Monthly Review (1809)

Monthly Review, 2nd Series, 58 (April 1809), 432-33.

Historical Dialogues, for Young Persons. (By Mary Hays.) Vols. II. and III. 12mo. pp. 353, 242. 8s. Boards. Johnson.

     To select from the vast mass of History such portions as are likely to interest youthful minds, and to answer such questions as young persons would naturally ask on hearing them related, is a commendable idea; and to these objects, which the author has ably accomplished, are also added several very useful philosophical remarks. Altogether, therefore, a valuable work for juvenile understandings is here produced.

     From the ensuing extract, the reader will gain a very fair idea of the design of these Dialogues, and a specimen of the manner of the writer in introducing her remarks:

     ‘Emma. – Why is it, my dear aunt, that I had so long considered history as dry and uninteresting, and yet, in the stories with which you have favored us, have found both my curiosity and affections awakened?

    Mrs. N – Most young people, I believe, especially of your sex, have had the same feeling respecting history, for which several reasons might be alleged; but, principally, the general manner in which historical narrative, comprehending such multiplicity of facts and events, must necessarily be given. History, excepting to the statesman and political economist, can be interesting and amusing only in proportion as it is biographical, or as it treats of individual character. Disquisitions and statements of finance, political revolutions and changes, general descriptions of wars, of alliances, and of treaties, afford but little delight to the imagination, which dwells only with pleasure on single portraits, on minuter and characteristic delineations, and affections of individual life. We must feel an interest and a personal sympathy in the books we read, to give them their effect on the heart and mind.

     ‘This is more especially necessary in youth, the period of lively emotions: young people love to feel rather than reason; they are careless about facts, of which experience has not yet taught them the uses; their studies, like their amusements, must be of as active nature, calculated to touchtone heart and captivate the fancy.

     ‘History, it is true, bonds with subjects of this nature, as, I trust, I have proved in presenting them singly to you: but, unless by a previous interest you had thus been led gradually on, the labour of the research might have seemed to you too severe.

     ‘Nothing so much contributes to destroy, in young persons, a taste for historical composition, as the putting into their hands abridgments of history. An abridgment must be necessarily little more than an index, which fatigues the attention and burthens the memory, by a confused multiplicity of names and facts. That youth should start back from labour so repulsive and dry, is little wonderful; or that a subsequent prejudice and disgust should be associated [433] with the idea of history. It would be far more judicious to allure them to knowledge by select historical portions, written with elegance and vivacity: by the account of a period of a single nation, or of one distinguished hero or character, on the contemplation of which they might rest with delight, and which would lead them irresistibly, by the interest it inspired, to desire a fuller acquaintance with the connected events. This is done in a masterly manner by several both of our ancient and modern historians, of whose writings I have principally availed myself in extracting materials for the subjects of these conversations.’

     The historical part is well written, the dialogues are ably supported, and the remarks are judicious.