Sarah Trimmer (1741–1810) was one of the founders of the Christian Sunday school, as well as an apologist, a person who argues in defense or justification of something, such as a doctrine, policy, or institution. In the case of Trimmer, she wrote about Christianity. In the nineteenth century she became one of the most influential people involved in education and literature for children. She had so much influence on the style and content of children's books that she has been likened to such notable critics as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Newbury. Her books were so well circulated that she became one of the best selling authors of her time.
Trimmer was born Sarah Kirby on January 6, 1741, in Ipswich, England, to Sarah Bull and John Joshua Kirby, a landscape artist. She had one brother. She attended a local private boarding school as a child, although she went as a day student. At the school she was taught all the subjects considered fitting for a woman in the 1740s. It was at home, from her father, that she learned theological and biblical studies, the foundation of her later works. John Kirby was famous for his knowledge of theological matters and although he had never been ordained, he was invited to join a local clerical club. In her education Trimmer was most fond of English and French literature and she studied both throughout her youth.
Trimmer also worked hard on translating literature from several different languages into English, and she enjoyed reading out loud, something she practiced quite often to improve her delivery. As there was no television or radio in the 1700s, reading aloud was a favorite form of entertainment. Besides these pursuits Trimmer also concentrated on improving the quality of her writing. She became so accomplished at all of these practices that when her brother went away to boarding school he often asked her to write English compositions, which he would then translate into Latin. Through these correspondences with her brother Trimmer improved her writing even more, and her parents began to suspect that she would make the writing arts her field.
Trimmer moved to London with her parents in 1755 when her father was asked to tutor Prince George, the future King George III. The move proved to be helpful to young Trimmer because in London she was thrown into a social circle that included artists and writers such as Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Hogarth, Dr. Gregory Sharpe, and Thomas Gainsborough. She became friends with Johnson in particular one day at a literary gathering.
Trimmer often attended literary meetings, but at this particular one the group was discussing John Milton's famous poem Paradise Lost , and Trimmer joined in. Impressed by her erudition, Johnson invited her to visit him the next day. She agreed immediately, and the next day the young woman went to visit the famous writer. At some point during their meeting Johnson gave her a copy of his own work, Rambler , a book of essays that he had written in the form of a journal. The work inspired Trimmer so much that she decided to create her own journal in its likeness. She kept her journal for 25 years.
In 1759, when Prince George no longer needed a tutor, Trimmer's father was appointed to be clerk of works at the palace. Trimmer moved with her family to Kew, where the appointment was located. It was there that Trimmer met James Trimmer. They were married in 1762, after which Trimmer moved to her new husband's estate at Old Brentford, near London. There she would raise her family of 12 children.
She became intensely interested in children's education early on in her marriage, and studied the developments of Dr. Andrew Bell in order to gain some advice on teaching her own children. All of her daughters were taught solely at home, while her sons started out there but went outside the home for their classical studies.
She read all the books intended for her children; each child was different, so each was given a different set of books to read. She began to feel that the children's books of her time were sorely in need of improvement, so she created the The Guardian of Education in 1802. The Guardian of Education was a monthly magazine containing reviews of popular children's literature of the age, focusing mainly on those with religious content that were suitable for young impressionable readers. The magazine became an instant hit with parents everywhere.
Trimmer believed in The Guardian for several reasons. She felt that children were the ones who could bring about social change, so she wanted to educate them to do the best they could for the future, and watching what they were exposed to was one way to ensure that their minds were formed correctly. It was in the eighteenth century that children began to be seen as a national resource, and Trimmer believed that hope for the country rested on the shoulders of the young. For this reason Trimmer wanted to ensure that poor children received a good education just as the rich ones did. She helped by writing blurbs about the books with the intention of directing children into lives filled with morality, education, and piety.
Trimmer continued to use Dr. Bell's methods of instruction, and wrote an article that was published in the Edinburgh Review , discussing how Bell's ideas could be used to help the Anglican Church spread its doctrines. This article led to the creation of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. And the article led her to write educational texts specifically for children. Her first book, published in 1780, was Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature .
Next she revised and published The Ladder to Learning: A collection of fables; arranged progressively in words of one, two, and three syllables; with original morals . It was written by someone else, but Trimmer took on the task of revising the work. One of the biggest changes she made was to organize the text into sections according to reading difficulty. She determined the level of difficulty by the number of syllables in the words in the text. It took a lot of work for Trimmer to redo the text, but she felt it was worthwhile as a tool for teaching young children how to read. She chose this work to revise because each story had a moral lesson that her children could try out in the nursery.
Trimmer had earlier complained about Edward Baldwin when he attempted to improve on the morals to be found in Aesop's fables. In The Guardian of Education she had written how these stories now seemed forced and overly preachy. When she went about updating The Ladder to Learning she kept this in mind, making changes that simplified the texts and clarified the stories.
She also wrote Easy Lessons for Young Children, The Charity School Spelling Book , and Fabulous Histories: Designed for the Instruction of Children, respecting their Treatment of Animals . The last one is her most lasting book. It was later renamed The History of the Robins , and is still being published in the early twenty-first century. The book has stories about the robins Pecksy, Flapsy, Robin, and Dick, and also a story about a learned pig. According to the Bartleby's website, "Even though the story is unflinchingly didactic, it has everywhere naturalness and charm. Its earnestness is so simple, and the author's own interest in the narrative so clear, that age has not destroyed its individuality." Because she wrote for rather than about children, she held a power during her lifetime that other children's writers did not possess. Trimmer died on December 15, 1810.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 158: British Reform Writers, 1789–1832 , Gary Kelly, editor, Gale Group, 1996.
"Children's Books: Sarah Trimmer," Bartleby's , http://www.bartleby.com-221-1613.html (January 2, 2007).
"Sarah Trimmer," Ask.com , http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk-EDtrimmer.htm (January 2, 2007).
"Sarah Trimmer," CTS , http://www.cts.dmu.ac.uk-AnaServer?hockliffe+478+hoccview.anv (January 2, 2007).