The Revolutionary Influence of the First English Children’s Novel

“The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes” told the tale of a bold heroine who forged her own path

an illustration of a woman in a purple dress holding a green book in one hand and a brief case in the other
Illustration by Joelle Avelino

It’s a universally familiar phrase. Ask any English-speaking adult or child, and they will recognize the label “goody two-shoes” as derogatory shorthand for an insufferable prude—but few remember how it became a staple of popular culture.

Before her name became synonymous with sickly-sweet virtue, Goody Two-Shoes was the protagonist of the first English children’s novel, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. First published in 1765, the book was a groundbreaking work. It tells the life story of an orphaned girl, Margery Meanwell, whose poverty reduces her to rags—and to wearing just one shoe. When her fortunes improve and she acquires some new footwear, her excitement earns her the nickname “Goody Two-Shoes.”

an open book showing two illustrated panels
Jane Austen’s much-loved copy of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. Alamy

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This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

For more than a century, this largely forgotten Cinderella story broke social and literary barriers while delighting readers. The book appeared in many editions in England and the United States, and it was beloved among famous writers like Robert Southey and Jane Austen, who kept her childhood copy until her death. One of the earliest works of children’s literature, Margery Meanwell’s adventures offered a striking alternative to prevailing gender norms. Over the course of the novel, Margery teaches herself to read, foils a major robbery, founds a school, earns her own living, stands up for animal rights and overcomes accusations of witchcraft. She was everything that 18th- and 19th-century British society thought women shouldn’t be: poor, well-educated, self-made and unmarried (at least until the last few pages).

Margery was wildly popular and one of the first heroines whom juvenile readers admired. It’s no stretch to say that the novel launched and definitively shaped children’s literature as a genre intended to entertain young readers while teaching foundational values like generosity, hard work and the virtues of education. It continues to exert an enormous, if forgotten, influence on culture today: Anyone who unconsciously quotes its title has been shaped by this book without knowing it.

a black and white portrait of a man at a desk writing
Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774), the Anglo-Irish writer who, some speculate, may have been the author of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. Alamy

The earliest versions of the novel, produced by John Newbery, one of the first publishers of children’s books, do not name an author, although some later scholars have attributed it to Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith. In the tale, the angelic Margery’s impoverished father is relentlessly persecuted for his debts by two grasping loan sharks named Sir Gripe and Farmer Graspall. (English novels in the 18th and 19th centuries often use characters’ names to express personality types—Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, a notorious skinflint, is one example.) When Margery’s father falls ill and dies, the two villains take what little money he has, leaving Margery and her brother orphaned, homeless and in rags.

A wealthy stranger adopts Margery’s brother but leaves her behind. Before the benefactor departs, though, he buys some new clothes for Goody—including a new pair of shoes. Scant though this consolation prize might seem for an abandoned child, Margery is overcome with excitement. She runs at once to show them off to the clergyman’s wife, exclaiming, “Two shoes, ma’am! Two shoes!” In the process, she earns her immortal nickname among the villagers.

an illustrated page from a children's book of a young girl wearing red shoes
The title character showing off her trademark footwear, as illustrated by W.J. Hodgson in an 1891 edition. © British Library Board / Bridgeman Images

Although today the term “goody” refers to an excessively moral person, until the 18th century, “Goodman” or “Goodwife” (abbreviated as “Goody”) were equivalents of the modern titles “Mister” and “Missis.” The nickname is a simple but poignant joke on the part of the villagers. Although Goody doesn’t marry and become a true “Goodwife” until the very end of the novel, she suddenly has the very adult responsibility of making her own living. For the rest of the novel, she does something unusual for a woman in the 18th century: She fends for herself.

Goody begins to make her way in the world by providing herself with an education. Left alone with neither brother nor guardian, the narrator says, she “wanted of all things to become wise, and thought that to be wise she needed to read. For this purpose, she used to meet the little boys and girls as they came from school, borrow their books, and sit down and read till they returned.” Once she teaches herself to read, the enterprising young girl carves out a stable living by devising an innovative system to instruct the village children in reading and writing. She carves multiple sets of alphabet blocks out of wood, which she teaches her young pupils to arrange to spell syllables, words and finally sentences. Some of Goody’s approaches will even be familiar to readers today. For instance, she teaches her students the skill of focused, meditative thinking with the help of a hat that they are supposed to wear while thinking hard about a question. What Goody dubs her “Considering Cap” is actually the first instance of a “thinking cap.”

sepia toned illustrations in a children's book
Three illustrated plates from a 1765 first edition of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, held by the British Library, show Goody’s early travails. From the top: Goody and her brother, Tommy, attend their mother’s deathbed; Tommy receives fresh clothes from a benefactor; Tommy and Goody part ways in Chapter II, after having “kissed each other 100 times.” © British Library Board

Goody’s innovative, hands-on teaching methods earn her the respect and admiration of the community. She even becomes a beloved teacher at the local school. “No sooner was she settled in this office,” the narrator tells us, “but she laid every possible scheme to promote the welfare and happiness of … the little ones,” including teaching the poorest students free of charge.

At the same time, what begins as a moralizing tale turns into a remarkably bold story about a self-educated, independent woman. Ultimately, Goody conquers every challenge life throws at her—and flouts nearly all of 18th-century society’s expectations of a woman.

Her virtuous example also ushered in a burgeoning genre: literature for children and adolescents. Moral tales had existed and been popular in Western literature for a long time, including Aesop’s Fables, which originated in Greece in the sixth century B.C. Stories with ethical lessons to impart, like Jean de La Fontaine’s The Crow and the Fox and Edmund Spenser’s Mother Hubberd’s Tale, were popular throughout the Renaissance among adult readers. It wasn’t until the late 17th and 18th centuries that didactic stories emerged as literature intended primarily for younger readers. Goody was at the frontier of this new genre and helped to define it.

Unlike its ancestors in the realm of fables, Goody set up children’s literature as a genre that promoted women’s independence. This was a timely innovation, and Goody’s enterprising method of self-education parallels some lively debates in the 18th century about whether women should receive an education equivalent to that of men—and whether they should use their education to become professionally and socially independent.

Susan Manly, a scholar of 18th-century English and Irish literature at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, suggests that Goody became popular—and enduringly influential—because it dispenses with magic and fairy tales, “placing its action in a recognizably real world of economic struggle.” The book, Manly says, encouraged writers including Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth to “set their stories for children in the real world.” Edgeworth, one of England’s first authors of novels for children and a major advocate for women’s education, certainly took a leaf from Goody’s book: One of her children’s stories, titled “The Orphans,” published in 1796, is about a group of children whose honesty helps them overcome poverty and the schemes of a greedy old woman named Goody Grope.

Portrait of Anna Laetitia Barbauld
A 1798 engraving of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, one of many prominent writers who took inspiration from Goody. National Portrait Gallery, London

And while Jan Fergus, professor emerita of English at Lehigh University, writes that Goody is “almost an icon of female power and possibility,” Goody wasn’t just for girls. In the second half of the 18th century, a census in England’s West Midlands found The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was immensely popular among 9- and 10-year-old schoolboys.

During a trip to Harvard University’s Houghton Library to examine rare early copies of the book, I was astonished at the number and variety. Even several full days was scarcely enough time to examine the many editions published in the 18th and 19th centuries. Goody Two-Shoes was revolutionary in its determination to treat young people’s experiences as seriously as those of their parents—and to do so in an adult form, the novel. In so doing, it launched a publishing phenomenon that is still with us. Many of the most successful children’s fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries, including The Chronicles of Narnia, Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, have in their way sought to fill Goody’s shoes.

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