Sarah Maria Fry & Her Books
Front page image from The Golden Mushroom by the Late Sarah Maria Fry (London: Religious Tract Society, date uncertain; reprint possibly 1870s or 1880s).
Believe it or not, some 25 years later, I still cannot find much in the way of information on Sarah Maria Fry’s life. She’s relatively obscure, although she published numerous books for children through Sunday school and other religious companies.
At the time I did my research, however, I managed to locate a little bit about Fry’s life in a book attributed to her called Isabel or, Influence for Good, revised in 1851 by Daniel P. Kidder. The book has a very short story about Isabel, a girl who, by singing hymns, unknowingly touches other people's lives. It is typical of stories written for evangelical Protestant children and goes generally goes like this: something a pious child says or does has an impact on someone else and changes that person’s life.
The object of such writing was to impress upon children that they, by living as good little Christians, could change other people’s lives. So, I was not surprised to find that the majority of the Isabel text is devoted to a discourse on how to influence others through Christian living. In other words, the story is saying, “look at what this little girl did just by singing hymns. Now, kids, this is how you can do the same thing.” Today, this may sound like a creepy exercise in brainwashing children of the faithful, but it was normative in children’s fiction written for nineteenth-century evangelicals.
Among all that information, Daniel Kidder refers to Fry as “the late Mrs. Fry.” Kidder goes on to say that Fry kept a journal. She also had several daughters and one of them wrote a biography about their mother. Sarah Fry also kept a journal and appears to have been a pious individual aware of her responsibility to encourage people to love one another and to do good works (Fry, Isabel, 43, 97, 118-119). When Fry lived is a question for me. She might have been writing as early as the 1790s and as late as the 1850s. Her books were reprinted several times throughout the 1800s. When she lived, died, and worked is still uncertain. I’d love to find that alleged biography and/or journal, but internet searches have yielded nothing so far. I also need to hit an archives, so I can sit down and read her work, although I was able to download one through Google Books and can purchase hard copies through booksellers. It might be that I will find more information about her life there.
The audience for whom Fry was writing appears to be middle-to-upper class English children. When describing the poor she clearly attempts to move and inform her well-off readers that "...there are thousands of children living in the streets, and lanes, and alleys of our great cities, quite much neglected, quite as untaught and as ignorant as poor Bob and Patty” (Fry, The Little Orange Sellers, 18). Or, I might add, as untaught and ignorant any many other unfortunate children in her books.
It is entirely possible that Fry was a writer of Rewards, books designed as Sunday reading for middle-to-upper class children. At the very least, her books made it into Sunday School and Rewards libraries. Rewards writers usually were women whose religious and social convictions called them to be "useful." Since writing was an acceptable activity, many took up the pen (Bratton, 64), although they may have published under a pseudonym, which is something I believe Fry did.
One of the more striking things about Sarah Fry's material is her use of the working world as a backdrop, and sometimes as a plot device. The titles alone often indicate her interest. Here is as complete a list of her books as I can find.
Abel Grey: The Story of a Singing Boy
Hannah Lee, or, Rest for the Weary
Jenny, the Crochet-Worker, or, The Path of Truth
Joe Carton, or, the Lost Key
Little Jessie’s Work, and the Broken Rosebuds
Margaret Craven, or, the Beauty of the Heart
Matty Gregg, or, the Woman Who Did What She Could
Mrs. Cooper’s Story, or, the Golden Mushroom
Rose Darling, or, the Path of Truth
The Australian Babes in the Wood, a True Story Told in Rhyme for the Young
The Little Orange Sellers
The Little Water-Cress Sellers
The Yankee Enterprise, or the Two Millionaires, and Other Thrilling Tales
The Young Envelope Makers
The Young Hop-Pickers
Even when the books do not feature work as part of their titles, the workaday world is still present. In Matty Gregg, or, The Woman That Did What She Could, the heroine runs a small shop. Harry in The Lost Key becomes a gardener. Even Jessie, the subject of the story Little Jessie's Work, wonders what her vocation can be. However, this story revolves more around usefulness than actual employment.
Fry's obsession with working children and the poor mark her as part of the second wave of English Evangelicalism, "which blended a renewed religious conviction with that strong concern for human suffering which was the hallmark of right feeling in the 1840's" (Bratton, 64). She views poverty, and the ignorance and hopelessness that came with it, as demeaning. She offers Christian love and benevolence as the means through which the poor can regain their humanity.
Through it all, Fry advises her young readers how to navigate the social and spiritual minefields created by the Industrial Revolution. She is suspicious of the new technologies, as well as with the growing hunger for fame and fortune. In addition, she is of the opinion that if children and young women must work, then the most beneficial positions are those that provide the guidance of kindly, Christian patronage. Therefore, going into service is more respectable and morally safe, provided one’s employer has the right heart and spiritual makeup, than working in the impersonal and unsupervised world of, say, an envelope factory. Yet, she also is resigned to the fact that factories and other forms of employment will not be going away and concludes that if a young Christian must work in such a setting, then he or she should be prepared to suffer abuse and be able to speak up for the faith. That is the way God can use a factory girl as a positive role model and as a means to convert others. But this is not only something the poor should do. Those who are well-off also have a responsibility: they must provide the poor with guidance and the opportunity to work under honorable, Godly patronage.
My final question is: how did material written in Britain "play in the USA?" Class division was a reality in America, just as it is today. However, Americans persisted in seeing themselves as fiercely democratic and egalitarian. So, how were the "rise up, but do it through Christ" messages in Fry's work received by American readers? The answer seems to be this: families like Maggie’s, who were members of evangelical congregations (i.e., Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.), most likely would have preferred reading materials like Fry’s for their children. However, the materials would have been viewed differently by others with no apparent stake in religion and/or were uncomfortable with revivals and other methodologies stemming from the Second Great Awakening (1790s-1830s?)
For their viewpoint, I’ll leave you with an 1860 New York Times review of one of Fry’s books: “The Young Hop-Pickers, by the late SARAH MARIA FRY, is a little book published by the American Tract Society. The scene of the story opens in a hop garden, and progresses in a hop garden, finally hopping over into another country. Tracts are distributed among the young hop-pickers, and the book, of course, ends with the conversion of everybody.” It's a witty pan, but a pan nonetheless!
Obviously, then as now not everyone agrees about what constitutes “good” children’s fiction. All I can say is that Fry was merely one part of a larger movement to provide acceptable fiction for Protestant children, but was not material considered suitable by others in the culture.
Until Monday! Have a good weekend.
Bratton, J.S., The Impact of Victorian Children's Fiction (London: Croom Helm, Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981).
Fry, Sarah Maria, Isabel or, Influence for Good (New York: 1851).
Fry, Sarah Maria, The Little Orange Sellers (New York: 1856).
The New-York Times, “New Publications,” 10 November 1860.
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