'Powers expanding slow': children's 'unfolding' minds in radical writing of the 1790s

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This essay explores the connections between radical discourses for adult readers and radical writing for and about children, focusing mainly on the 1790s. It will begin with a consideration of the politics of innocence in the period, looking at Helen Maria Williams’s translation of Bernardin Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1796), written amidst the traumas of revolution, fetishizing childhood innocence on one level, while marked by the awareness that such an escape from oppressive realities (war, inequality, slavery, colonialism) is never really possible, even in fantasy. I argue that writers such as Anna Barbauld, John Aikin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth and William Godwin (all connected to the radical publisher, Joseph Johnson) create a very different understanding of children, not as innocent, isolated beings, but as future citizens, who need to be equipped and informed to take an active and transformative part in society. The idea of the innocence and imprintability of children can be understood as a source of promise, as in associationist thought as mediated by Joseph Priestley, but is also something that women writers such as Barbauld, Wollstonecraft and Edgeworth connect with the colonization by adults of children’s (and especially girls’) minds: they are particularly interested in forming children, including girls, as autonomous, conscious thinkers – the open and imaginative, knowledge-seeking ‘child of reason’ invoked in Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose (1781). Works discussed will include Barbauld and Aikin’s Evenings at Home (1792-6) together with Barbauld’s political writings, Wollstonecraft’s Lessons (1795), Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ and ‘Fears in Solitude’ (1798), Edgeworth’s Practical Education and ‘The Orphans’, and Godwin’s published and unpublished work for children.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLiterary Cultures and Eighteenth-Century Childhoods
EditorsAndrew O'Malley
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9783319947372
ISBN (Print)9783319947365
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018

Publication series

NameLiterary Cultures and Childhoods


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