Disciplining mothers? Ellenor Fenn
Carol Percy, University of Toronto
Ellenor Fenn was the wife of “John Fenn, of East Dereham in the County of Norfolk Esquire”, an antiquary and author; in 1787 they became Lord and Lady when John Fenn was knighted for editing the Paston letters. Ellenor was a prolific author in her own right, writing from the late 1770s onward and publishing without profit and anonymously under pseudonyms. She was one of a small but ostensibly “monstrous regiment” of women who in the late eighteenth century wrote books for very young children and their mothers. Like Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Lessons for children, from two to three years old, the book that started it all in 1778, many of Fenn’s books were written in age-appropriate language and some in dialogue form, representing the instruction of male and female children in a domestic setting by a female figure, often though not always a mother (see esp. Pickering 1981, Jackson 1989). Her obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine ostensibly “recollects” many of her publications. Some date from the 1780s: a collection of age-graded dialogues called Cobwebs to Catch Flies; A Spelling Book; and a manual called The Art of Teaching in Sport for using “a set of toys” to teach “spelling, reading, grammar, and arithmetic” that she had “tinkered with” for decades (Immel 226-227). But of her “numerous publications” it is her grammars, probably written in the 1790s, that head the list: “The Child’s Grammar; The Mother’s Grammar; Parsing Lessons to Correspond with them”. According to its title page, The Child’s Grammar [was] designed to enable ladies who may not have attended to the Subject themselves to instruct their Children. Its popularity is confirmed by Alston: by 1820 there were twenty-six editions “of this popular little grammar” (I.522-3) and twenty-one of The Mother’s Grammar (I.518*).
The flagrantly pseudonymous “Mrs Teachwell” and “Mrs Lovechild” trained generations of women whose expectations or educations had not prepared them to teach grammar to children with a method proven and constantly improved by the experience of the woman behind their masks, the guardian, aunt, and Sunday School teacher Ellenor Fenn. In the 1780s, Fenn’s method not only acknowledges but exploits the temporal and spatial constraints of the so-called “private” sphere in which women’s agency extends to running the household and raising an uncontrollably growing brood of children. Privately educating children is a source of pride or anxiety; a mother of a male child in particular might eventually indirectly influence the public, or be harshly judged by them. By following Fenn’s regimen, leisured mothers can achieve real self-worth, what Robbins describes as a “meaningful feminine identity”, by methodically and expertly conveying the fearful if statusful subject of grammar to their children. Mothers are also represented as thereby achieving both mental and especially domestic order and discipline. In dialogue fantasies that evoke the cultural conflation of discipline and the study of Latin grammar, whole families of children are represented as learning grammar simultaneously. Vernacular grammar is central to a regimen of social and intellectual training, for children and for their mothers. Children are trained to master and to enjoy grammar, women motherhood.
The professionalization (Guest 1995: 317) implied by teaching texts like Fenn’s must have ennobled (Bloch 112) or at least empowered leisured mothers and working teachers (Myers 1986). Like a growing number of her contemporaries, Fenn took (literate) women’s rationality for granted (Richardson 1994: 170). She acknowledges the difficulties of domesticity and subtly decouples some stereotypical associations between women and children that the full title of her Child’s Grammar was nevertheless to invoke: her works represent women as intelligent, highly articulate, and at least in theory able and authorized to learn and teach the more advanced grammatical topics which she codes as “difficult” and “masculine”. The preface to The Child’s Grammar also makes it clear that women are not the only sex associated with what is “private and domestic”. Like most of her fellow female educational writers, Fenn has a public identity (e.g. Guest 2000: 14) authorized by her assumption that an improved education for women supports rather than subverts their usual roles as wives and mothers, improving rather than rejecting a restricting system (e.g. Richardson 1994: 167-182) .A good mother’s time is devoted entirely to the various demands of domesticity: from the 1780s through 1809 Fenn’s women must still work at their needles while they rigorously examine their pupils’ intellectual progress. Urging women to value motherhood, Fenn demonstrates the value of not being a mother. Only an experienced but childless and therefore genuinely leisured woman can be represented as authorized to transcend the concrete world of manuscripts and needlework, like her personae Lady Lovechild and Mrs Teachwell who—unlike mothers—can occasionally and abruptly abandon their child-visitors when there are more important claims on their time.
