Friday, October 22, 2010

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Beloved the World Over

I’ve wanted to be a writer all my life, though I realized fairly early that I probably needed some other vocation to fall back on when those rejection letters piled up. In the nineteenth century, many young ladies were taught the opposite. They were told to learn how to be wives and mothers first, and maybe they might have to fall back on a accomplishment like writing well if they ended up spinsters. That was certainly the case for nineteenth-century writers Ann and Jane Taylor.

Ann and Jane were born in 1782 and 1783, respectively, into an accomplished family. Their father and grandfather were engravers who illustrated books and sometimes set portraits, first in London and then in smaller towns around England. Ann and Jane had an unusual education: their father taught them at home then started Sunday Schools for poorer children, where they were expected to help teach. They learned reading, writing, math, history, and geography by working through practical problems such as artillery attacks on local towns, engraving issues, and household chores. Between learning and chores, they were busy from sunup to sundown, but that didn’t stop them from writing.

They wrote essays on various topics, they wrote little plays and put them on with the neighboring children, and they wrote poems. At age 15, Jane was invited to join a local society for reading essays and improving the intellect. When Ann was 17, she responded to a puzzle in the Minor’s Pocket Book, an annual publication for children, with a poem, and the editor was so impressed he asked her for more. By 1804, both Ann and Jane were providing poems to the magazine. Over the next few years, they put together collections of children’s poems, some by friends, family, and acquaintances but mostly theirs. When the first book brought in money, their mother decided writing wasn’t so bad. She graciously allowed them a half hour a day to devote to it!

But that seemed to be enough. Each of their children’s poetry books grew more popular. Their books were translated into French, German, Russian, and many other languages. They were so successful, in fact, that their mother decided to start writing too! She published nine books between 1814 and 1825, all explaining how important it was for women to marry and take care of their families.

Ann Taylor married a minister who had written her a fan letter for her work. She stopped writing for a time to raise eight children, then took up the pen again until her death in 1866. Jane never married and was the more prolific writer. Sadly, she died of breast cancer when she was only 40.

Perhaps because they wrote for children, you don’t often hear their names today. But I’ll wager you know this poem, written by Jane in 1806 and beloved all over the world:

Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.
Did you know it has four more stanzas?

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark!
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveler in the dark
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle little star.


QNPoohBear said...

Wow! I've never heard of the Taylors and I had no idea anyone actually wrote Twinkle Twinkle. That's my almost-2-year-old niece's favorite song. Little E is already a bluestocking in the making and I will make sure her parents see this post!

pie said...

Very interesting! I really enjoy these posts about unknown (at least to me) heroines. Thank you!

Regina Scott said...

Thanks QNPoohBear! It is a little sad when something you wrote is that famous and you get no credit for it! Glad you're enjoying the posts, pie!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know someone wrote Twinkle Twinkle! How intriguing!

Gillian Layne said...

As usual, your posts are such a charming combination of information and entertainment. I see I've missed several great ones, and need to steal an afternoon hour or two so that I might catch up.

And the "half an hour a day?" I hang my head in shame. Good for them! :)

Regina Scott said...

Intriguing indeed, aryalinea.

Nice to see you again, Gillian! I hang my head in shame too--I used to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing when my sons were little, but writing poetry that stands for ages on half an hour a day? The mind boggles!

Bearded Lady said...

fascinating! Now, I know who to thank for the poem I sing every night to my baby. But seriously, a half hour a has to wonder what they could have accomplished with a whole hour.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, Bearded Lady. And I wonder why I can't accomplish more with the 2 to 3 hours I can currently devote a day to writing!