Charles Kingsley's "Madam How and Lady Why" first appeared in the inaugural installment of Good Words for the Young in 1868. While Good Words for the Young differs from other purely secular periodicals of its time, its contents reflect a continuing Christian faith tempered by the prevalent emphasis on reason and science. Thus Kingsley's work, later republished in its entirety as a single volume, offers both an insight into the nature of Good Words for the Young as well as reflecting the new more secular but nonetheless religious tone of late nineteenth-century Victorian society.
In "Madam How and Lady Why" Kingsley's narrator lovingly takes his young reader for a journey across the moor. In fact, the narrator embarks upon his story to relieve the boredom of his young charge, this brings to mind the escapist device used by his contemporaries, notably the Carroll's White Rabbit who shakes Alice out of her bored reverie. However although "Madam How and Lady Why" introduces fairies, this cannot be construed as a fantasy and remains very much a discussion of natural beauty. Kingsley lavishly describes the flora and fauna of this area which he identifies in the opening paragraph as "Hartford Bridge Flat [on] this sad November day," and his account is strongly colored by his Christian faith. The Madam How and Lady Why of the title are revealed as fairies, but a strict social hierarchy for this fantastical creatures exists in which Lady Why is the mistress of Madam How, but Lady Why "has a Master over her again -- whose name I leave for you to guess. You have heard it often already, and you will hear it again, for ever and ever." The reader then, should always be aware of his place in society and within his own family.
Evidently a religious man, Kingsley's narrative reflects the prevalent Victorian interest in Science. In his Preface, Kingsley asks his young audience to understand the Universe and be of a scientific inquiring nature because it is every man's duty to God and to self, thus self-improvement through reason and scientific knowledge now becomes a means to faith. Kingsley writes:
I say "good boys;" not merely clever boys, or prudent boys: because using your eyes, or not using them, is a question of doing Right or doing Wrong. God has given you eyes; it is your duty to God to use them. If your parents tried to teach you your lessons in the most agreeable way, by beautiful picture-books, would it not be ungracious, ungrateful, and altogether naughty and wrong, to shut your eyes to those pictures, and refuse to learn? And is it not altogether naughty and wrong to refuse to learn from your Father in Heaven, the Great God who made all things, when he offers to teach you all day long by the most beautiful and most wonderful of all picture-books, which is simply all things which you can see, hear, and touch, from the sun and stars above your head to the mosses and insects at your feet? It is your duty to learn His lessons: and it is your interest. God's Book, which is the Universe, and the reading of God's Book, which is Science, can do you nothing but good, and teach you nothing but truth and wisdom. God did not put this wondrous world about your young souls to tempt or to mislead them. If you ask Him for a fish, he will not give you a serpent. If you ask Him for bread, He will not give you a stone.
This was, after all, originally penned for a magazine entitled "Good words for the young" and Kingsley does not fail, he straight forwardly identifies good boys as "not merely clever boys, or prudent boys." To be truly good, one must also be faithful and use the faculties that God has granted us.
Although Kingsley's continued use of the first person pronouns and slightly patronising tone, he also makes liberal use of "my dear child" clearly establishes a somewhat didactic tone reminiscent of evangelical tracts, Kingsley clearly is not an advocate of frightening children into faith and moral righteousness. Rather, the magazine engages to encourage its readers to be enquiring, to be self-improving.
Kingsley ends the journey through the moor with the recognition that man remains humble before his God:
Of course. If we thought and searched over the Universe--ay, I believe, only over this one little planet called earth--for millions on millions of years, we should not get to the end of our searching. The more we learnt, the more we should find there was left to learn. All things, we should find, are constituted according to a Divine and Wonderful Order, which links each thing to every other thing; so that we cannot fully comprehend any one thing without comprehending all things: and who can do that, save He who made all things? Therefore our true wisdom is never to fancy that we do comprehend: never to make systems and theories of the Universe (as they are called) as if we had stood by and looked on when time and space began to be; but to remember that those who say they understand, show, simply by so saying, that they understand nothing at all; that those who say they see, are sure to be blind; while those who confess that they are blind, are sure some day to see. All we can do is, to keep up the childlike heart, humble and teachable, though we grew as wise as Newton or as Humboldt; and to follow, as good Socrates bids us, Reason whithersoever it leads us, sure that it will never lead us wrong, unless we have darkened it by hasty and conceited fancies of our own, and so have become like those foolish men of old, of whom it was said that the very light within them was darkness. But if we love and reverence and trust Fact and Nature, which are the will, not merely of Madam How, or even of Lady Why, but of Almighty God Himself, then we shall be really loving, and reverencing, and trusting God; and we shall have our reward by discovering continually fresh wonders and fresh benefits to man; and find it as true of science, as it is of this life and of the life to come--that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
Kingsley, Charles. Madam How and Lady Why, or First Lessons in Earth Lore for Children. 1891.
Last modified 23 July 2007