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Edifying Tales

Edward Larrissy

The Lollipop - James Campbell, 1855
The Lollipop - James Campbell, 1855



For many writers of the Romantic period, the blind are necessarily associated with the idea of intense inward vision. Homer, Ossian and Milton provide obvious models. The age that became so fascinated by the bardic past was also fascinated in particular by the blind bard. Yet it understood that phenomenon as an historical one. Such visions were appropriate to an earlier age: they had to give way to the abstraction, organisation and commerce of modernity. This very course of events had been foretold by the blind bard who sang ‘Rule Britannia’ in Mallett and Thomson’s Alfred: A Masque (1740), an anthem in which he foresaw Britain’s future commercial prosperity. Ann Batten Cristall constructs an historical account of visionary blindness from such postulates.

Yet in the Enlightenment, the blind, who are the subject of intense philosophical scrutiny, are shown to be very capable, despite the bars to sympathy and empirical learning which make them such tempting test cases. Some of the popular moral tales in which they figure make this point in a quite prosaic manner, which is nonetheless very instructive about the role they play in more polite literature. Most of all, though, they are thought to enjoy the compensations of enhanced sensitivity to music and to words. This compensation becomes associated with the loss and gain inherent in the modernity of a post-bardic age. In particular, poets may learn to value such mastery of sound and association and find a richness in these which compensates for, and even surpasses, the lost intensity of inner vision. Such was Milton’s power.

Indeed, it is in words and their associations that one can convey a fullness of understanding without historical precedent. Representations of blindness and the blind elucidate a tension at the heart of the Romantic period, between the desire for immediacy of vision on the one hand, and, on the other, the historical self-consciousness which always attends it.

Edifying Tales

The condition of the blind may furnish good matter for a story. There are many possibilities: their capacity to act as competently as the sighted, or learn to do so; their retention of a good heart when struck blind, or possession of one despite being blind from birth; the tricks that the sighted may play upon them, or the compassion they may demonstrate or elicit. All of these fundamental narrative opportunities may become involved with contemporary reflections on the value of work, the existence or otherwise of innate benevolence, or the way in which spiritual insight may be attained. A straightforward example is provided by a very popular and oft-repeated tale of blind competence and industry. The chapbook, The Life of John Metcalf, appeared in the late eighteenth century and was reprinted many times. Metcalf, commonly known as ‘Blind Jack of Knaresborough’, was a renowned figure. He also makes an appearance in the anonymous Anecdotes of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind (1800?), alongside various figures, some obscure; some, like Carolan and Blacklock, less so. As we have seen, he is mentioned by Scott in a footnote to ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’. He had been blinded by smallpox when six years old, but, as the title of the book makes clear, he engaged competently in many exploits of ‘Hunting, Card Playing, &c.’, as well as building roads and erecting bridges. Not surprisingly, he proved expert at music, and entertained the ‘nobility and gentry’ with his skill. The booklet contains a number of stories which demonstrate his ability to find his way around, and include people’s surprise at discovering that Metcalf is blind. Thus he guides a gentleman from York to Harrogate at night. On arrival, the gentleman is told of his companion’s disability, upon which he exclaims, ‘Had I known that, I would not have ventured with you for an hundred pounds’. Jack enlists in the campaign of 1745, playing marches on his fiddle and ‘hautboy’. Questioned by an officer as to how he ‘durst venture into the service, blind as he was’, he replied, referring to a frequent cause of blindness, that ‘had he possessed a pair of good eyes, he would never have come there to have risked the loss of them by gunpowder’. It is interesting to speculate that the many casualties of the war who were blinded in action rendered a tale such as this of even greater interest to the public. In conformity with this piece of repartee, Jack is seen as a good, bold fellow, though not pedantic in his pursuit of virtue, with his card-playing and dealing in contraband. Nevertheless, the booklet ends with a little rhyme asserting that ‘The bright sun beams of virtue will turn night into day’.

Charles Lamb’s A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret (1798) is also relatively straightforward in its handling of blindness, if not of moral implication, not least because Margaret has only gone blind in old age, a not uncommon occurrence. Rosamund Gray, young and innocent, is defiled by the wicked Matravis, and dies shortly afterwards.

