While the European dictators of the 1930s systematically supplied their young readers with approved fascist texts, Britain continued to leave its children’s literature to the vagaries of market forces. So what kind of reading matter was available to the young? Nicholas Tucker discusses Owen Dudley Edwards’ recently published history, British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War.
Even after war was declared, and with much book stock destroyed and fierce restrictions on paper supply, British publishers’ main concern was still that any new books should above all else be reasonably profitable. With more parents absent or greatly preoccupied and with schools sometimes closed or relocated, literature of all sorts was now more welcome than ever if it only managed to keep children quiet and contented, particularly those living away from home and in need of all the domestic comfort they could get.
Numbers of best-selling wartime authors therefore, sensing the national mood of grim acceptance, eschewed the jingoism common in World War One children’s literature in favour of concentrating on a compensatory imaginary world where the child was often king of all he or she surveyed. Just as bomb damage created unfamiliar areas for play, this child-centred literature offered new space for juvenile fantasy free of finger-wagging authority figures. Those adult characters who did try to lay down the law were invariably mocked or resisted, unless they appeared only in the final chapter to add a twinkle-eyed note of admonition well after all the adventures were over. Parents did not always relish such books, with Enid Blyton often picked out for particular criticism. But for most adults, children’s literature came very far down their list of pressing concerns. And given the mess their elders had got them into in the real world, who anyhow would want to deny wartime children their right to this mild form of literary subversion?
Mocking your enemy
This then is the scene described by Owen Dudley Edwards in his 744 page but still monstrously over-priced book British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War. Omnivorously well read, intelligently speculative, occasionally cavalier with detail while always succeeding with the bigger picture, he is an unashamed enthusiast for most of the authors he has quarried so extensively. Starting with comics, he describes how D C Thomson’s Dundee empire, despite its deep Tory background, created in the Hotspur and its other text comics a series of resourceful working class heroes no longer in awe of traditional authority figures – a move Edwards describes as revolutionary. More traditional fare was on offer in its strip cartoon comics, with Addie and Hermy, the Nasty Nazis in the Dandy comic joining Musso da Wop – He’s a Big-a-da-Flop in the pages of its sister publication, the Beano. National prejudices and mocking foreign accents were thus made newly respectable for the young by the exigencies of warfare. It would take years after 1945 before this particular brand of selective xenophobia was finally put to rest in writing for the young.
Mocking your enemy has always been the British way, and to start with the Nazis were often treated as buffoons rather than as mass murderers. The same principle obtained in many British wartime films, with comedians from Flanagan and Allen to Old Mother Riley regularly shown getting the better of the German High Command. Effective at the time, this trivialising tendency made the public disillusionment that much greater when the truth about the concentration camps finally broke with the filming of British troops entering Belsen in April 1945. Seen by millions as part of the regular news bulletins appearing between films in a double programme, and without any prior advice about suitability for a child audience, little about the Nazis could seem funny after this.
Some children’s authors ignored the war altogether. There is nothing about it in the works of Arthur Ransome or the adventures of Rupert Bear, while the series author M E Atkinson continued to describe her Lockett family cycling its way through the British countryside oblivious to any wartime restrictions or dangers. Other writers, such as W E Johns, creator of the heroic pilot Biggles, started off by re-heating his former World War One stories for a 1940 setting. Only gradually did he and others come to see the Nazis as an enemy entirely different from their 1914-18 German opponents, from whom occasional fictional acts of wartime clemency could still sometimes be expected.
Descriptions of the particular suffering of the Jews was never a feature of children’s literature at the time. Some of this silence reflects ignorance and disbelief about what was happening, but there may too have been a touch of the anti-Semitism once common in British society. Both Richmal Crompton – creator of the Williamstories – and Frank Richards, of Billy Bunter fame, included passages mocking Jews that make ugly reading now. After the war, further sympathy for Jews was tempered by anger about Zionist terrorism in Palestine. It took the publication of Anne Frank’s diary in 1947 to start really bringing home to children the full horrors of Nazi racism.
