Brian Alderson on the earliest attempt to adapt John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress for young readers.
…so I awoke, and behold it was a Dream’,
and that’s a customary cop-out, Master Bunyan. It is unlikely that you ever came across such a thing as the fourteenth century French spiritual romance by Guillaume de Guileville Le Pèlerinage de l’Homme, which has some parallels to your great book, and also sets out its enormous text in guise of a dream. That derived from the earlier Romance of the Rose and bespeaks ‘dream’ as the heart of literary fantasy so that long after Christian wended his way to the Celestial City it is in a dream that Alice Liddell finds herself in Wonderland or Kay Harker battling the wicked Abner Brown in The Box of Delights.
No claim could be made
for Bunyan to have conceived his adventure as a theological tract for children but many testimonies to its appeal to them can rest upon the state of storytelling at the time of its publication. In 1678 the concept of books directed at and published for a child readership was just emerging and that thanks largely to the Calvinist desire to save their souls from Hell. Such things were tough going however (A Token for Children, a bestseller, which lasted into Victorian times, dealt with ‘the holy lives and joyful deaths’ of small children) and it is not difficult to believe that an adventure fantasy, however begirt with homiletics, might make an attractive alternative, especially at a time when the craft of the novel was yet to be fashioned.
A glimpse of evidence
for child use may be had from the publication in 1825 of Isaac Taylor’s Bunyan Explained to a Child. The Rev’d Taylor was himself a dissenting minister and he acknowledges that Bunyan’s book ‘takes great hold of children long before they can enter into its spiritual meaning’ and in fifty-one short sections he takes them through the episodes of the story, glossing what he takes to be Bunyan’s spiritual reading of the events and adding in each instance a little hymn of his own composition to reinforce the message. (Contrarily, these are no easier for the reader to follow than Bunyan’s prose and they lack its rugged force.)
although the procedure can’t help but coarsen both the argument and the rhetoric of the original, it does systematically recapitulate each incident and allows the child more easily to see the disparate incidents of the plot. For the reverend author was an artist and engraver as well as minister (father too of the famous Ann and Jane Taylor whose Original Poems for Infant Minds was popular for a hundred years ) and each of his fifty-one numbered sections is illustrated with a vignette picturing the action, with a pictorial route-map at the start. (An elaborate fold-out road-map had figured as frontispiece to an edition of 1775.) Thus Taylor graphically sums up the narrative appeal of the story’s function as an adventure along with the fantasy of the topography and the dangers that Pilgrim encounters: the Slough of Despond, say, or the Valley of the Shadow Death, or, Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle. It cannot be expected that much of the allegory of the names and situations are explained (Messrs.Pickthank and By-Ends, the Lions at the House Beautiful) nor yet the influence drawn from Bunyan’s reading of, on the one hand, the chapbooks on whose possession in his youth he castigated himself (Giant Despair), nor yet the Bible (Apollyon).
Taylor’s generous procession of images
may also offer a ground for speculating on the long-term ‘gratification’ which he saw the Progress as offering children. While the conversational language could easily have made it a book that could be read aloud serially in families, printed copies with illustrations might also serve as a guide to those dramatic passages where events supercede doctrine or saintly reflection. Several illustrated editions were published in the eighteenth century, with the elementary metalcuts by John Sturt predominating in many cheap, often provincial, editions. None were intended for child readers (unless you count chapbooks) and the first so intended was perhaps the oddest, as well as the rarest, ever published. It came from the Holborn Hill shop of William Darton in 1823 and consists of twelve leaves, measuring 85 x 105mm.and printed on one side of the paper only. The whole story is told in 547 words which are engraved round six finely hand-coloured engravings, for it was also issued as a print. Encompassing Part I of the Progress, it would have been a costly purchase at a shilling a time in its pink paper wrappers and you could buy Part II and the spurious Part III in a companion volume for the same price.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s retelling of Bunyan’s classic was published by Hodder Children’s Books in 1999, with illustrations by Jason Cockroft. It won the Blue Peter Book Award.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books
Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.