Ireland and Australia I: Female Education

As women took up the pen as educators and authors of children’s literature, many also began to specifically comment on and advocate for the education of girls. Much of this writing forms an important narrative which goes against the grain of the more conservative and traditional ‘lessons for girls’ contained in the textbooks which circulated throughout Ireland’s and Australia’s school systems.

The Stoppage of the Mill and the Young Miner's Fortune

The Stoppage of the Mill and The Young Miner's Fortune by Maria Edgeworth (c. 1860) Cover

Edgeworth was also an influence on other writers. Australian writers, Catherine Helen Spence and Hannah Villiers Boyd both cite Edgeworth as recommended reading for parents and children alike, and library-borrowing records demonstrate that Edgeworth’s works circulated with some popularity in Australia. In an article for The Adelaide Observer in 1884, Spence hailed Edgeworth as ‘the almost creator of child literature’ and maintained that Edgeworth’s ‘influence extends to this day in several directions.’ Spence’s educational philosophies, like Edgeworth’s, promoted rational thinking in children. ‘Education’, wrote Spence, ‘has a twofold aspect … it is meant to teach many things necessary to be known, and it is meant in a still higher degree to train the mind.’

A Little Australian Girl, or, The Babes in the Bush; and Jim: a little nigger

A Little Australian Girl, or, The babes in the bush; and Jim: a little nigger by Robert Richardson (1881) Cover

Like Edgeworth, Spence was also passionate about equal education for boys and girls. She echoes Edgeworth’s educational sentiments in Helen (1834) when she writes in her economics primer for children, The Laws We Live Under (1880), that ‘there can be no greater mistake for girls to make than to suppose that they have nothing to do with good citizenship and good government.’ Many of Spence’s stories for children adopt the didactic style of Edgeworth’s moral tales and many also feature strong and intelligent female protagonists, though Spence’s Christian morality often overwrites Edgeworth’s more secular tone. As in other children’s literature of this period in Australia, female heroism and learning is often framed within discourses of Christian goodness, such as the popular retelling of the Duff children lost in the Australian bush. Robert Richardson’s A Little Australian Girl, or, the babes in the bush (1881) is just one example of this.