In Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, we get a glimpse of how eighteenth century young readers are expected to read books. Jenny, the eldest of Mrs. Teachum’s pupils, is warned on a number of occasions to tell stories cautiously, in a manner that is not overly imaginative so as to overshadow the moral of the tale. In order to make sure the children’s imagination are not carried away by the “giants” and “fairies” of a story, after each reading, Mrs. Teechum desires that the listener is given an interpretation of the story that fits the goals of a proper education. This I found to be an interesting tension in the story, the children are liable to be carried away by supernatural or unreal forces, and in addition to the personal narratives they provide of one another, are equally absorbed by the fairy tales. Yet, to counterbalance the effects of the imagination, commentary must be given after the fairy tales to ensure that the proper message is received. Fielding is not only educating her readers on lessons of duty and morality through the genre of the “illicit” fairy tale, but is also doing in a manner that teaches children how to read books.
The first time Jenny narrates a tale to her peers, Mrs. Teachum (and I like how Fielding plays with the characters’ names) gives Jenny the permission to continue her storytelling provided certain conditions/limitations are met. She says,
I have no Objection, Miss Jenny, to your reading any Stories to amuse you, provided you read them with the Disposition of a Mind not to be hurt by them. A very good Moral may indeed be drawn from the Whole, and likewise from almost every Part of it; and as you had this Story from your Mamma, I doubt not but you are very well qualified to make the proper Remarks yourself upon the Moral of it to your Companions. But here let me observe to you (which I would have you communicate to your little friends) that Giants, Magic, and Fairies, and all Sort of supernatural Assistance in a story, are introduced only to amuse and divert: for a Giant is also so only express a Man of great power; and the magic Fillit round the stature was intended to only shew you, that by Patience you will overcome all Difficultes…(84).
I think Fielding is touching on a sensitive issue in education that is a problem even today: what can educators do to offset the negative effects of certain distractions (television, video games, comic books), and in this case fairy tales, that children are exposed to. The fairy tale and its oral expression, which makes it all the more pernicious, might be viewed as the equivalent of modern day media, a hinderance to the moral education of an eighteenth century girl. The solution is one of tacit regulation. After the conclusion of the story, Jenny must ensure the girls absorb the right moral doctrines. Nothing should be left to interpretation and commentary should be close-ended so that the characters and events exist for the purpose of demonstrating a moral lesson.
Miss Jenny witnesses how reading, or the process of extracting meaning from a story, can become a dangerous activity for children when left unmanaged and unsupervised. Left to themselves, the children might sympathesize with the characters of the tale or even argue over the correct and more superior interpretation of the story. After some students offer harmless comments of praise about the Story of Giants and others neither agree nor disagree, somehow (but we are not told how), it results in an argument. Fielding narrates,
And as everyone was eager to maintain her own Opinion, an Argument followed, the Particulars of which I could never learn: Only this much I know, that it was concluded by Miss Lucy Sly, saying, with an Air and Tone of Voice that implied more Anger than hard been heard since the Reconciliation, ‘That she was sure Miss Polly Suckling like that Part about Mignon, only because she was the least in the school; and Mignon being such a little creature, put her in Mind of herself’ (86).
Miss Jenny cautiously redirects their attention to the moral of the story per Mrs. Teachum’s instructions and begins to understand the pernicious effect fairy tales can have on children. Yet, even at the dissatisfaction of some of her listeners, she continues storytelling:
It was the Custom now so much amongst them to assent to any Proposal that came from Miss Jenny, that they all with one Voice desired her read it; till, Miss Polly Suckling said, ‘That altho’ she was very unwilling to contradict any-thing Miss Jenny liked, yet she could not help saying, she though it would be better if they were to read some true History, from which they might learn something; for she thought Fairy-Tales were fit only for little Children (111).
Miss Jenny does not directly reject Miss Polly Suckling’s suggestion but manages to make her feel embarrassed about her apparent haughtiness in believing herself to be too good for storytelling. The practice of reading, of story telling, seems to give Miss Jenny some authority, as their rightful leader. She can take this position with ease as she is wiser and more morally refined than her peers, but she has also consolidated it by becoming Mrs. Teachum’s assistant. She negotiates her space in school by relaying Mrs. Teachum’s notions of morality to the children while she fulfills her pleasure of reading fairytales. She is not only morally superior to her peers but also the one who demonstrates the most political tact.
Like the “Raree-Shows,” fiction seems to be an inferior choice to other subjects, such as history. Yet, through Miss Jenny, Fielding can advocate its use in education, and even though it has been equated to “innocent Amusement,” it is also a powerful instrument that activates imagination, creativity, and autonomy. There is a mixed sentiment running through the text about the act of reading and interpreting. It’s interesting to see this tension unfold in a story considered children’s literature.