diseases, the consequences of luxurious living. (p. 86)

In the robins’ scenes, the baby birds grow up. The boys Robin and Pecksy are adventurous, while Dicksy and sister Flapsy are more timorous. These scenes are just as didactic; Robin, the bad example, greedily eats all the worms himself, and is scolded by father Redbreast for not sharing with his siblings. Mrs. Trimmer wrings these scenes for as much pathos as she can cram into them:

Oh! cried he [Robin], that I had but followed the advice and example of my tender parents, then I had been safe in the nest, blest with their kind caresses, and enjoying the kind company of my dear brother and sisters! but now I am of all birds the most wretched! (p. 77)

Robin is crippled and believed by his family to be lost, but is rescued by Master Frederick. When the other robins find him, they are encouraged by the kindness shown to him to enter Frederick’s room themselves. Frederick is rewarded by seeing the robins explore his room and come and go freely through the open window, in comparison to the sterile life of Mrs. Addis’ caged pets. The Redbreasts introduce their children to the other birds of the neighborhood; the Linnets, Sparrows, Chaffinchs, and more. They have edifying encounters with other cruel human children and adult professional bird-catchers who show that not all humans are as kindly toward animals as the Bensons.

Ultimately, the Redbreasts grow up free and happy as wild birds should be. What happens to the humans is also summarized; Harriet and Frederick Benson become pleasant and well-liked adults, while the others in the story meet fates that are foretold by how kind or cruel toward animals they have been. The span of the popularity of Fabulous Histories approximately ended around the 1880s when three things occurred: less condescending children’s literature became available; social customs described in the story became blatantly outdated; and society generally evolved from rural to urban, making the be-good-to-animals message largely irrelevant.

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About the author

Fred (Fred Patten)read storiescontact (login required)

a retired former librarian from North Hollywood, California, interested in general anthropomorphics