August 22, 2017, by Kathryn Steenson
In the words of her own grand-niece Rosalind Constable, Favell Lee Mortimer wrote “one of the most outspokenly sadistic children’s books ever written” [New Yorker, 1950 – subscription required], yet she topped the Victorian best-seller lists and was well-regarded as an educational author.
Today is the 139th anniversary of her death, and the book referred to was Peep of Day: A series of the earliest religious instruction the infant mind is capable of receiving. It is a Bible-primer aimed at 4 and 5 year olds, presumably to terrify them. At the beginning of ‘Lesson 1: On the Body’, Mortimer writes “How kind of God it was to give you a body! I hope that your body will not get hurt”.
Perhaps the vaguely-menacing, Mafia-boss overtones were not picked up by very young children.
Published in 1833, Peep of Day was Mortimer’s first work and was an immediate best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies printed in 37 languages. Our edition was published in 1844 and bears an inscription in the front page “To William Scott. Ann & Peter Aitkin. November 6/45”. We have no information about who they were, but books such as this were commonly given as rewards for achievement or attendance at school or church.
Mortimer was deeply religious and absolutely determined to impress upon young minds the consequence of disobedience and lack of faith, but some of the passages are intended as life lessons warning children about the common hazards in Victorian streets and homes:
“Will your bones break? – Yes…if a cart were to go over them…If [your body] were to fall into the fire, it would be burned up. If a great knife were run through your body, the blood would come out.”
Gruesome, but probably no more so than the Public Information Films that frightened generations of children in the 20th century.
Peep begins with lessons and questions about the body and family, but the bulk of the lessons cover Bible stories about Creation, the Life and Death of Jesus, and ending – appropriately enough – with Judgment Day:
“God has seen all the naughty things you have done. He can see in the dark as well as in the light, and knows all your naughty thoughts.…One day God will burn up this world we live in. It is dreadful to see a house on fire. Did you ever see one? But how dreadful it will be to see this great world and all the houses and trees burning! The noise will be terrible: the heat will be very great. The wicked will not be able to get away. They will burn forever…”
Favell Lee Bevan was born in 1802 to the Quaker and Barclay’s Bank co-founder David Bevan. She converted to Evangelical Protestantism aged 25. Her first love, Henry Manning, married another woman and after her premature death converted to Catholicism, eventually becoming Archbishop of Westminster. This must have been quite a shock for a woman who described Catholicism as “a kind of Christian religion, but it is a very bad kind”.
She married at the relatively late age of 39 and there are differing accounts as to whether her nine-year marriage to the Reverend Thomas Mortimer was happy or abusive. Despite publishing 16 books for children, she had none of her own. At her marriage she acquired two step-daughters, but the vast majority of her experience came from teaching the children on her father’s extensive estates. Her methods and teaching hints included in her books – flashcards, patient repetition, and the awareness that children have different learning styles – are surprisingly modern.
Mortimer died in 1878, and according to her niece’s biography of her, “Her doctor said she was the only person he ever met who wished to die.” Such was Peep’s influence that her obituary in The Times, printed on 27 and 28 August 1878, read: “On the 22nd inst – at RUNTON, NEAR Cromer. Favell Lee, widow of the late Rev. Thomas Mortimer (Authoress of The Peep of Day, &c), aged 76.”
A previous blog post, “Macaroni looks like serpents”: A Victorian arm-chair traveller’s guide to Europe” featured one of her children’s geography books. They are both part of the Briggs Collection of Educational Literature, a collection of over 2500 children’s books and games from the 16th to 19th centuries. They are available to view in our Reading Room on King’s Meadow Campus. To arrange a visit please contact us, or to find out more see our website, follow us @mssUniNott or see our newsletter Discover.