Children's Literature

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Sub-Island: Edgeworth on Books for Children

The following excerpt comes from Edgeworth's Practical Education vol. 1 (London: 1798), pp. 335-37.

from Chapter XII: Books


      There is a class of books which amuse the imagination of children without acting upon their feelings. We do not allude to fairy tales, for we apprehend that these are not now much read, but we mean voyages and travels; these interest young people universally. Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, and the Three Ruffian Sailors, who were cast away upon the coast of Norway, are general favourites. No child ever read an account of a shipwreck, or even a storm, without pleasure. A desert island is a delightful place, to be equalled only by the skating land of the rein-deer, or by the valley of diamonds in the Arabian tales. Savages, especially if they be cannibals, are sure to be admired, and the more hair-breadth escapes the hero of the tale has survived, and the more marvellous his adventures, the more sympathy he excites.*

      Will it be thought to proceed from a spirit of contradiction if we remark, that this species of reading should not early be chosen for boys of an enterprising temper, unless they are intended for a sea-faring life, or for the army. The taste for adventure is absolutely incompatible with the sober perseverance necessary to success in any other liberal professions. To girls this species of reading cannot be as dangerous as it is to boys; girls must very soon perceive the impossibility of their rambling about the world in quest of adventures; and where there appears an obvious impossibility in gratifying any wish, it is not likely to become, or at least to continue, a torment to the imagination. Boys, on the contrary, from the habits of their education, are prone to admire, and to imitate, every thing like enterprise and heroism. Courage and fortitude are the virtues of men, and it is natural that boys should desire, if they believe that they possess these virtues, to be placed in those great and extraordinary situations which can display them to advantage. The taste for adventure is not repressed in boys by the impossibility of its indulgence, the world is before them, and they think that fame promises the highest prize to those who will most boldly venture in the lottery of fortune: the rational probability of success few young people are able, fewer still are willing, to calculate; and the calculations of prudent friends have little power over their understandings, or at least over their imagination, the part of the understanding which is most likely to decide their conduct. From general maxims we cannot expect that young people should learn much prudence; each individual admits the propriety of the rule, yet believes himself to be a privileged exception. Where any prize is supposed to be in the gift of fortune, every man, or every young man, takes if for granted that he is a favourite, and that it will be bestowed upon him. The profits of commerce and of agriculture, the profits of every art and profession, can be estimated with tolerable accuracy; the value of activity, application, and abilities, can be respectively measured by some certain standard. Modest, or even prudent people, will scruple to rate themselves in all of these qualifications superior to their neighbours; but every man will allow that, in point of good fortune, at any game of chance, he thinks himself upon a fair level with every other competitor.

* V. Sympathy and Sensibility.

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