Australia's First Children's Author
Charlotte Barton’s A Mother’s Offering to Her Children is now recognised as the first locally produced book for children in Australia. It was printed in Sydney by The Sydney Gazette and distributed by the publisher and bookseller, G. W. Evans, in 1841. It was originally published anonymously by ‘A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales.’ Like many of the early titles in the Thyne Reid Trust Collection, the book is written in the mode of a moral tract and it comprises a series of didactic episodes in dialogue form between a mother and her four children.
The content reflects Barton’s own lived experience of bush life in Australia, her instruction of her children during their time in an isolated outstation in New South Wales, as well as her interest in natural science. Lessons in geology and anthropology are also interspersed with tales of shipwreck and barbarism, many of which had already appeared in the local press. The Christian and colonial values of the author are writ large in the narrative and the fictive children in the text are clearly being educated to uphold their social and moral status amidst Australia’s indigenous population.
An anonymous reviewer in The Sydney Gazette in 1841 commended the book to the paper’s readers as both ‘interesting’ and ‘instructive’ and ‘hoped that others will follow the noble example set up by Mrs Barton’. Barton’s tract can be situated within a broader appetite in the early nineteenth century for moral and didactic literature for children and women often penned this literature. As Mitzi Myers has pointed out, women writers in the nineteenth century found in children’s books and educational literature ‘not just an outlet available to their sex, but a genuine vocation.’ The perception of women as natural moral guardians of the domestic sphere seemed to authenticate their role as author for children.
Following in Barton’s footsteps, Irish-born Hannah Villiers Boyd published Letters on Education addressed to a Friend in the Bush of Australia in 1848 – a didactic tract offering guidance in the education of children, a copy of which is held as part of the Thyne Reid Trust Collection. The book was written as a series of letters inscribed to Mrs Hannibal MacArthur and was based on the eleven years Boyd had spent as a governess in Australia. The text adopts a commonly recognised utopian rhetoric found in much Australian writing of this period, one which visualises Britain and Europe as a corrupt Old World, and the newly settled colonies of Australia as sites for creating a contented, industrious and well-educated nation.
In Letters on Education, Boyd calls on the ‘mothers of Australia’ to ‘do their duty’ and ‘teach the Europeans a practical moral lesson.’ ‘Consider,’ she goes on, that ‘your influence in the training of your children may have a serious effect on the future of a rising country.’ Despite the moral, Christian and often very conservative tone of this genre of literature, then, these texts allow for a moment of agency in national matters through both the role of the mother figure and the female writer. Richard Peterson argues that Boyd was concerned to ‘affirm women as protagonists in the life of society’ and as ‘individuals beyond their role in the family.’