Some stories leap across time. This story jumps two-and-a-half centuries, to link two Cambridge academics from the present day to Jane Johnson, wife of an 18th-century vicar and mother of four children.
It is a story that could alter our understanding of the history of education, the beginnings of children's literature and the nature of childhood, not to mention 18th-century social history and the relationship between formal (published) and informal writing.
But above all, it is a love story - a story about the profound affection and intimacy between the members of a family and the remarkable woman at its heart.
When Jane Johnson married the Reverend Woolsey Johnson in 1737, she was 30 and an heiress in her own right. The family she married into was equally well-off and cultured, having been involved in the "education of the poor" since the 16th century, when an ancestor founded the public schools of Uppingham and Oakham in Lincolnshire.
Jane brought many talents to the marriage. She was an accomplished needleworker and artisan, always making pretty things for her friends and, as she says, addicted to the "intoxicating pleasure ... of being prais'd for this ingenuity".
She took her religion seriously, as befits a clergyman's wife, but retained a vibrant sense of fun. Her letters and writings speak of wide and enthusiastic reading, from French fairy tales to the fashionable novels of Samuel Richardson, from hymns and sermons to the Bible and John Bunyan. She had a satirical eye, in the manner of the early Jane Austen, and was a skilled illustrator. However, her family was her greatest passion.
Her first two children - Barbara (b 1738) and George (b 1740) - were born in quick succession. There followed a boy who lived only two days, before Robert (b 1745) and Charles (b 1748) completed the family. They lived the life of prosperous but not grand 18th-century gentry in rectories at Olney in Buckinghamshire and Witham in Lincolnshire (the family seat). In 1756 the Rev Woolsey died, followed by Jane three years later. They are buried in the small country churchyard at Witham, surrounded by members of their family, green fields and huge, windy skies.
Despite losing their mother while still in their teens (Charles was only 11), the family flourished. Barbara, described by her mother at the age of one as having "cheeks (that) look as tho' they were cover'd with rose leaves and her lips are like the coral", went on to stitch together a vivid life as an intellectual and craftswoman, whose textile album is published by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
George became high sheriff of Lincolnshire, while Robert became a clergyman like his father, inherited the living of Witham and had seven children. Charles also took orders and prospered. Their descendants are scattered throughout the English middle classes - architects, actresses, engineers, officers in the armed forces. Jane set the seal of her benign presence on her descendants as surely as violent, dysfunctional parents do on their offspring.
She lived through a crucial shift in the understanding of childhood in Europe. The "spare the rod and spoil the child" maxims of the Puritans were bowing to claims for children's rights in influential works from Rousseau, father of Romanticism and champion of individual liberty (1712-1778), and Voltaire (1694-1778), advocate of a more sceptical but humane liberalism.
Even earlier, John Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) had put an eloquent case for teaching methods that would respect natural human development. A child, he said, should learn from "some easy pleasant book suited to his capacity". But the prevailing tenor of 17th and 18th-century society was sophisticated, urbane and insistently adult, so the historians of childhood, chief among them Philippe Aries, have claimed.
Then, in 1744, bookseller John Newbery published the first of many books specifically for children - A Very Pretty Pocket Book. Newbery published many more books intended to delight rather than instruct his young readers, and died a rich man. And in 1744, as Morag Styles and Victor Watson of Homerton College, Cambridge, discovered, Jane Johnson wrote her own "A very pretty story to tell children when they are about five or six years of age".
Watson and Styles, the literary detectives who have helped bring Jane's writings alive for today's readers, make a striking pair. He is a distinguished-looking, donnish man with a fastidious air and leather driving gloves, who recently retired as Homerton's head of English and is editing The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books. She is a round, jolly woman in colourful clothes with a warm, ready wit, and is reader in children's literature at Homerton. Coincidentally, her latest book, From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children, will be published next month by Cassell. She and Victor share a sense of adventure. In 1994 they found a new trail to follow.
