Early in its history, The Youth’s Companion emphasized religious education over academic education. Perhaps this is why it published an astringent review of The Soldier’s Orphan; or, History of Maria West, by popular British writer Mary Sherwood—recently published in the U. S. Sherwood’s works are often overtly Christian, her main characters steeped in piety. This novel, however, started a fight in the pages of the Companion, as two theories of what was appropriate in novels collided.

The Soldier’s Orphan; or, History of Maria West (London: Dean and Munday, 1826; available on google books) is a pot-boiler of a novel, as sweet, pious Maria is the perennial object of malice and envy. Fellow boarding-school students frame her for theft; fellow seamstresses mock her piety and lock her out of the shop on a rainy night; a would-be seducer sends her to work as a maid in a house of ill repute. Henry Bettesworth is the consummate villain, attempting to seduce Maria, tricking her wealthy benefactor into turning her out of the house, seducing and abandoning a vicar’s daughter, gambling away his wife’s fortune. Maria triumphs over all, marrying an honest shop keeper and restoring to comfort those who have been good to her, while witnessing the disastrous ends of Bettesworth and others who have committed evil against her. Sherwood sprinkles the action with little discussions of piety and redemption, and warnings against intemperance and the reading of sensational novels.

Yes, sensational novels. The vicar’s daughter blames “idle novels and romances” for making her an easy target for Bettesworth—novels “which gave new names, and softened colouring, to vices, encouraged a romantic turn, and raised expectations no where to be realized.” (p. 125) Finding that his victim is fond of reading, Bettesworth gives her books which weaken her sense of morality: “Accursed be the hour I opened them!—but the language was elegant, the descriptions glowing, the arguments plausible, and old prejudices, as they were called, so artfully and insiduously combated, that, by insensible degrees they sapped the foundation of moral rectitude in a mind not thoroughly founded; religion was seldom mentioned, and when it was, it was only in a slight and irreverent manner. Thus prepared, [Bettesworth] adduced his own opinions, and, as he said, that of all rational and learned men in every age and country. I had no arguments to stem the force of his fascinating eloquence and the ideas I had read: I believed, because, unfortunately, I wished to believe him, and in the end became the sacrifice.” (pp. 126-127)

Without the handfuls of scripture, Sherwood’s novel would topple right into the pit of novels her characters abjure. Characters rant, collapse, seduce, lie, and steal; Maria is a hapless heroine in a world of wolves. Sherwood didn’t see the parallels, but “Reviewer” certainly did, faulting the book for introducing readers to “minute and protracted accounts of the various and wicked arts of the seducer, and the destruction of his victim” and accusing the author of being one of those writers who make evil “irresistible” by lingering on it.

“Reviewer” ’s description didn’t sit well with “Vindicator,” whose “ ‘Reviewer’, Reviewed” takes the first reviewer to task over a misreading of the book and over whether or not people can be virtuous without religion. But “Vindicator” also disagrees with “Reviewer” over the presentation of vice. “I have long entertained the opinion that children of both sexes should be informed,” “Vindicator” asserts, ”that there are in this fallen world persons of vile character, who under the influence of the adversary of souls lead unwary youth to destruction.” Novels can show young readers the consequences of evil and help them to choose the right—including another novel by Sherwood which “Reviewer” denigrates.

It’s clear from the editor’s note on “Vindicator” ’s piece that he doesn’t really agree; it’s clearer in “Remarks On Reviews” that he really doesn’t agree, pointing out that books can make vice too attractive to young readers and siding with “Reviewer” on whether people can have “truly virtuous or holy principles, before conversion.”

What may be more interesting to modern readers is the disagreement about what should appear in fiction. Curtail the description of evil, and the reader can miss the point you’re trying to make. Show the reader just how a manipulator works, and you’re accused of fostering manipulation. “There is doubtless a wise medium here,” the Companion’s editor points out; but it’s a medium still difficult to achieve.


http://www.merrycoz.org/MariaWest.xhtml
Review of The Soldier’s Orphan; or, History of Maria West, by “Reviewer” (from Youth’s Companion, December 2, 1829; p. 111)

For the Youth’s Companion.

THE SOLDIER’S ORPHAN, OR HISTORY OF MARIA WEST. Portland:—Shirley & Hyde, 1828.

We should think that parent very unwise, if not very wicked, who should send his son, at seven years of age, to live with a pirate or a highwayman; although his object might be to produce in his mind an aversion to their wickedness. The poor boy might shudder, at first, at the enormities which they committed, but in the end, he would rob and murder without fear or compassion. We should also think it very strange and wicked in a mother who should send her daughter to live with an abandoned woman, that she might become acquainted with the ways of the world—the arts of seduction, and with the seducer himself; although her object might be that she might learn how to resist them. Can a man take fire into his bosom and not be burned? And can children go into the company of the most abandoned and not be destroyed?

