Maria Edgeworth and the Sunday School Movement


A subtle shift in tone came with the works of Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), who elevated the moral tale from a simple lesson of right and wrong to an exercise in reasoning and self-improvement.  Edgeworth’s characters learned to control their emotions and think for themselves through experience, observation, and experimentation. Eventually the much-imitated Edgeworth ideal fell out of fashion in favor of the more overtly religious publications that were being produced by writers like Hannah More and Sarah Trimmer. This change was fueled in great part by the Sunday School movement, which began in the late-18th century with the purpose of teaching religious principles, reading, and writing to the working-class children of Great Britain. One scholar notes, “The aim of writers was now to produce a godly, rather than rational, child.”

A common theme in didactic fiction of this time was the condemnation of novel reading. In Moral Tales the story of “Mademoiselle Panache” features a French governess who allows her pupil to read novels. When the young lady’s suitor discovers her taste in reading his reaction is extreme: “Her lover stood for some minutes in silent amazement, disgust, and we may add, terror.” He quickly abandons her in favor of another, more sensible, girl. 


Moral Tales, by Maria Edgeworth (Philadelphia: C.G. Henderson & Co.; New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1856)

Originally published in England in 1801, this 1856 American edition of Moral Tales features original designs by F. O. C. Darley. It is representative of a mid-19th century gift book—one that is designed primarily to be presented as a gift and thus often elaborately embellished. Gift books of the 1850s typically feature red cloth bindings, gold stamping on the cover, and gilt edges on the pages.

Maria Edgeworth and the Sunday School Movement