The topic of unmerited misfortune echoes the calamities of Lamb’s own recent experience, and the theme, if not the manner, suggests a link with Coleridge’s more optimistic handling of a like subject, partly in relation to Lamb, in the version of ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ he had revised to include the topic of blindness by 1800. Allan Clare, Rosamund’s unfortunate lover, reflects upon what has occurred:

I gave my heart to the Purifier, and my will to the Sovereign Will of the Universe. The irresistible wheels of destiny passed on in their everlasting rotation, and I suffered myself to be carried along with them without complaining.

This uncomplaining attitude is foreshadowed in the description of Margaret’s reaction to going blind at the beginning of the tale:

‘Margaret retained a spirit unbroken by the calamity. There was a principle within, which it seemed as if no outward circumstance could reach. It was a religious principle, and she had taught it to Rosamund [ . . . ]’ (377).

Blindness is indeed an appropriate affliction with which to emphasise ‘a principle within’. Margaret’s attitude is underlined by her attitude to thunder:

There had been thunder in the course of the day – an occasion of instruction which the old lady never let pass. She began – ‘Thunder has a very awful sound: some say God Almighty is angry whenever it thunders, – that it is the voice of God speaking to us; for my part, I am not afraid of it’ – And in this manner the old lady was going on to particularise, as usual, its beneficial effects, in clearing the air, destroying of vermin, &c. [ . . . ] (393–4)

The presence of Margaret also provides occasions for Rosamund to exhibit and practise benevolence. Thus she gathers wild flowers and places them ‘in the bosom of her old blind friend’, so that she may smell them (383). One day she has been taking great pains with drawing a landscape, but while she is out, Margaret, taking it for waste paper, had torn it in half and twisted it into ‘thread-paper’ (383–4). On returning, Rosamund, though giving her grandmother ‘a roguish smile’, refrained from comment, knowing how the old woman would fret. The practice of benevolence to our fellows supersedes the demands of the most disinterested and lovely of the arts. The inner life, of which the blind so immediately remind us, is more important than a representation of beauty; and the beauty that we (unlike the blind) may see – and represent – is contrasted with an inward harmony beyond any one of the senses.

How an old blind lady responds to the sound of thunder; how she tore up a landscape drawing by mistake: these are the kinds of incident which make up much of Lamb’s tale. Indeed, one of the most striking things about it is how little action it contains in proportion to its length.

Many pages are devoted to the humble aperçus of old Margaret, or to unpretentious examples of benevolence. This is a book which has learnt from Wordsworth’s assertion that ‘The moving accident is not my trade’, or his pronouncement in ‘Simon Lee’ that ‘It is no tale, but should you think / Perhaps a tale you’ll make it’. Of course, the wicked seduction of Rosamund is indeed a ‘moving accident’, but it appears, as it might in a Wordsworth narrative, oddly displaced and reduced by matter which is meant to remind us of the quiet persistence of human benevolence in the midst of a suffering which will always be with us.

The blind make a compelling subject for the evangelical and other writers of moral tales for children who flourish from the late eighteenth century into the early nineteenth. The contrast and relationship of inner and outer, and the possibility of the blind showing fortitude, present ready opportunities for the vivid dramatisation of ethical and spiritual questions. The evangelical writers we shall have to deal with are all women. As Gary Kelly explains, citing one of the writers we shall discuss, ‘Representation of subjectivity and silent suffering in everyday life continued to be a prominent topic in writers such as [ . . . ] Barbara Hofland [ . . . ] Domesticity of a sentimental, socially nurturing, and ameliorative kind was also considered “proper” matter for women writers.’ Some of these writers would have been well aware of the philosophical debates surrounding the experience of the blind: Mrs Sherwood (Mary Martha Sherwood), the most celebrated of them, knew the Lichfield circle – Anna Seward, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day. Elizabeth Pinchard (fl.1790) casts much of her most popular tale, The Blind Child, or Anecdotes of the Wyndham Family (1791), in the form of dramatic dialogues, and indeed this is the description she gives to some of her work.

