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.


Background reading

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Abstract of conference paper presented at NAAHoLS, San Francisco, CA: 5 January 2002.

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