Mary Martha Sherwood wrote “The History of the Fairchild Family” in three volumes, published 1818, 1842 and 1847. I read the first book, which is chiefly about the Fairchild children – Emily, Lucy and Henry – realising that all humans are depraved sinners in need of redemption. To quote from the first few pages:
Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild loved and feared God, and had done so, by the mercy of God, ever since their younger days. They knew that their hearts were very bad, and that they could not be saved by any good thing they could do: on the contrary, that they were by nature fitted only for everlasting punishment: but they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and loved him for having died for them; and they knew he would save them, because he saves all those who trust in him.
The book is essentially a series of vignettes of the children being instructed on the righteous path. Emily, for example, succumbs to the temptation to eat some forbidden plums: 'no eye was looking at her, but the eye of God, who sees every thing we do, and knows even the secret thoughts of the heart; but Emily, just at that moment, did not think of God.'
Even worse, their cousin Augusta plays with candles after being told not to and is burnt alive. The stakes are high in this novel, because every sin is a step towards losing their souls forever. When Mr Fairchild catches his children quarrelling, he first thrashes them, reciting Dr. Watts's 'Let dogs delight to bark and bite' between blows of the cane, and then takes them to spend the afternoon beneath a gibbet where the rotting corpse of a murderer is hanging. Lesson learned.
The works were massively popular in the 19th century, in print constantly until 1913. There is some evidence, though, that it was not always read as intended. Lord Hamilton wrote that 'there was plenty about eating and drinking; one could always skip the prayers, and there were three or four very brightly written accounts of funerals in it.’
Frances Hodgson Burnett, perhaps a more pious child, states that she read it in two sections, first reading the religious statements because she thought she should and then reading the story for pleasure.