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Critical Commentary


The three extracts chosen for the e-edition Modes, Morals and Modification have been gained from the publication Three instructive tales for little folk by Charlotte Palmer. It was first published as part of a collection of stories, songs and ballads circa 1786 by E. Newbery in London. The full, eighty-eight page, first edition facsimile is available via the website Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and is categorised as ‘Literature and Language.’All definitions have been gained from Oxford English Dictionaries online unless specified.


The extracts are written in different genres and have been chosen to demonstrate the variety of didactic literature aimed at young girls during the early modern period. The first extract is a song and the second one is a ballad. Lastly, there is an excerpt from a short story that includes two bible verses to accentuate its spiritual message of reward through obedience.   


The notes below provide historical context, alongside intertextuality that appears to have influenced Palmer’s writing (additional details can be found in the further reading section). The notes include explanations of eighteenth century terms that may not be familiar to a modern reader.


NB All definitions have been gained from Oxford English Dictionaries online.


1st Extract  


(1) My Soldier Laddie: The tune appears to originate from ‘Bonnie Soldier Laddie,’ a song directed at soldiers and sailors. Palmer's decision to choose the genre of a song to relay her didactic message is significant at a time in which music “was considered an aid to learning” (Weiss, 2016, p46).


(2) A Song: The structure is similar to John Gay’s poem of the same name from 1741 (see further reading) of six lines per stanza with each one headed by a Roman numeral. In the eighteenth century, female writers such as Palmer were often “denigrated and trivialized by a patriarchal literary world” (McGovern, 1992, p2) and were therefore forced to adhere to traditional structures to achieve publication.


(3) Grove: A small wood or other group of trees. In using a pastoral term, Palmer forms a link to the Romantic movement that was created in the late eighteenth century as a reaction to The Enlightenment.  


(4) Mama’hood: A term for motherhood, it accentuates the traditional role anticipated for Susanna.


(5) I’ll take her to London to see and be seen: The line suggests allusions to ‘Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat’, a nursery rhyme first published in 1805. However, its origins can be traced to an earlier tradition of verbal storytelling. This includes a link to 16th Century, Tudor England and an association with Queen Elizabeth I.


(6) Sweatmeat: An item of confectionery or sweet food. It is an obsolete form of sweetmeat.


 2nd Extract


(7) Jack and Jill:  In its rhythm and metre, Palmer’s ballad references the nursery  rhyme of the same name published by John Newbery in Mother Goose’s Melody circa 1765. The rhyme is often linked to the French ‘Reign of Terror’ and the beheadings of King Louis XVI (Jack) and Queen Marie Antoinette (Jill) in 1795. However, Newbery’s publication pre-dates this and as with ‘Pussycat, Pussycat,’ its origins can be traced to the courts of Elizabethan England. Although the 1765 version was only eight lines, Palmer has lengthened the ballad to enable the message of reward through fidelity to emerge.


(8) Gill: A common alteration to the spelling of Jill.


(9) Nosegays: Small bunch of flowers, typically sweet-scented.


(10) John: The common nickname for Jack.


(11) Cho: Shortened version of Chorus.


(12) Ditty: A short, simple song.


(13) Press-gang: A body of men employed to enlist men forcibly into service in the army or navy.


(14) Tar: An early modern term for a sailor.


(15) War: The expansion of the British Empire in the eighteenth century led to an increase in conflict associated with the colonies. This included the Anglo-Dutch War (1780-84) at around this time.   


3rd Extract


(16) Hem: The edge of a piece of cloth or clothing which has been turned under and sewn. In this instance, Louisa’s reward for a correct reading of scripture is to learn the craft of sewing.


(17) Fenning’s Spelling Book:  The Universal Spelling Book was written by Daniel Fenning. The twenty-first edition was published in 1776.   


(18) Mr Gay: John Gay was an English poet and playwright (1685-1732). He is also a member a fabular tradition that included Anne Finch along with Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine who utilsed fables of morality to offer social and political comment.


(19) The Hare and Many Friends:A fable written by John Gay that was published in 1727. Its moral focusses on the perils of having few friends but many acquaintances.  


(20) Dunce: A person who is slow at learning; a stupid person. In the context of this poem, it is the term given to the girls who have disobeyed.   


(21) Prayer: Although the prayer cannot be traced in its entirety, there is a clear message of forgiveness and spiritual cleansing.





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