Put this alongside her invoking of Barbauld and the Countess de Genlis in the introduction, and one feels not only the desire to edify, but the influence of liberal ideas about encouraging a form of fiction that would be direct and easily assimilable by the child. But this influence does not extend to a trust in the child’s innate goodness. The idea of casting moral tales in the form of dramatic dialogues is specifically indebted to Genlis (1746–1830), the author of The Child of Nature. Her Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes (1779–80), sometimes known as Théâtre d’éducation or The Theatre of Education, acquired considerable esteem among writers for children. As her English translators say, this was ‘universally considered as her chef d’oeuvre’, and was conceived in the Rousseauesque spirit that ‘LEARNING by heart detached pieces of prose and verse would not produce the same effects’. The collection consists of a series of plays on moral subjects, mainly for children, though some of them are suitable for ‘Ladies’ women and shop girls’. The English translation went into several editions, and would probably have helped to promote the use of blind characters in improving tales, since the second volume started with ‘The Blind Woman of Spa’. This play shows how the family of M. Aglebert, the shoemaker, look after old blind Margery. The children are depicted taking delight in the exercise of compassion, and debating about its proper expression. Thus Mary looks forward to the time when she will be grown up, and can dress Margery and ‘lead’ her ‘about’; but Jane is troubled by the thought that this might be adverting too bluntly to Margery’s disability: ‘Hold your tongue; you vex her. I do believe she cries’. This was not Genlis’s only foray into the subject of blindness: she also wrote a story called ‘The Blind Girl’ in which the heroine, the fair Herminia, undergoes a successful operation for the restoration of her sight. When she looks in the mirror, she thinks she sees her mother. Her lover, Durmance, is captivated by ‘the pleasing innocence’ of this response, which, we may infer, demonstrates the goodness of a heart whose emotions, in a blind person, might seem mysterious.

Like Herminia, the nine-year old Helen Wyndham, heroine of Pinchard’s The Blind Child, bears a superficial, but highly significant, resemblance to those subjects of philosophical discussion who had gone blind in infancy:

when she was about a year old, she had the misfortune of losing her sight by a violent cold, so that she was now entirely blind, her fine dark eyes turned mournfully round without receiving a single ray of light. She had become blind so young, that she had no idea of the objects before her; she knew not what was meant by the sun, the moon, or any thing that was talked of as beautiful; and what still more affected her tender heart, she knew not the countenance of her father and mother! (15)

When, towards the end of a fairly lengthy book, Helen’s sight is restored by an operation (it appears that the cold had caused cataracts), she behaves like a textbook example of Molyneux’s predicted answer to his problem:

By degrees she became familiar with the objects about her, which at first she knew not how to avoid in walking across the room; nor was it for some time she could enjoy the beauties of nature, scarcely understanding the meaning of her own sensations. (175–6)

But this predicament is not made the subject of any fundamental philosophical speculation or lesson to do with the nature of experience, and she rapidly discovers her joy in the visual world. Most of the book has been concerned with different matters. Thus, although the privation of sight is dwelt upon, it is partly with the intention of encouraging sympathy and compassion in the young reader.

The following examples also give some idea of how important simple dialogue is in the book: a reflection of the influence of Genlis’s Théâtre on prose narrative, and one which is motivated by a desire to induce children into the imagining of social situations and debates with which they could readily identify. A simple example is Helen’s exclamation about her inability to understand what ‘a glorious morning’ is: ‘But, Emily, you said just now, it is a glorious morning; why cannot I have any notion of a glorious morning?’ (25). A more philosophically interesting example is provided by Helen’s inability to understand what being ‘handsome’ means. Her sister Emily had claimed that one Mr Thomson had said, merely for politeness’ sake, that she herself was handsome, and indeed their Mamma had agreed that he was merely being polite. Helen is puzzled: ‘But how is that? Would Mamma be pleased with you for being handsome, why then are you not?’ (27). She means, ‘why then are you not handsome?’ Clearly she imagines that one can choose. The emphasis, though, is on duty and true sensibility: how fine it might be to choose to be handsome in order to please one’s mother, since that should always be a consideration.

Emily proceeds to inform Helen that people ‘frequently become vain or proud with their beauty’ (28). This is something we can see that Helen would be unlikely to do even were she sighted, and something Emily will never do:

In the mild countenance and elegant manners of Emily you might read the excellence of her temper and the intelligence of her soul. In her eyes, as in a mirror, you saw reflected every motion of her heart; she was without disguise, and her natural graces were infinitely preferable to any which art and affectation could have taught her. (13)

But although true sensibility is the good opposite of affectation, as it might be in Genlis, Pinchard’s moral universe is rather more bracing: Mrs Wyndham roundly asserts later in the book that ‘duty is superior to feeling’ (72).