It was then that Professor Shirley Brice Heath, a visiting lecturer on literacy and linguistics from Stanford University, gave a surprise seminar at Homerton on the contents of a shoebox. In 1986 Justin Schiller, a US authority on children's literature, had discovered inside this shoebox Jane Johnson's nursery library - more than 400 items made by a mother for the instruction of her children. (The shoebox is in the Elizabeth Ball collection of early children's literature at the University of Indiana's Lilly Library.) Among the fragile bundles are two hand-made books. One was made for George, Jane's oldest son, and contains moral and religious lessons interspersed with stuck-in illustrations from books, tear-sheets and word lists. The other book features alphabets and word-lists for the beginning reader. Also in the collection are alphabet mobiles, cards with alphabets and word-lists, alphabet rhymes (as far as we know, original to Jane), cards with common letter combinations and rhyming monosyllabic words, cards with rhymes about birds and the state of the poor ("always with us" as a pious 18th-century rector's household would be all too well aware), cards carrying religious sentiments or moral maxims, traditional rhymes or street cries and illustrations for fables.
These delicately coloured relics are not the work of some famous educator or belle-lettrist. They are a mother's communication with her children, sharing moral purpose, giddy fun and the joys of reading, all mounted on floral paper, many with loops attached to hang on nursery walls. A few seem to have been coloured in, and several mention Jane's children. They form a reading course, offering attractive short texts and breaking words down into easier components: phonics and syllables. In that shoebox lay the pattern of a whole culture of nursery education in an 18th-century home.
Jane's teaching aids reveal her view of reading to be more "whole-word" than phonics-based, with word lists prominent. Her approach was child-centred - praise for her pupils and delight in their qualities permeate her stories and homilies, following the "suited to his capacities" style advocated by Locke in 1693 and, we may now guess, taken up by 18th-century educators in the home.
Brice Heath's revelations stunned Styles and Watson. They felt as if an unknown voice had spoken to them across the centuries. Homerton's literary detectives set off for Witham with their visitor in tow.
Witham still speaks of Jane. In the churchyard they found the family graves. The house her husband built for the family is now a thriving prep school, but it yielded a portrait and a copy of her daughter Barbara's album, published by the Vamp;A and acknowledging "the Blois Johnson family". Styles wrote to the Vamp;A, tracking down the now-retired editor of the album and then Bill and Cresten Blois Johnson, Jane's direct descendants.
Two days after she posted her letters, the phone rang. It was an antiques collector in Norfolk, who had just contacted the Vamp;A. "I hear you are interested in Jane Johnson." Styles's heart bumped. "I am standing", the caller went on, "with my hand on the cover of a little manuscript book written by Jane."
When Morag Styles and Victor Watson held the little cloth-bound book in their own hands, and looked at the date - 1744 - they knew they had struck gold. "1744 is the date of the first printed book for children," Watson says. "And, I began to realise, the earliest date for a manuscript of a children's book in England - which is what I was looking at."
The book was Jane Johnson's "commonplace book" - her thinking space, evidence of the inner life of a middle-class woman from the hymn-writing culture of the 18th century, a woman who happily devoted her considerable talents to the education of her own children. As well as devotional poetry and quotations from favourite writers it contained "A very pretty story to tell children".
This tale shines a light into history with its fizzy mixture of Bunyan's English morality, the dazzling fairy tales of Perrault, sharp social observation and Jane's everyday conversations with her children.
As the Bodleian Library negotiated to buy the book from the Norfolk antiquarian, Morag Styles went to visit the Blois Johnsons in their country cottage in Dorset. Bill, now 88, remembers going to Witham in the 1930s to visit his "wild" cousin Willie, who gave "tennis parties and such - it was very glamorous". Willie was not over-fond of history and boasted of selling off "the only pretty one in the family" (probably a portrait of Barbara Johnson) as well as "old papers" - perhaps the nursery library that ended up in Indiana.
When Willie died, Bill got most of the remaining mementoes. Bill and Cresten sold Barbara's album in the 1970s, partly to protect it from the fingers of their grandchildren, and it eventually reached the Vamp;A. They still had portraits of Jane (unauthenticated except by family tradition - her dress is of an earlier era) and her son Robert, who is the spitting image of Bill Blois Johnson. Above all, there were boxes stuffed with family letters and diaries - wonderfully intimate and affectionate communications.
