First-class mothers

OPENING THE NURSERY DOOR: Reading, Writing and Childhood 1600- 1900 eds Mary Hilton, Morag Styles & Victor Watson, Routledge pounds 40/pounds 13.99
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There's something about shoe-boxes. They're so uncompromisingly sturdy that it seems wicked to throw them away, so you put them under the stairs and forget them. Or you might fill them with little treasures and stash them away for your grandchildren.

That is what Jane Johnson seems to have done. The wife of an English country vicar, she taught her four children to read during the first half of the 18th century, using alphabets, poems and several miniature books, often featuring her children by name. They are affectionate and delightful, full of maternal advice, family jokes and high spirits. She wrote and bound them all herself.

Some 240 years after her death, the tiny archive was discovered in a shoe-box in America. It is fanciful to compare her with Pandora, yet the opening of Jane's box has unleashed upon the academic world consequences that she could never have imagined. For, according to Mary Hilton, one of the editors of this book, she was doing far more than merely teaching her children to read: she was "deeply involving them in a vital project of mutual, loving and moral interpretation of the social and physical world around them". She was "engaging the young in a dialogic and imaginative construction of their social possibilities".

The 14 essays in this collection generally start with a curtsey in Jane Johnson's direction, before each learned author mounts a hobby-horse and gallops off. Some disappear immediately into an academic fog: others take the reader gently with them into by-ways and back alleys of social history that offer diverting insight.

Comparing Johnson with another great mother and educator, Cornelia Connelly, Hilary Minns offers a tour of Derby in the 1840s and 50s. At that time, the population was swollen with Irish immigrants, lured there by the promise of work in the town's lace and silk mills. Though often desperately poor, their children were luckier than many, particularly if they were pupils at the Holy Child Jesus school founded there by Connelly in 1846 and run on enlightened, child-centred lines, far ahead of its time. Even the Derby workhouse children benefited from the use of the Irish Lesson Books, which, Minns demonstrates, were often at least as informative and enthralling as the best available in today's classrooms.

Nicholas Tucker introduces a third mother-teacher, the astounding Mrs Trimmer. This energetic woman had 12 children, wrote a bestseller, ran Sunday schools and founded a magazine devoted to children's books, writing all the reviews herself. Yet she is often remembered only disparagingly, for having complained about violence in fairy stories. Tucker's lively defence of her views ends with the assertion that history has vindicated her.

Margaret Spufford's contribution is also excellent, putting Jane Johnson's efforts into the context of women who had taught reading in the preceding centuries. She points out that schooling was much more widespread than is often thought but, while boys learned reading, writing and casting accounts, girls were generally offered only reading, knitting and spinning. Yet, in their turn, these girls became the first educators of the next generation, using horn-books and, probably, home-made materials like those found in the famous shoe-box.

After this, Morag Styles trots off into the realms of poesy and the going becomes heavy. Her essay is dominated by her inordinate admiration of Christina Rossetti, whom she describes as "one of the finest poets of all time". That is, at least, a matter of opinion. Her frequent reiteration of a singularly inane Rossetti ditty makes the poetical work of Jane Johnson shine like milk-bottle tops in a puddle. More surprisingly, her survey of poems written by women to young children fails to mention the work of Joanna Baillie, whose "A Mother To Her Waking Infant" knocks spots off both.

The collection ends with Heather Glen's account of the early writings of the Brontes. This has only a very tenuous link with the Johnson shoe- box, but it is one of the best pieces in the book. The Haworth children, nurtured by Aesop and the Arabian Nights, needed only a present of toy soldiers to ignite their imaginations. Even at 14, Charlotte's style was wittier and more assured than most of us will ever manage. "One day last June," she wrote in December 1833, "happening to be extremely wet and foggy, I felt, as is usual with Englishmen, very dull. The common remedies - razor, rope and arsenic - presented themselves in series, but, as is unusual with Englishmen, I did not relish any of them."

Her hero decides to seek diversion in the Public Library. Come to think of it, that is exactly what their mother might have recommended to all the little Johnsons.