Annual Review (1807)

The Annual Review, and History of Literature for 1806, 5 (1807), 282-83. Ed. Arthur Aikin. 

Historical Dialogues for Young Persons. By Miss Hays. Vol. 1. 12mo. pp. 294.  

[Review appears in chapter  6, “Education and School Books.” Despite the editor being known to Hays, the review is not favorable, even though her Historical Dialogues will be one of her most popular works. Vol. 1 appeared in 1806; vols 2-3 appeared in 1807.]

     “The design of the present work,” says its author, “is, by a selection of interesting narratives, scenes, and events, from popular historical productions,” to overcome “the disinclination generally felt by young persons, more especially of the female sex, for the study of history.” 

    To flatter the fastidious indolence of young ladies by a selection of those beauties of history which ought to be the reward of patient study, does not, we confess, appear to us the likeliest means of preparing them to undertake a course of laborious reading; but if the work were in itself interesting and well executed, we should readily wave this objection. We cannot, however, in this case, pronounce so favourable a judgment. The narratives and anecdotes selected, are not, in general, by any means well adapted to their purpose. The details of the siege of Malta by the Turks, for instance, are not very likely to be relished or well understood by any who never heard before of ravelins or counterscarps. The anecdotes of Cyrus and Alexander, which fill a large space, are so trite, that a young person who should be ignorant of them, could never have opened the first books of history put into the hands of a learner, yet without some previous idea of the situation and manners of ancient [283] nations, it would be impossible to enter into their spirit. In order to preserve the work “from the humiliating character of a tame and servile compilation,” Miss Hays has been at the pains, the ill-judged pains, as it appears to us, of putting the whole into her own language – into a cold and formal style far less likely to captivate the fancy of youth than the original words of almost any author whom it could fall in her way to consult. A short specimen will suffice to determine whether the dialogue part of this volume is calculated to give much relief to historical details. The art of dramatizing instruction is one of the rarer secrets of genius.

    Mrs. Neville. – To what am I indebted, my dear young friends, for so early a visit this morning?

    Mary. – To a powerful motive, dear aunt, if I may answer for myself, and one confessedly feminine.

    Mrs. N. – Name it then, if you please.

     Mary – Curiosity.

     Mrs. N. – Indeed! you pay the sex a compliment more flattering perhaps than just.

     Mary. – How so, dear madam? I do not perfectly comprehend you. Is it not a fault to be too curious?

     Mrs. N. – Curiosity, in itself, my dear, is the most powerful spring of the mind, the source of its activity, and the foundation of all its improvements; he who is without curiosity must languish in stupidity and ignorance; the savage will make no progress towards the civilized man, till spurred on by curiosity. One of the most important parts of education is to awaken, invigorate and direct this principle. The youth in whom it is repressed, who is taught tamely to submit to prescription, to receive his principles from others, and form his opinions without examination, may creep torpidly through life in a beaten track, or state of being but little removed from that of mere animal existence, but he will never rise to eminence, or deserve well of his fellow beings.

     Mary. – But, if curiosity deserve this high praise, how came it to be stigmatized as a weakness or a vice? and why is it said to be the foible of woman?

    Mrs. N. – Curiosity, or the active principle of the mind, is undoubtedly good; but good things may be perverted and misapplied: we must distinguish between a liberal and an impertinent curiosity.    

     William. – And is female curiosity always impertinent, madam? I trust you will not pay so ill a compliment to your sex, or give to my sister so sensible a mortification.

     Mrs. N. – Certainly it is not my intention: when female education has been properly attended to, a liberal, not an impertinent, curiosity will be the result. The flexibility of our frames, or organization, and consequent vivacity of our feelings, render us active. This in itself is an advantage, an excellence: but, unless the good sense of those on whom we are dependent affords the proper subjects on which to exercise these lively faculties, they may be wasted on frivolous or pernicious objects. Hence, as a rich soil is most productive of weeds, so the woman whose mind has been left uncultured, may, without real malice or vice, fall into impertinences both disgraceful and injurious.

     Mary. – Well then, my dear aunt, I shall not in future, be ashamed to own myself curious; nor be mortified, unless I am convicted of having directed my curiosity to subjects improper for myself, or detrimental to others.

     Mrs. N.– You are perfectly right, and have justly defined and distinguished what I meant to inculcate. But this conversation seems to have led us away from the purpose of your early visit to day. 

     Mary. – My curiosity has come off triumphant, at which I am not a little proud; but I greatly fear, that my passion for romantic stories will not obtain a verdict equally favourable.

     Mrs. N. – That, at present, must not be determined, as it might lead us too far from our purpose; we will therefore reserve it for future consideration.”