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Nationalism and Imperialism in Futures Past: Classical Reception in Louisa Capper’s A Poetical History of England: Written for the Use of Young Ladies Educated at Rothbury-House School (1810)

Kathryn H. Stutz

The Johns Hopkins University

In 1810, London publisher W. Flint produced an anonymous children’s history text titled A Poetical History of England, written in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter verse. Thanks to a flyleaf note on a copy held in the British Library (Perkins 2004), this poem has been attributed to the author Louisa Capper (1776–1840). While narrating the history of England from before the arrival of the Romans until the eighteenth century, Capper’s didactic poem deploys numerous classical features from its ab urbe condita dating to its narrative vignettes drawn from Tacitus and Suetonius. These classicisms, this paper argues, contribute to Capper’s goal of producing a memorable (and memorizable) account of British national history for British schoolchildren.

This paper is conceived as a successor to Simpson (2009), which investigates nation-building within another nineteenth-century British children’s history: Lady Maria Callcott’s Little Arthur’s History of England (1835). Both Callcott’s and Capper’s texts exist within a broader literary universe of romantic children’s histories written by British women (Simpson 2009, Kucich 2014), adapted in part from the tradition of women’s histories for adults, such as the classicizing History of England (1763-1783) by Catharine Macaulay (Fox 1968, Withey 1976). Like Simpson’s study, this paper articulates the cultural context in which the text was written, taking into account comparable depictions of Roman Britain; this paper then closely examines the text of Capper’s Poetical History, including its valorization of Britain and its treatment of potentially distressing aspects of the ancient world; finally, this paper considers the impact of the poem’s classicisms on the nineteenth century reading public.

This audience for Poetical History can be understood from several angles. First, using literary reviews, this paper evaluates how Capper’s text served as a tool for educating children about the classical past within the context of formal away-from-home teaching. Second, this paper assesses the impact of Poetical History on children educated at home, through one child in particular: Capper’s adoptive son. Louisa Capper was not only a poet, but also the guardian of the young James Fitzjames (1813-c.1848), who became an officer in the royal navy and served in Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition (1845-1848), as a result of which Fitzjames became the subject of rigorous historical inquiry (Battersby 2010) that revealed his early education by private tutors. Furthermore, Fitzjames was also a poet, and his semi-autobiographical poem Voyage of H.M.S. Cornwallis (1842-1844), shows Capper’s influence through its rhyming couplets, its classical allusions, and its imperialist depiction of Fitzjames’ naval service in the Opium Wars.

Although nineteenth-century women’s histories like Poetical History are no longer central to children’s education in England, the way these texts shaped the historiography of their day deserves further investigation. By tracing their classical receptions, this paper argues, we can reveal how classical narratives of nation and empire influenced the depiction of antiquity in British children’s histories, and thus in the minds of the children who consumed these texts, and the adults they became.

Session/Panel Title

Think of the Children!

Session/Paper Number

61.2

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