If it is pernicious to associate with robbers and seducers, it is also pernicious to read their histories. Those who introduce into Sabbath School books, minute and protracted accounts of the various and wicked arts of the seducer, and the destruction of his victim, seem to think that they make ample amends, if they punish him by visiting him with the stings of a guilty conscience, or perhaps, make him take away his own life. But the remedy comes too late. The mind has been poisoned by its intercourse with accomplished wickedness, and though deserved justice overtakes the wretch, yet it does not heal the wound. The mind often returns and dwells upon the scene. It clothes the wretch with all the fascinations and accomplishments which can be imagined, in order to palliate the guilt of the victim; and in the beauty and innocence of the seduced it finds an excuse for the seducer. But these writers plead the authority of the Bible. The Bible records instances of great wickedness. True, it does, but it is done in a word.—It is a short simple statement of facts. The circumstances attending the fall of our first parents are recorded in a very few words. The account of its consequences extend through the Bible. Mark the difference. The novelist fills his whole book in narrating the circumstances attending the destruction of innocence, and punishes the destroyer on the last page. All that is necessary to be known concerning the fall of David is recorded in three verses. A writer of a religious novel employs a volume in recording a similar event. The Bible records plain unvarnished facts, with regard to the actions of wicked men; but with these authors, all the temptations must be brought into view and rendered so irresistible, as almost to take away the enormity of the crime. So irresistible that the reader almost wishes to be in similar circumstances that he might have an excuse for sin. O, what would be the moral influence of the Bible, if its narratives were remodeled to suit the taste of some of our writers of Sabbath School books.

We have been led to make these remarks by perusing the book whose title stands at the head of this article. We will only advert to what we deem objectionable. It is a detailed account of the arts of seduction. The seducers [sic] name is Mr. Bettsworth.—Messrs. Editors, we were going to quote from various places in this book, in which an account is given of Mr. Bettsworth’s attacks upon a virtuous girl—his success in destroying a “poor young Lady,” who had been religiously brought up—his having recourse to “female agency to lure the unsuspecting game into the fatal snare,” but we never saw any such language in the “Youth’s Companion,” and we will forbear.

We noticed a conversation between Maria and one of Mr. Bettsworth’s victims who was drawing near the grave. Maria was a pious girl and had been conversing with the young Lady on the subject of religion. The Lady observed, “I already feel a pleasing something in my heart, a ray, a glimmering of hope I never before experienced.” “Oh! then,” said Maria, “for the glory of God, encourage that hope. Christ who opened the eyes of the blind, and raised the dead, will open the eyes of your understanding; he will raise the principles of virtue which lie dead in your breast, and revive the hope of salvation in your despairing bosom.” What the author means by dead principles of virtue, we cannot tell. If he means that we possess natural goodness or holiness—the sentiment is far from being orthodox.

We would call the attention of superintendants and teachers to this book—Read it for yourselves. We do this, because the book may be found in some Sabbath School Libraries, but not at the Sabbath School Depository. This fact ought to have some weight with those who select books for Sabbath School Libraries. If the Depository is what it should be, it will contain the most unexceptionable Sabbath School books; and the fact that a book is not to be found there should lead purchasers to inquire the reason. It is known that the Mass. Sabbath School Union have published but few books themselves, but if they accomplish the end designed, they will supply themselves with the most suitable books which are published by others.

P. S. This book is sent forth as a companion of another, entitled “Susan Gray,” which is of the same character, only, somewhat more exceptionable. We have read them both and think they are suitable companions, and we hope they will be banished, together, from all Sabbath School Libraries, and go together into perpetual exile. We heard a Sabbath School girl say, the other evening, “It seems to me that all the Sabbath School books I read, lately, tell of the men’s attempting to carry off the girls.” This is a sad comment upon Sabbath School books.

Reviewer.


“ ‘Reviewer’, Reviewed,” by “Vindicator” (from Youth’s Companion, December 23, 1829; p. 123)

To the Editors of the Youth’s Companion.

As a Parent, a Sabbath school Teacher and a warm friend to the rising generation, I feel much interest in the notices which appear in your Youth’s Companion, of the juvenile books which issue from the press. By recommending to the perusal of the young such as are calculated to make a good impression, whilst you warn them to avoid those of a contrary tendency, you most effectually subserve the welfare of that class for whose benefit your paper is intended.

