by Hesba Stretton
Jessica's first prayer, possibly Hesba Stretton's most popular book, was first serialised in the magazine Sunday at home in 1867. The book went into numerous editions, and the story was reproduced in penny pamphlets, lantern slides, and even a film (in 1906). It led to a whole school of writing about poor homeless orphans or waifs, rescued from poverty and vice by a benevolent (middle-class and evangelical) Samaritan. In this book and in others on the same subject (Little Meg's children, Alone in London), she writes movingly about the plight of the "street arab", a subject on which she felt very strongly.
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the owner (of the coffee stall) became suddenly aware of a pair of very bright dark eyes being fastened upon him and the slices of bread and butter on his board, with a gaze as hungry as that of a mouse which has been driven by famine into a trap. A thin and meagre face belonged to the eyes, which was half hidden by a mass of matted hair hanging over the forehead, and down the neck; the only covering which the head or neck had, for a tattered frock, scarcely fastened together with broken strings, was slipping down over the shivering shoulders of the little girl. Stooping down to a basket behind his stall, he caught sight of two bare little feet curling up from the damp pavement, as the child lifted up first one and then the other, and laid them one over another to gain a momentary feeling of warmth. Whoever the wretched child was, she did not speak; only at every steaming cupful which he poured out of his can, her dark eyes gleamed hungrily, and he could hear her smack her thin lips, as if in fancy she was tasting the warm and fragrant coffee.
This is our introduction to Jessica, the heroine of the book, and immediately she engages our sympathy. She is no two-dimensional "pauper", but an attractive, living child. Her "first prayer" is unprecocious, a simple and childish one, and, rather unexpectedly, there is no beautiful and beatified death-bed scene. It is easy to see why it was and continued to be such a popular book for young people.
Page created 25 November 2002 and last
updated 17 December 2002
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