The virtue of kindness was an important one at the turn of the 19th century and the subject of kindness to animals occurred frequently in childrenís books. ìIt is almost inconceivable,î one critic notes, ìthat so many small boys spent so much time as is alleged in pulling the wings off flies, throwing at tethered roosters, and tormenting puppies and kittensÖBut whatever the truth, the childrenís authors were almost unanimous in protesting against such savagery.î1
The Sisterís Gift, or The Naughty Boy Reformed, a small book published in both England and America around 1800, illustrates this subject vividly. A brother and sister were orphaned and sent to different schools, but when they lived together during school vacations, the sister frequently observed her younger brother [quote] ìcatching poor innocent flies, throí the bodies of which he would stick pins and then fasten them to a coach made of a card; and would thus take pleasure in seeing them drag it along after them until they were quite dead with pain and fatigue.2 He tormented dogs by tying tin kettles to their tails and then chasing them through town; he pounded a sharp nail into the end of a stick and proceeded to gore the hide and flesh of a neighborís cattle.
But what most provoked his sister was his taking a friendís favorite cat, carrying her to the top of the church tower from where, after tying two balloon-like bladders filled with water about her neck, he threw her over the edge. ìThough the poor creature was terribly bruised with the fall,î the anonymous author writes, ìshe with difficulty crawled home Öto her indulgent mistress, looked her piteously in the face, as if begging her to revenge her death, [and] expired in the utmost agony.î The Sister soundly admonished her brother, ending with this comparison, ìSuppose some great giant was to run a sword through your body; I dare say Ö it would give you unspeakable torment and is a common sword any more in your body than a small pin in one of these little flies?
Most of the children in these books, once their faults were pointed out, resolved to do better. After listening to his sister, the brother wept bitterly at his cruelty and promised in the future to be as remarkable for generosity and com- passion as he had previously been for curelty. ìIt is with pleasure we can add,î the author notes, ìthat he faithfully kept his word and is now one of the very best little [boys] in the whole universe.î4
1 Darton, F.J. Harvey, Childrenís Books in England, p. 156.
Darton, F.J. Harvey, Childrenís Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. 3rd edition, edited by Brian Alderson. London: The British Library; New Castle, Delaware: The Oak Knoll Press. 1999.
The Sisterís Gift, or, The Naughty Boy Reformed. New York: Printed by William Durell, 1801.
Copyright © 2001 by Rita Smith
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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:23:55 EDT