The book contains several episodes, unconnected with Helen’s blindness, designed to support this assertion. Mrs Somerville, for instance, has a ‘nervous kind of sensibility’ and never restrains her tears: this is something against which Mrs Wyndham warns Emily, describing it as an example of ‘over indulgence of our best feelings’ (73–4). This example is juxtaposed with that of feckless parenting and the uncontrolled childish cruelty and selfishness to which it may lead. Mrs Sidney can ‘never keep [her children] in order’. Her daughter, Harriet, however, has a charge of her own: a bird which she keeps in a cage, and which, significantly, has been blinded with a red-hot knitting-needle by her brother Ned in order to make it sing better (a remote reference to auditory compensation). Emily makes an instructive connection: ‘Alas! I have a sister who is blind!’ Harriet admits that she ‘should be sorry for her’, but as for the blinding of the bird, protests that ‘nobody ever told me it was cruel, so how should I know?’ (91–2). The implied lesson is driven home by the example of Ned, who gives a live mouse to the cat to torment and kill; having contemplated Ned’s cowardly behaviour, young Arthur Wyndham opines that ‘his father did not teach him better’, and Mrs Wyndham that he is therefore to be pitied (93, 102).

The tale thus makes cunning use of examples of moral questions that would be familiar to children from their own experience in order to induce in them the acceptance of clear moral instruction. In conformity with the doctrine of original sin, we are being reminded that human feeling is not innately compassionate or morally developed: true sensibility is guided by a sense of duty, which must be inculcated.

It should by now be clear that Pinchard wishes to dissent from any simple symbolic schema whereby the blind child possesses an innate goodness which prevails over any difficulties in communication. She also introduces a symbolically significant Gothic tale within the tale, a fairy story, designed to denigrate the idea of the visionary acquisition of knowledge. Part of the significance resides simply in the juxtaposition of this topic with that of physical blindness, part in the Gothic and fairytale associations themselves, which together add up to the thought that the subjectivity of inward vision carries no conviction. It is a point that Pinchard feels well worth making in a period when Gothic and romance modes were becoming more fashionable. The implied critique is assisted, at least for the adult purchaser, by the common contemporary mistrust specifically of fairy tales for children, a mistrust which sought authority in Locke. Thomas Day disapproved of them, and Maria Edgeworth claimed in 1798 that they were ‘not now much read’.

Pinchard is not being courageously controversial in introducing a specimen of the genre into her tale. Rather, she is employing self-conscious artifice to impart her own evangelical inflection to widely-accepted post- Lockeian ideas about the fairy story. ‘Elfrida, or the Mirror. A Fairy Tale’ is set in the reign of Edward III and concerns the eponymous young girl, who, when her father is summoned to the Scottish wars, wishes that some ‘beneficent Being’ would tell her how he is faring: a turbanned figure, scarcely a foot in height, appears, with an ivory wand in one hand and a mirror in the other (127, 129). The fairy tells Elfrida to take the mirror three times a day and she will see what her father is doing; but she must leave an interval of at least half an hour between these seances (133). On the first viewing she sees her father falling from a horse, on the second she sees him lying pale and languid on a couch, as she does again on the third (135–7). Letters from her father arrive, but they afford no comfort, since she knows what has happened subsequent to their dispatch (137). Although the next day the mirror reveals that her father has made a recovery, she asks the fairy to take back the mirror, which it does, drawing the moral that there are some wishes best not granted (139–40). But Pinchard has already prepared us for this conclusion, in advance even of the story, by prefacing it with reflections on the ‘limitation of man’s knowledge’ and by inviting us to consider ‘the narrowness of our capacity in this state of our existence as one great source of the comfort we enjoy’ (122–4). The lesson is that, even were we to be granted such capacity (and the prefatory remarks make it clear that this is not a normal occurrence) we lack the wit to interpret it.

But if visionary powers would delude us, even if they existed, no less are we inclined to be too impressed by what strikes the outward eye.