In every other way, Richmal Crompton comes over as the principal hero of this study. A former classics teacher turned novelist, at the age of 33 she became crippled by polio. Gallantly volunteering in her fifties for the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1940, she fell foul of her officious superior (and local butcher), who expected everyone – including Crompton with her bad leg – to jump to their feet and salute when he entered the room. Bullies and know-alls always got short shrift in her Williamstories. After this experience, her attacks on pomposity posing as authority grew more savagely hilarious, roping in among others Air Raid Wardens, policemen and – unsurprisingly – jumped up Fire Fighters. Edwards believes that this making fun of overweening authority offered audiences a vital safety valve at a time when patience and tolerance were in particularly high demand. We had to wait until Dad’s Army for anything like the same sprit of wartime satire to show its face again.
Edwards’ other hero is Enid Blyton. Although she wrote little about the war, her super-competent and emotionally self-sufficient child characters formed a powerful fantasy prop to young readers’ belief that they too could always cope at a time when real life might sometimes seem harsh and lonely. For in Blyton’s imaginary world, children regularly get the better of adults, catching crooks and solving mysteries totally beyond the competence of the blundering authorities in charge. Parents in this scenario were either absent or part of the opposition. Finding little in Blyton to interest them as readers, real life adults largely left the field open for her to write exactly what she and her young audiences most wanted.
With an Austrian asylum-seeker turned maid during the war years, Blyton never encouraged xenophobia, once creating a sympathetic child character lumbered with the name of Adolph. Those who mocked him in his story soon learned their error, as did characters in another of her stories who questioned the broken English of her genial Italian circus-chief Mr Galliano. As for the frequent accusations of snobbery, Edwards insists that Blyton frequently included sympathetic working class characters. It was those in petty authority who set out to bully them that she had it in for. Once again, an anti-authority message was being conveyed at a time when genuine everyday authority could seem at its most demanding.
The concept of evil
Hitler as a character crops up comparatively little in children’s wartime fiction. But he makes an appearance in Mumfie Marches On, a sprightly novel with a toy elephant as hero. In the final scene Hitler is caught in a giant rat trap baited with a mouth-watering cream puff, playing on what was said to be his enormous greed for rich cakes. The author, Kathleen Tozer, died in 1943 in childbirth, the year after this novel was published. There was some suggestion that the government had encouraged her to write a story along these lines, just as the Air Ministry three years earlier asked W E Johns to create a flying heroine in order to boost female recruitment. The result was Worrals of the WAAF, one of his most popular characters.
Hitler and his fellow Nazis affected children’s literature more indirectly by reviving the whole concept of evil for its own sake. More subtle ways of trying to understand the various causes of human wickedness no longer had a chance, and it would be some time before children’s literature started exploring such questions again. Racism also made a comeback, not so much in the depiction of Germans, physically so like Britons, but in descriptions of crazed monkey-faced Japanese soldiers once they too had entered the war. Those who were then commonly described as half-castes also came in for fictional flack, especially from W E Johns. Knowing the ways and weaknesses of the West through a shared birthright on one side was seen as having the potential to take a mean advantage. So while there was little trumpeting of the Empire once the war had started, there was always room for condemning sly colonial rabble-rousers owing loyalty to no side but their own.
Many adult readers also occasionally turned to children’s literature at this time, with Battle of Britain pilots regularly choosing Biggles books as their favourites. William stories with their refreshingly disrespectful anti-authority plot lines also went down well with audiences of all ages, both in print and on the BBC’s daily radio programme Children’s Hour. In 1941 this also broadcasted a serial dramatised version of Erich Kästner’s popular story, Emil and the Detectives. Written in Germany in 1929 but subsequently banned, its presence in British bookshops and on the radio at such a delicate time gave the lie to those currently insisting in public that the only good German was a dead one. Fed with stories of atrocities in World War One, children this time were given a more measured message in the wider span of their literature, possibly reflecting the influence of the greater number of women now writing for them. In return the general juvenile reaction to those best loved books and comics that resulted was at a level of enthusiasm the height of which we may never see again.
British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War by Owen Dudley Edwards (978 0 7486 1651 0) is published by Edinburgh University Press at £150.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.