Jackanapes, Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, and The Story of a Short Life (1895), by Juliana Horatia Ewing

In my other life, I work for the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) project, headed by Dr. Carole Gerson at Simon Fraser University.  The project aims to construct an online database of all Canadian women who published—in any genre, in any forum—before 1950.  CEWW is one of the seed projects for the larger database project, the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), run out of the University of Alberta, and headed by Dr. Susan Brown.

Connecting my love of early Canadian literature with my love of children’s literature, I have been reading through the children’s texts written by some of our authors, with the intent of sharing them—if only superficially—with others.  The first such text was The Bells on Finland Street, by Lyn Cook; this is the fourth.

Jackanapes, Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, and The Story of a Short Life (1895), by Juliana Horatia Ewing

Juliana Ewing was a well-known British children’s author, with an extensive bibliography. She falls onto my radar for having lived for two years in Canada (1867-1869). Elizabeth S. Tucker’s Leaves from Juliana Horatia Ewings “Canada Home” (1896) is part biographical, part autobiographical, and contains a number of photos of the author and her life in Canada. Given this connection, I thought I would read at least Jackanapes, one of her most successful children’s stories.
My copy of Jackanapes (published in 1895) is bound with two other of Ewing’s children’s books: Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot (1884), and The Story of a Short Life (1885). All three are unquestionably written as instructive moral tales, but where Jackanapes and to a lesser degree Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot retain the reader’s interest, The Story of a Short Life is tedious and we wish that young Leonard’s life had been shorter… or, more compassionately perhaps, that the author had not chosen to write about it. Leonard is a spoilt, demanding child who, when crippled by a fall from a cart, becomes even more spoilt and demanding. Despite the author’s intent of showing how he tries to live up to the family motto, Lœtus sorte mea (“Happy in my lot”), we spend the entire short text wishing that the adults around him practiced some of the logical moral discipline that Victorian children’s texts are generally known for. Instead, when after years as an annoying cripple, Leonard inexplicably succumbs to his injuries and dies, we are shown his parents later blessed with a new family, and who remember and honour the valiant young boy who strove so hard to be like the noble soldiers around him. But failed! Perhaps I should have stopped after Jackanapes and Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, which have similar morally intent, but are far more enjoyable to read.
Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot is an pleasant story of a young orphan who is taken in as a servant, strives to do well through honestly and hard work, and ultimately succeeds, inheriting his master’s dovecot and doves. The story achieves its goal of showing material gains resulting from moral behaviour, and is an engaging story at the same time. Its success lies both in the simplicity of the story and in the interesting characters, peppered as it is with country accents and quirky characters. The popularity of both Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot and Jackanapes were undoubtedly augmented by Ralph Caldecott’s illustrations, which are sprinkled throughout the stories.
          Jackanapes is the nickname of young Theodore, son of the “big house” in the village. While the story begins with his birth, and ends with his death, it is much more the story of the whole village, the relationships that develop over the years, and how Jackanape’s life is intermingled with all of those around him. (One commentator notes a similarity to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), which I think is not inappropriate.) The plot of his life is stereotypic: he leads his less adventurous friend Tony into all sorts of mischief as children; Tony follows him into the military but Jackanapes is by far the better soldier; Jackanapes dies saving Tony on the battlefield; the entire village honours him and Tony is a better man for the sacrifice of his friend. What is engaging about this story is that—unlike young Leonard—Jackanapes is an honourable lad who deserves the respect and love he garners. He is repentant when he is wrong, honest about his activities, and he loves his horse: a better advertisement for the cult of muscular Christianity can only be found in Tom Brown himself.  So in the end, when Jackanapes dies, we are saddened, even to tears. Ewing has excelled in this story: her characters are more well-rounded and interesting than in her other two stories included here, and the picture she paints of village life in the mid-Victorian period is rich with pastoral imagery and honest human emotion. The diction is somewhat heavy at times:  no more than many other novels of this period, but perhaps more than the average child reader—even then—would want to bear for long. But the story itself pulls the reader through, in a way that justifies Jackanapes’s position as one of the minor classics of Victorian children’s literature.

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