Bloch, Ruth H. "American Feminine Ideals in Transition: The Rise of the Moral Mother, 1785-1815." Feminist Studies 4, no. 2 (1978): 101-26.
Bowers, Toni. The Politics of Motherhood. British Writing and Culture, 1680-1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Brant, Clare. "Varieties of Women's Writing." In Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800, ed. Vivien Jones, 285-305. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Gelpi, Barbara. Shelley's Goddess: Maternity, Language, Subjectivity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Gilroy, Amanda. ""Candid Advice to the Fair Sex": Or, the Politics of Maternity in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain." In Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality, eds. Avril Horner and Angela Keane, 17-28. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Guest, Harriet. Small Change. Women, Learning, Patriotism 1750-1810. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Hodson, Jane. The Mother Tongue and the Mother-Grammarian in Eighteenth Century England and North America.
Abstract of conference paper presented at NAAHoLS, San Francisco, CA: 5 January 2002.
Immel, Andrea. ""Mistress of Infantine Language": Lady Ellenor Fenn, Her Set of Toys, and the "Education of Each Moment"." Children's literature 25 (1997): 214-28.
Jones, Vivien. "Mary Wollstonecraft and the Literature of Advice and Instruction." In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson, 119-40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth. "Home Economics: Domestic Ideology in Maria Edgeworth's Belinda." The Eighteenth Century 29, no. 3 (1988): 242-62.
McCarthy, William. "Mother of All Discourses. Anna Barbauld's Lessons for Children." Princeton University Library Chronicle 60, no. 2 (1999): 196-219.
Myers, Greg. "Fictions for Facts: The Form and Authority of the Scientific Dialogue." History of science 30, no. 3 (1992): 221-47.
________. "Science for Women and Children: The Dialogue of Popular Science in the Nineteenth Century." In Nature Transfigured. Science and Literature, 1700-1900, eds. John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth, 171-200. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1989.
Myers, Mitzi. "Impeccable Governesses, Rational Dames, and Moral Mothers: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Female Tradition in Georgian Children's Books." Children's Literature 14 (1986): 31-59.
O'Malley, Andrew. "The Coach and Six: Chapbook Residue in Late Eighteenth-Century Children's Literature." The lion and the unicorn 24 (2000): 18-44.
Pickering, Samuel F. John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
Plumb, J.H. "The New World of Children in Eighteenth-Century England." Past and present 67: 64-95.
Pollock, Linda. A Lasting Relationship. Parents and Children Over Three Centuries. London: Fourth Estate, 1987.
Pollock, Linda A. Forgotten Children. Parent-Child Relations From 1500 to 1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, and Romanticism. Reading As Social Practice, 1780-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
________. "Mary Wollstonecraft on Education." In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson, 24-41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Robbins, Sarah. ""Women's Studies" Debates in Eighteenth-Century England: Mrs. Barbauld's Program for Feminine Learning and Maternal Pedagogy." Michigan feminist studies 7 (1992-1993): 53-81.
________. "Lessons for Children and Teaching Mothers: Mrs. Barbauld's Primer for the Textual Construction of Middle-Class Domestic Pedagogy." The lion and the unicorn 17 (1993): 135-51.
Shefrin, Jill. ""Make It a Pleasure and Not a Task". Educational Games for Children in Georgian England." Princeton University Library Chronicle 60, no. 2 (1999): 251-75.
Shteir, Ann B. "Botanical Dialogues: Maria Jacson and Women's Popular Science Writing in England." Eighteenth-century studies 23, no. 3 (1990): 301-17.
________. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Sutherland, Kathryn. "Writings on Education and Conduct: Arguments for Female Improvement." In Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800, ed. Vivien Jones, 25-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Tieken, Ingrid. "Female Grammarians of the Eighteenth Century." Historical sociolinguistics and sociohistorical linguistics 1, no. 1 (2000).
Tobin, Beth Fowkes. Superintending the Poor. Charitable Ladies and Paternal Landlords in British Fiction, 1770-1860. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter. Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.