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Pincushions and Early Modern Feminism
Mary Ann Kilner & the Adventures of a Pincushion" (1780) meets theories of Mary Wollstonecraft, early feminist and author
According to Patricia Demers' anthology of children's literature, From Instruction to Delight, the morality and the intentions behind the authorship of children's literature are seldom the same of adult literature written large, for smaller hands. Some children's books today might seem to be for 'pure fun,' but often only pure fun in disguise. And, in the past, children's literature never even put up the pretence of merely being for fun and games for the young mind. In other words, children's literature, because of the fact that it is written explicitly by adults for an audience of children, is never simply 'just a story' nor is it absent of ideological and cultural content. Rather, it is more often an intense engagement of cultural ideology and teaching, fused in narrative terms, in such a fashion to be imparted upon the minds of the next, often presumably impressionable generation.
This idea can be seen demonstrated in the clear moralizing deployed by Mary Ann Kilner in her short 1780 tale for children, entitled, "The Adventures of a Pincushion," where the industrious protagonist attempts to imbue the values of hard work and domestic industry upon the minds of its young readers. One of the most interesting aspects of "The Adventures of a Pincushion" is how this tale, one of the earliest recorded children's stories in the English language, attempts to imbue an inanimate object with life and animate character in a charming fashion to teach a rather pedestrian message of the vale of hard work and diligence. The fact that this is specifically intended as children's tale is especially interesting, and should be stressed, because quite often today what is thought of as past children's literature of the 18th and early 19th century period, such as the German tales later collected by the Grimm Brothers. These were in fact folk tales, or tales of the common people, designed for a wider cultural audience than merely the very young, although these tales may have been used for the purposes of instructing the young at times, over the many years course of their evolution.
However, the brutal and often bloody construction of the Grimm tales, for instance, does not merely belay their larger intended audience than children at bedtime, but also the fact that these later collected tales were not calculated to produce a specific moral and constructed message that children were supposed to apprehend and receive uncritically. Instead, the folk tale grew over time and were oral, rather than written literature with a message to be fixed in time. They were thus shaped by various social pressures that were not artfully constructed and edited by the mind of one, overwhelming vision of an author, as was "The Adventures of a Pincushion."
In contrast, Mary Ann Kilner's "Adventures of a Pincushion" imagines written speech for objects and animals in a way clearly designed to convey morality to children specifically, rather than a general audience. It reflects the growing shift in attitude of the period, largely inspired by the French author Rousseau, who suggested that the mind of a child was a blank slate, open for societal influence and cultural shaping and teaching, for good or for ill. This is one reason why that Kilner's "Adventures of a Pincushion" is also included under a subsection of Demers' anthology entitled 'The Rational Moralists."
During this 18th century era of the French Revolution, the Rights of Man (and other human beings, including women) the theories of Rousseau had come into common cultural as well as intellectual popularity. Unlike the later evangelical moralists, whom attempted to convey ideas regarding God and his church to save the delicate young souls of children, the rational moralists attempted to prepare children for adulthood, and for the requirements of adult reason and judgment.
This stress upon rationality and reason is key because the evangelical morality of later tales tended to prepare children for death -- a rational consideration, one might grimly note, given the high mortality rate for children of the times. However rational morality was often secular in nature and did not view children in such a fashion, as young and delicate souls close to God and in need of preparation for the world beyond, least they enter it too soon. Rational moralists tended to see children as engaged in constant preparation for adulthood, rather than providing pure moral templates for adult moral behavior that belied rational influence. This is why the animate quality of the tale of the pincushion places such a strong importance upon industrious behavior in children, and the value of simple work and workman (or personhood). The activity given to an inanimate object is clearly for teaching purposes, rather than to suggest to the child that his or her workbasket contains a teeming life of needles and thread and pincushions.
This emphasis upon rational morality also meant that finally tales intended for children acknowledged or assumed that children were different, and required different narrative devices and structures than tales intended for adults. Both the sisters Kilners made these assumptions, it should be noted. Mary Anne's sister-in-law Dorothy Kilner's "Life and Perambulation of a Mouse," also exhibits in its narrative philosophy that children are assumed to require moral teaching in these different structures of narrative formation by using mice as moral examples.
Mary Ann Kilner's tale of the pincushion, nor Dorothy's tale of her mouse, were not the only stories intended for children of the period affected by notions of children's minds as blank slates, or wet clay, crying out for cultural shaping and impressions. For instance, Mary Ann Kilner's contemporary, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft's stories for children were similarly designed to shape the minds of the young.
Wollstonecraft suggested in the examples of her tales and also in her theoretical overviews that tales intended for children must teach. They must attack cruelty to animals, bad temper in children, the practice of lying to adults and other mendacious behavior, children's greediness as it leads to stealing and gluttony, children's indolence and sloth in properly learning letters, procrastination regarding schoolwork, and other perceived faults of children that if, unguarded, could lead to disastrous results in the molded, adult form.
Mary Wollstonecraft, it should be noted, had a distinctly deflationary view of childhood and children, not simply from a moralistic standpoint, but also as a feminist. She feared that girls were being socialized in such a fashion to reduce their behavior to a permanent state of childhood. Thus, children's tales should bring girls up and make them more adult through moral examples, rather than merely indulge childish appetites for entertainment, or treat children as miniature adults already capable of reasoning. Reasoning for Wollstonecraft, had to be learned. This is why so many women, she assured her readers, seemed incapable of learning -- because they had not been taught how to reason and learn through their education, when they were the blank slates of unfashioned morality.
Mary Anne Kilner's work is likewise an 'improving' story for the mind, as well as a story specifically to take on the specific psychic and moral needs of a child during that moment in a child's life where objects and small animals have animate qualities to the young individual's imagination. Her use of a pincushion as a protagonist is especially interesting, however, given that a pincushion is and was largely a tale of sewing and feminine instruction and construction. By giving the domestic sphere an excitement and an authenticity one might say, the author gives validity to the domestic sphere, in a way that echoes Wollstonecraft's core philosophy. Not only would Mary Wollstonecraft have endorsed Kilner's moral and narrative framework for telling her tales to improve the minds and rational souls of children, but this early feminist saw great redeeming value in the world of the home for women, provided that women were properly and rationally educated to cope with it, rather than encouraged to merely obey their husbands.
Mary Wollstonecraft felt that she had received a poor education as a young woman, one of the reasons for her ire against the prevailing sentiments towards female education of her day and age. She believed that the development of rationality of women was the only antidote to male tyranny in women's power. Although a political liberal, she attacked views of female education suggested by her contemporary Rousseau not because she rejected the concept of the 'blank slate' of the young mind -- in fact she adopted this theory for her own devices -- but because she saw Rousseau's thesis as contradictory in this area as it regarded the female gender.
For instance, Rousseau suggested that children's minds were blank slates, but he also suggested that constitutionally, women's bodies were weak and that their minds were made of poorer clay then were male minds, in essence, that not all base substances of minds were created equal,…[continue]
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