The Parent’s Assistant: Cheerful Child Labor

Cover of The Parent's AssistantTitle: The Parent’s Assistant: Or, Stories for Children

Author: Maria Edgeworth

Publication Date: 1865 (well, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but the version I read was the version which was published in 1865)

LC Call Number: PR4640 .E25

(The edition pictured is not the one I read; rather, I used the tenth volume of Edgeworth’s Complete Works, which also included her comic dramas.)

This is a collection of short stories and some plays, first published in this form in 1865, intended for the moral instruction of children.  They have some literary merit of their own, but also are fairly upfront about their ideological content.

It is very strange to read these stories in the early twenty-first century, because Western ideas about the shape of a child’s life have changed dramatically.  The heroes of Edgeworth’s stories include a few schoolchildren and one upper-class girl, but most of them have jobs.  Edgeworth is totally fine with this.  It’s curious to think that she is contemporary of William Blake, who is absolutely scathing on most subjects, particularly including child labor.  But Edgeworth’s children don’t work in Blake’s nightmarish industrial urban world.  Instead, they are mostly rural children who tend to work in informal roles or in family businesses.  A few are servants, but for the most part, they need to look around and find something to do on a day to day basis. Work is seen as a normal part of family life, and children are encouraged to always work diligently; that’s really the moral of a lot of this moral instruction. In Edgeworth’s world, children who work hard are honest and happy, and are generally rewarded in one way or another, and are often contrasted with children who are lazy or dishonest and generally end badly.  Edgeworth seems to see education as valuable, but not in the way that we see it. Compulsory education does not yet seem to be a thing in the world she describes.  However, the characters in these stories, and their families, try to send them to school when they have a little extra time and money, or to make sure that they teach each other to read and write.

Let it be noted in passing, of course,  that the existence of propaganda stressing the importance of work suggests that not all children were very enthusiastic about this in real life.

There are several interesting characteristics of the work that the children perform.  In “Lazy Lawrence,” a boy named Jem needs to raise a certain sum of money so that his mother will not have to sell his horse to pay the rent.  He finds some work gardening for a local lady, who appreciates his diligence and steady work, but eventually she mentions that she wishes she had a mat for people to wipe their feet on and the ones she ordered don’t appear to be coming.  Jem’s entrepreneurial spirit awakens and he goes home and, through trial and error, devises a method for weaving a mat out of reeds.  When he delivers it to her, much to his surprise, she pays him for it, and requests that he make more.  He does, and improves his skills in the process, and she has what appears to be essentially an early Tupperware party in which she helps him sell his wares to her friends.  There’s a lot going on here, but two points are especially interesting. First, the idea that children are not only workers but actually entrepreneurs; instead of thinking of child workers as exploited and powerless, we see one here as creative, intelligent, and with agency over his own work. Second, the economic principle here is not exactly one of market-driven fair exchange.  Instead, there is an element almost of charity or at least an interpersonal element.  While it is clear to the reader (or at least, the twenty-first century adult reader) that Jem has created something valuable through the sweat of his brow and therefore deserves to be paid, his own lack of such an expectation is seen as laudable rather than naïve, and his benefactress is seen as very generous, both in her willingness to pay him for his work and her help in finding more customers, who are also seen as generous.

So what we are looking at here is not exactly the logic of the market, but rather an aspect of the social fabric which appears to include money as a matter of course.  (In the meantime, of course, the titular Lazy Lawrence falls in with bad company due to his idleness and ends up stealing money and having to be reformed.) Economic exchanges are not rooted in desire for goods or money, nor in the shrewdness with which a person can evaluate the economic landscape, but rather this ideal of neighborliness.  This happens not just in this one story, but over and over again throughout the collection.  In “Simple Susan,” the law comes into it, with the rather cynical idea that the law can always be manipulated to favor one person or another, and that maintaining fair relationships requires not well-written laws but people of good will to interpret them.  In “The Basket Woman,” two children spend their day putting rocks under the wheels of carriages which need to stop on a hill, so that they don’t roll backwards, in the hopes that travelers will pay them.  Work of this kind might be seen as a form of begging today, but it seems to be perfectly acceptable work in the context of the story.

Edgeworth also encourages hard work by rejecting the notion that luck can ever bring success.  In “The Orphans,” four orphaned children support themselves through home crafts while living (with permission) in an abandoned castle ruin. I should note that this is less romantic than it sounds; in fact, it’s rather unsafe, as the chimney falls down at one point and kills their goat.  There is an old woman in this story nicknamed Goody Grope (I do not believe that this had any sexual connotation at the time), who is a treasure hunter and thinks that there are valuable buried artifacts hidden somewhere in the neighborhood. She never finds any, and lives her life as an impoverished but optimistic beggar.  The children, however, stumble upon some old coins in the castle by accident, and send them back to the castle’s owner.  This ends up causing them a lot of trouble, due to a dishonest agent and plot complications, although eventually they are rewarded for their honesty, although of course Goody Grope attributes all this to their good fortune.  Edgeworth pushes this even further in “The Little Merchants,” which features the lives of two boys, one of whom is the son of a gardener and learns to sell vegetables at the market, while the other is the son of a fisherman and sells fish.  Edgeworth argues that fishing is a poor trade because it is too luck-dependent.  If she likes to eat fish, then this is certainly a little unfair, but the idea is that the fish will come to you, or not, and on a good day, the fisherman can knock off early because he’s already caught what he needs.  Meanwhile, the gardener must carefully cultivate his produce and his customers.  It turns out that the gardener teaches his son, Francisco, that he must be honest when selling the vegetables in order to keep his customers and his reputation as an excellent produce vendor, while the fisherman teaches his son, Piedro, that it is most important to be sharp and shrewd and to get the most that he can.  Obviously, Francisco ends up making many friends and doing well in life, while Piedro slips into a life of fraud and petty crime for which the narrative duly punishes him.  For Edgeworth, this is a direct result of their beliefs about luck.  Precisely because Piedro believes that success is the result of good fortune, he thinks he can escape the results of his dishonesty, and that he does not need to make any long-term plans.

So Edgeworth’s stories embody a fairly conservative attitude about work, and one that, as I noted above, is completely disconnected from the images that generally come to me when thinking about child labor.  In part, she is describing an economic system that doesn’t really exist anymore, since the world has changed so much.  I know that I don’t want to live in a world in which orphaned children are expected to support themselves, but it is certainly interesting to notice how the prevailing ideology (again, at least in respect to Western children) has changed.

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