Styles recalls that she became "absolutely hooked" on Jane's story after reading a particularly touching letter - "it made me weep" - written to 10-year-old Robert in 1755. The letter ends "Oh! Robert Live for Ever"; Jane herself died four years later. "She was a person who cared greatly about the future," Styles says.
The detectives have kept busy since April 1995, when Shirley Brice Heath organised a conference at Homerton to coincide with an exhibition of "Hand Made Readings, an 18th-century mother's nursery library" in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge Victor Watson has uncovered sources for Jane's homilies from a popular work of the time, The Confessions of a Turkish Spy. The Blois Johnsons unearthed a family tree. Television producers have become interested. A visit to Witham has revealed pictures of Jane's house in her time.
And still the questions unfurl. Was Jane unique in her talents? What happened in education during the 50 years between Locke's essay and Newbery's publication? Were there many "pretty stories" in nursery cupboards, or was Jane a mother in a million? Was her child-centred, "whole-word" approach a popular model more than a century before universal education?
Robert became a fond father himself. He wrote to his sister Barbara, "neither Nan (his wife) nor myself have a good knack of bringing up pretty well-behaved children. I own I like children as children much better than formal premature men and women". Later he contrasts (unfavourably) a friend's "remarkably quiet and silent" offspring with his own "constantly talked to, riotous and troublesome" brood.
How his mother would have approved. Historians often label pre-20th-century parents as having either washed their hands of their children or viewed them as mere adults in waiting, but the writings of Jane Johnson vibrate with family affection.
One of her last acts was to put up a plaque enshrining the memory of her husband in the hall at Witham. Headed "To the intent that it may never be forgot", The Curse, as it is known to the children and staff of today's Witham School, proclaims the virtues of the Rev Woolsey Johnson, "indefatigable for the Good and welfare of His Family" whose memory should be known "to the end of the world".
They are all dead now. No one remembers how Jane, when "big with child", jumped into the River Ouse to save her oldest son, George, from drowning; how the inscription on Woolsey's coffin, watered with many tears, read "than whom a better man was never born"; how Jane once had a dream in which "Arachne-like I was metamorphosed into a spider as big as the full moon". All those family memories have dissolved into time. All that remains are the words of love.
'Opening the Nursery Door: Reading, Writing and Childhood 1600-1900', edited by Mary Hilton, Morag Styles and Victor Watson, is published by Routledge, pound;13.99
* JANE JOHNSON'S LETTERS
About her daughter Barbara, as an infant "Her Papa and mama think her the very finest Child they ever saw with their own Eyes but I do not believe there is one body besides of that opinion".
To her son George, aged 11
"I have sent you some Dry'd Apples amp; Apricocks amp; hope you will like them; I am glad you are to come home so soon, read Bruces Letter to know when; I am in great haste so can write no more, but that I wish you a good journey, Love you more than Words can express, wish you all possible Happiness, amp; since there is no other way of being happy but by being Good and making God our Friend, so I wish you may be the very best young man in England, amp; then you will be the happiest. Adieu my dear George and believe that no Boy ever better belov'd than you are by Jane Johnson."
To her son Robert, aged 10
"My Dear Robert, I am very sorry you have had such bad weather while you stay at Whytham, I fear it has hinder'd you seeing some of the Beauties of the country, but you know as we are to live there you will have opportunitys enough to see them all hereafter... I would have you teach little Benny to be very good and tell him he should pray to God a great many times in a day as you do, amp; say pray God bless me and make me a Good man. I have sent him and you a few more nuts and raisins, I have nothing else to send you, or I would send it, for I Love you Dearly and think you one of the most sensible children of your age in the World, pray you give pretty Miss Pruey a Kiss for me, and tell her she is much in my Favour. I have not time to write anymore, so I wish you good night. Past seven o'clock July 30th 1755
PS 'On Earth who hopes true Happiness to see,
Hopes for what never was, nor ne'er will be.
In Heaven, are Joys and Pleasures ever new,
And Blessings thicker than the morning Dew.'
Learn these by heart before you come home.
Oh! Robert Live for Ever."