This theme is introduced through the discussion of ‘handsomeness’ to which we have already referred. It is reintroduced, significantly, soon after the tale of Elfrida, when Mrs Darnford is cited as an example of one who chooses friends for superficial reasons related to their appearance: ‘A fine face, an interesting figure, are recommendations sufficiently powerful to win the heart’ (160–1). It also helps to be ‘good natured’ with people like her – another dig at the idea that true sensibility can be founded in human inclinations free of moral and spiritual instruction.

In sum, the blind Helen has suffered a terrible privation, for which we should feel compassion, though there is no guarantee in mere human nature that we will do so without a Christian education. Her privation is not compensated for by any visionary capacity, nor could it be. It might be said that in one sense she is fortunate in not being tempted to judge by superficial notions of what is ‘handsome’ or beautiful; but without the guidance of a good Christian family, no doubt even she might have found some other superficiality in which to indulge.

Fortunately, however, she has benefited by such guidance, and in its spirit she has borne her privation with fortitude. Such are the lessons to be drawn from Pinchard’s dry but highly self-conscious moral tale.

Blindness persevering in duty is an even more central theme in The Blind Farmer and His Children (1816) by Barbara Hofland, ‘a prolific writer for children’. The theme of a connection between the national love of industry and the national pre-eminence in commerce is announced on the title-page, by means of an epigraph from Thomson: ‘A simple race! yet hence Britannia sees / Her solid grandeur rise; hence she commands / Th’exalted stores of every brighter clime’. In some ways, the point is the more striking in that the tale of blind Farmer Norton has so little to do with brighter climes, and everything to do with fortitude, stoicism, perseverance, industry and the education of children to survive and prosper. Possibly it was this last theme, most of all, which procured the approbation of ‘Mr. and Miss Edgeworth’, as announced in the Advertisement. (Hofland was also a friend of Mary Russell Mitford.) Farmer Norton has cataracts (or ‘crackertons’ as the groom calls them), but it is subsequent to their encroachment that he arranges the education of his children. Since his eyes are not quite bad enough to be operated upon through most of the book (21), much time is devoted to the heroic efforts of the family. Ultimately, though, his sight is restored by an oculist in Oxford (98). The story is certainly an example of ‘Mrs Hofland’s belief that the practise of Christian virtues in business affairs can lead to financial security’. But as with Pinchard, one discerns the influence of philosophical discussions of the blind in a passage such as this:

The Farmer was surprised to see how much his children were grown, and he confessed that he had formed no idea of it, having not attained that accuracy of feeling which is frequently remarkable in those who were blind from infancy, which was probably owing to his having had some trifling perception of objects, until within a short time. (102–3)

The point is a subtle one, based on a good understanding of the philosophical debates: Norton had not had time to unlearn the acquired perception of the connection between the data derived from the different senses. Thus his blindness results in a kind of temporary complacency which prevents him learning to interpret the tactile world with the sensitivity of those born blind.

What we have found, then, are ideas of fortitude and a sense of duty being brought together with themes from the philosophers’ discussions of the blind, and a similar union can be found in a very different work for children, Samuel Roberts’ The Blind Man and his Son (1816).

Samuel Roberts of Sheffield (1763–1848) was a tireless campaigner for working people and the poor, and an abolitionist. A characteristic specimen of his many works, Tales of the Poor, or, Infant Sufferings (1813), contains ‘The chimneysweeper’s boy’. This indicates an approach to the representation of the blind rather different from that which is to be found in Pinchard or Hofland, namely one that emphasises compassion for the afflicted. There is an interesting religious context for this, for Roberts is not properly speaking an evangelical. It is interesting to note that Charles Lamb sent to Roberts’s close friend James Montgomery (1771–1854) a copy of what he refers to as Blake’s ‘Sweep’s Song’.

