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The first lady of children's literature

In happy ignorance of academic theories about phonics or key-words, Jane Johnson - wife and mother - taught her children effortlessly to read. All that she brought to the task was intelligence, dexterity, and a profoundly affectionate care for her young. A model parent, you may say, but the fact that Jane Johnson did this 250 years ago may give pause for reflection on the nature of educational progress.

Jane Johnson's quiet genius has been known for some time in the United States, where her complete kit for the teaching of reading now resides (at the wonderful Lilly Library at the University of Indiana at Bloomington). Although the whole enterprise originated at Olney, Bedfordshire, between 1735 and 1750, it migrated across the Atlantic in the 1930s, to become part of the famed Elisabeth Ball Collection of Historical Children's Materials and it has now returned briefly to its home shores in an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

What has come to be known as "Jane Johnson's Nursery Library" consists of some 438 manuscript pieces which fall into about 24 clearly defined groups, including two little books - home-made in their composition and their construction. The whole conglomeration was put together over the period when Mrs Johnson's four children were growing up, and it was designed to engage their attention and their wits through a variety of progressively advancing verbal ploys. Compared with modern published methods there was a great flexibility in the way the material could be used, with the children often directly involved in the texts.

At the base of the library lay alphabetic devices, beginning with a little book of simple letter-forms, and leading on to alphabet rhymes that are part of nursery tradition: "A was an Alderman dress'd in his Gown, B was a Barber who shav'd his Crown" (a rhyme which later included the censored couplet: "N was a naughty Boy (pissed) in his Dish, O was an Otter that eat up the Fish").

From this foundation Mrs Johnson set out to devise cards which gave conventional syllabic nonsense practice ("bla, ble, bli, blo, blu") and cards which formed a kind of graduated lesson in reading entertainment extending from single words and simple phrases to traditional rhymes, invented rhymes, street cries, and fables. (Mrs Johnson had a healthy animus against the French, and several couplets run along such lines as "hark the Drum beats and calls to the Field, God give us Success and make the French yield".) The richly varied content of this miscellany was given a distinctive unity through Mrs Johnson's skills as draftsman and decorative artist. All the manuscript transcriptions were carried out with a precision worthy of an engraver, and she also made skilful use of Dutch flowered paper in her bookbindings and as pretty framing to many of her cards.

Mrs Johnson also brought in a mass of illustrations. Only one card seems actually to have been hand-painted as an original, but very many others are illustrated with cleverly composed scraps, which have been cut out of contemporary prints, glued to the cards, and then enlivened with pretty watercolour washes. Sometimes the pictures themselves have been arranged to give a subject for the text: "Simon Franklin, a Butcher of Enfield in Middlesex, carrying a Sheep before him upon a Horse Nam'd Ball."

To coincide with the opening of the Fitzwilliam display, Homerton College, Cambridge, and the Lilly Library and the Ball Foundation of Indiana, organised a two-day conference which paid belated tribute to Jane Johnson's enterprise. Amid many admiring presentations, the revelation emerged that Mrs Johnson had also written a manuscript story for her children: a third little book that had miraculously turned up some time ago at a book-fair in Chipping Camden. This manuscript, with its utilitarian title A Very Pretty Story To Tell Children When They Are About Five or Six Years of Age, was presented, much abbreviated, to the conference by Victor Watson, who drew attention to its quaint blend of 18th-century moral teaching and baroque fantasy, much in the manner of the French raconteur Madame D'Aulnoy.

He could also have added that this book, A Very Pretty Story, stands as one of the earliest known attempts by an English author to write an original narrative for young children. Along with her "nursery library" it shows Jane Johnson as an outstanding representative of the period which saw the foundation of English children's literature.

Brian Alderson

* Hand Made Readings: an 18th-century mother's nursery library is on view in the Octagon Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 21 May. Admission free.

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