The sentiments contained in these notices have generally accorded with mine; but in your number of the 2d inst. were some remarks over the signature of “Reviewer,” which appear to me untenable. I agree with “Reviewer” as to the folly and danger of sending a son at the age of seven years to live with a robber; or a daughter to live with an abandoned woman. But it does not hence follow that it is pernicious to put into their hands books, portraying the various artifices practised by wicked men and women to turn them from the paths of virtue. I have long entertained the opinion that children of both sexes should be informed, that there are in this fallen world persons of vile character, who under the influence of the adversary of souls lead unwary youth to destruction; that they should be shown the haunts of vice, suffered to peep at their wretched inmates, and cautioned against the various intrigues by which they have been seduced, and the danger of associating with persons of fair pretensions but of equivocal reputation. If I expected my children to die during their minority, I would keep them in ignorance of these things, but not otherwise.

Parents who have kept their children from passing over the threshold of the nursery, lest they should witness scenes of iniquity and imbibe a taste for them, have experienced the most severe trials from the misconduct of their children, when they have escaped from these restraints. Such cases have came [sic] under my own observation. On the other hand, I know the parents who are in habits of the utmost freedom of conversation with their children on subjects relating to the iniquities which abound, and who have put into their hands both the books denounced by your “Reviewer;” and yet they have the happiness of seeing all of them who have passed the age of twelve years, giving scriptural evidence of having “passed from death unto life.”

“Reviewer” notices an error of sentiment in an expression contained in a conversation Maria was holding with a young female on whom she was urging the importance of immediate repentance and faith in Christ. A part of this conversation he has quoted, which I think does not give a fair view of the subject; though I have no suspicion that unfairness was intended. I allow that the sentence quoted, admits of a construction far from orthodox. But such a construction is not a necessary, nor the natural one. The female with whom Maria was conversing had been a virtuous girl, was seduced by a villain, and the principles of virtue had become dormant in her breast; by embracing religion, they would revive again and become active.

But admitting the sentiment to be incorrect, who would expect an erudite theologian in a young girl, educated and circumstanced as she was? Besides, let any one read the conversation from the last paragraph on the 111th page of the book, and they will not much wonder, that in the ardor of her zeal, to snatch a poor dying sinner from the jaws of eternal death, an expression should escape her lips, which would not endure the fire of criticism. It is well known that a numerous and respectable class of Christians, both in England and in this country, among whom are many of those that we expect to meet in Heaven, believe that we do possess some natural goodness; and shall we denounce them and their writings because they advance one sentiment to which we do not assent? I have heard expressions as unorthodox as this from one of the most faithful and successful preachers of our own denomination, that has ever blessed the churches of New England. And shall we therefore doom all that he wrote and all that he said to “perpetual exile”? And will the many hundreds, of whose conversion he has been the instrument, many of whom are now rejoicing with him in Heaven, join in this sweeping denunciation?

I will only add a remark or two to the following extract from the second Annual Report of the Maine Sabbath School Union. “In Phippsburg there was one instance of hopeful conversion among the scholars. Her attention was awakened by reading one of the Sabbath School books entitled Susan Gray.” Will this poor child, rescued from eternal misery in consequence of reading one of these books which “Reviewer” denounces, join him in sending it to “perpetual exile”? Will the angels of God in Heaven, among whom there is joy over one sinner that repenteth, join in this wish? And will not “Reviewer,” when he meets this little girl in heaven, rejoice that the banishment to which he has sentenced these books, was not executed until the most exceptionable one, had been read by her, and blessed as the instrument of bringing her there? God seeth not as man seeth, and let man beware how he denounces that on which the Holy Ghost has placed His sanction.

Vindicator.

[We have given “Vindicator” a hearing; but cannot continue the discussion, as controversy is foreign to the design of the Companion.—Editors.]


“Remarks On Reviews” (from Youth’s Companion, December 30, 1829; p. 128)

The first question between “Reviewer” and “Vindicator,” [See last Companion,] is one of degrees. “Reviewer” would warn his children of the temptations of the wicked world: but he would do it by solemn parental instruction, and not have it frequently presented in reading and conversation. “Vindicator” would make the topic more common and familiar: would have his children hear of the abominations that are committed, and even behold them. There is doubtless a wise medium here, and there are two opposite extremes. We will not undertake to decide between our correspondents. But we would suggest to “Vindicator” the danger of making depraved youth too “familiar with the face” of vice: lest they “first see, then pity, then embrace.”

As to Maria’s “error of sentiment,” we think it is fairly imputed to the author of the book, and not to the “young girl.” And neither the sentiments of a class of Christians, nor the similar practice of the most successful preacher, nor the usefulness of the book which contains the expression, can prove that the sentiment in question is scriptural. If it implies that the human heart has any truly virtuous or holy principles, before conversion, we hesitate not to say the expression should be avoided.

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