Montgomery was a member of the Moravian community, as we now know that Blake’s mother had been. Roberts himself is the author of a poem, ‘The Song of the Poor Little Sweep’, which is undoubtedly influenced by both the Innocence and the Experience ‘Chimney Sweeper’ songs of Blake. Thus the scene is set with the sweep calling out amid the snow-drifts, as in the Experience poem; but a gentleman reminds him that he has ‘a father in Heaven, / Whose care never slumbered, whose eye cannot sleep; / Whose pity to children is constantly given’. These lines contain echoes of both of Blake’s poems. Although Roberts persisted in the Anglican communion, he was moved in his youth by Methodist preaching. His mother attended Methodist services, but transferred her sympathies to the Quakers, though she never joined the Society of Friends, remaining an attender. Hers, remarks Roberts, ‘was truly the religion of the heart’, a phrase which, significantly, was often applied to the faith of the Moravian community. With these connections, Roberts was unsympathetic to the harsh emphasis on original sin to be found in the evangelical tradition, a note which is struck in the title of one of his works, Vital Christianity Opposed to the Reformation Society (1839). His mistrust of evangelicalism extended to sympathy with Catholics, and a subordinate concern of the earlier The Blind Man and His Son is to encourage that sympathy in the context of the incipient debate about Catholic Emancipation.

The blindness of the ‘venerable looking blind man’ whom we encounter at the beginning of the book, led by his young son Henry, appears like a punishment for fecklessness and inattention to duty, for he has been improvident with his inheritance. His own father, as he tells the boy, had built a church and a model village called Zoar, in which the poor were employed in ‘improving the estate, and cultivating the lands’ (16, 17). But after his father’s death he lost the estate through his incompetence, as a result of which he was unable to discharge his debts (29). His devoted and pious Catholic wife dies, and soon his blindness comes upon him, while little Henry is still only three. Yet again, we encounter the trope of loss and compensatory gain: the idea of blindness is used to emphasise the importance of the inner guidance provided by the ‘Holy Spirit’ (66). A lengthy passage harnesses this theme to ideas derived from the philosophical discussion of the blind, specifically the question of whether one can ‘deduce’ (as Blake puts it) senses one does not possess from those one does:

if I had been blind from my birth, and you had still told me of this wonderful and useful facility which you possess, I might deny that either you, or any body else, possessed it, and I might continue to grope my way in darkness, fully convinced, and asserting, that every one was as blind as myself. This might be called stupid incredulity. But if an oculist of great fame were to arrive and to make it known publicly, that he could and would cause every blind man to see who would be at the trouble of only asking him so to do; and if many who had before been as blind as myself, assured me that they had been to him, and that they could now see as well as their neighbours; if I still persisted in refusing the gift of sight, and in denying that any one could see, nobody would hesitate in declaring me to be worse than stupidly incredulous. Such, however, appears to me the man who denies the operating influence of the Holy Spirit of God. (67–8)

It is to be noted that the ground of conviction offered here, unlike what it would be for Pinchard, lies in the direct experience of those who testify to the existence of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, then, as in Blake, deduction is not enough; but fortunately its deficiencies are supplied by something more direct.

What the blind man cannot see is also, as so often, figuratively significant.

The setting of Henry’s grandfather’s estate was the wild countryside of Roberts’ native Yorkshire, where it borders the old county of Westmorland. Indeed, in contemplating the estate, ‘a superficial spectator would have concluded that picturesque effect had been his sole object’ (17). Sole object it may not have been, but this is only a partial concession to utility: clearly its landscape, an example of the rough picturesque which contains elements of the sublime, has a part to play. The grandfather had ‘loved its mighty rocks, its pathless mountains, its gloomy dales, its wild heaths, its dashing waterfalls, its lonely glens, its gliding streams, and its wide-spread lakes’ (15). At the beginning of the tale we can see the sun hanging over Skiddaw (5), and the proximity of the Lake District to this area of Yorkshire is intended to remind us, by reminding us of the Lake poets, that Nature gives indications of God’s sublimity. Nor is such a view denigrated. Of course, all of this is invisible to the blind man who is at the centre of the scene. But he feels the evidence of God’s spirit in the place where, however it arrives there, it must in the end establish itself: within. This topos, of the blind man sensing benignity of which he cannot acquire visual evidence, is present also, as we shall see, in Shelley’s prose fragment, ‘The Coliseum’.

The subordinate theme, about the potential goodness of Catholics, is made to carry a similar message. From the piety and dutifulness of the blind man’s deceased wife we are warned not to be prejudiced against them. A possible objection is dealt with: they may be fond of outward forms and ceremonies, but they still have spiritual worship. This is the important thing, and it appears that one may have it with or without the forms. Here the trope of seeing through appearances is given an interesting twist: the outward forms really are subtended by the inward life of the spirit. Those who insist that Catholics are blinded by outward forms are in fact thus blinded themselves.

There could scarcely be a sharper contrast, at least within the confines of this genre, than that between Roberts and ‘Mrs Sherwood’ (Mary Martha Sherwood), who was not only ‘very popular for Sunday reading’, but also ‘deeply conscious of the Roman peril’. Her Calvinistic outlook was settled in the view that ‘the child’s nature was determined by original sin’. But the child is father of the man, and that includes the blind man. Her brief tale, The Blind Man and Little George, offers a variation on the conventional Protestant theme of spiritual blindness, where the misguided youth of the chief character, blind Richard, is rewarded by physical blindness. When he was a boy, and sighted, there were no Sunday schools. Sunday schools were a considerable concern of evangelical writers for children, notably Sarah Trimmer. Nevertheless, he had a pious grandmother who used to invite him to her house on the Sabbath day in order to teach him his duty to God, but this was of no interest to him.The immediate cause of his blindness was the same as that which affected many others in this period, warfare (7); but the true explanation was that ‘the Lord punished me in my own way; for I would not admit light into my heart, and therefore the Lord deprived me of the light of my eyes’ (8). Or, to be even more explicit about the metaphor, ‘I chose to be spiritually dark – I would not receive knowledge; and now have I lost sight for ever, not only of Him I would not see, but of that glorious sun which is his emblem’ (9). He had ended up boarding with an old woman who, the opposite of his grandmother, could give him no ‘instruction’ (8). In the end, though, the Holy Spirit moves him ‘to cease grieving for the loss of my bodily eye-sight, but rather to mourn on account of my spiritual darkness’ (10). In ascribing this great moral change to the workings of the Holy Spirit, Sherwood is effectively equating the workings of the Holy Spirit with those of an unmerited grace, in true evangelical fashion.

Nevertheless, as with Pinchard, the message is that proper guidance in youth has the potential to lead to the right path. But Sherwood’s message is bleaker: she wishes to remind us that some may shun guidance until God’s grace predisposes them to do otherwise. Sometimes this may never happen.

As if to underline these points, she includes two children of differing natures in her tale. They are, significantly, playing truant together from Sunday school (3). The eponymous George is receptive to the wisdom of the redeemed blind man, whereas his companion Jack is already bound on a course of wickedness and disaster. George is less committed than Jack to truancy, being worried about the possibility that he will be denied ‘his new hat’ if he does not attend (4). His interview becomes overtly catechistic:

‘What kind of blindness have we by nature?’ said Richard. ‘Spiritual blindness,’ replied the child; ‘for we all hate to be taught, and that is the reason why it is such hard work to get boys to church and school.’ (13)

The introduction of catechism into a children’s tale is indeed an imitation of evangelical catechisms, which, as Gary Kelly notes, were promoted ‘to ensure that the right “principles” have been internalized in the pupil’s subjective being’. In this case, the teaching is about teaching itself, and constitutes an especially crucial piece of the instruction which leads George to salvation: ‘Thus was the discourse of poor blind Richard blessed to George, in bringing him, with the divine favour, from the state of spiritual darkness in which we are all by nature, into a state of light and happiness’ (15). The same cannot be said of Jack, who mocks the teachings of the blind man, departing with a wink to George, and putting his finger in his mouth to signify that no attention should be paid to what they had been hearing (11). In later life, ‘he fell from one bad course to another, till at length he died in great misery’ (15).

Stories such as we have been examining may not exhibit the philosophical ambition of many of other treatments of the blind from this period. Nevertheless, they also bear witness to the contemporary fascination with the blind and their experience. They are very much of their time, and they ask the questions that the time wished to have answered. How can the blind feel sympathy? Does the acknowledged goodness of some blind people offer proof of innate benevolence? Can the blind be industrious citizens? These questions are very similar to the ones that are addressed in the many of the more ambitious works of the period.


Resultado de imagem para The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period

'The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period'
by Edward Larrissy
Chapter 4  |  pp 89 - 102
Edinburgh University Press, 2007





Maria José Alegre