By the end of the eighteenth century, books for children had arrived and were selling in large numbers. They look primitive to modern eyes, but children loved them and read them to bits, which is why the copies that are still around are rare and valuable. The writer Leigh Hunt was one of many who testified to their popularity. He described in adult life how he and his friends had delighted in ‘the little penny books, rich with bad pictures’ that came from Newbery’s in St Paul’s Churchyard. ‘We preferred the uncouth coats, the staring blotted eyes and round pieces of rope for hats of our very badly drawn contemporaries to all the proprieties of modern embellishment.’
A ‘Monstrous Regiment of Women’
John Newbery undoubtedly meant his little books to be edifying, but cheerfulness kept breaking in. The output of his successors and their contemporaries was increasingly dreary and didactic. Writing stories for children became an occupation for well-meaning ladies who have been described as a ‘monstrous regiment of women’. That was an uncalled-for sneer; the people concerned had some talent and not much chance to use it. They produced what was required, and no doubt were glad to earn an honest guinea. But there is no denying that their stories were tame. Often they had very little scope; a publisher might send them a bag of old used woodcuts with instructions to write a story round them.
There was more vitality at the bottom end of the market. Chapbooks, typically priced at a penny, featured old romances, cut-down versions of popular novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and contemporary material that might be sensational or scandalous. As in days of old, most of this was not actually aimed at children but reached them just the same. But it was not what conscientious middle-class parents wanted. They wanted their children’s reading to teach them something.
In the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth centuries, children were expected, above all else, to be obedient. The Fifth Commandment – honour thy father and thy mother – stood first in the line. Good children in fiction did as they were told and were suitably rewarded. Naughty children disobeyed, and were punished for their own good, to save them from coming to a bad end. Though the hellfire threatened by the Puritans of earlier years had receded somewhat, it still glowed ominously in the background.
But not everyone believed that children must be beaten into obedience. They could be reasoned with and convinced that good behaviour paid off. In Sarah Trimmer’s well known History of the Robins (1786), a little boy’s mama says to him:
Remember, my dear, that you depend as much on your papa and me for everything you want as these little birds do on you; nay, more so, for they could find food in other places, but children can do nothing towards their own support; they should therefore be dutiful and respectful to those whose tenderness and care they constantly experience.
Sensible children understood on which side their bread was buttered.
There was growing emphasis on rational and prudent behaviour. In Maria Edgeworth’s famous story of The Purple Jar, first published in 1796, a little girl wants the pretty jar in the chemist’s window in preference to shoes. Mother lets her have the jar, and before long her shoes are in such a state that she can ‘neither run, dance, jump nor walk in them’. That teaches her a lesson.
The missing ingredient from children’s books of the day was imagination, which had long stood at a discount. The old fairy tales were in deep disfavour, regarded as peasant crudities and, moreover, contrary to reason. ‘People stuff Children’s Heads with Stories of Ghosts, Fairies, Witches and such Nonsense when they are young, and so they continue Fools all their Days,’ complained the author of Goody Two-Shoes. The classic fairy stories of Charles Perrault had been translated from the French early in the eighteenth century, but even these were seen by many as unfit for children. ‘Cinderella,’ wrote a contributor to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education, ‘paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be wholly ignorant, such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc, etc.’
Time for Change
Once again it was time for change. Early in the nineteenth century, the Romantic movement was refreshing the cultural atmosphere. Imagination was rehabilitated. Poets turned away from rhymed couplets to new and varied verse forms; classical architecture lost ground to Gothic. The old tales, so long under a cloud, emerged at last into favour, and collections of fairy stories considered suitable for children were made. A landmark was the translation into English in the 1820s of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In America Washington Irving retold the old tales of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Arabian Nights came to England in a form found suitable for children in 1838-40. Felix Summerly’s Home Treasury, a famous series of attractively-produced books designed to ‘cultivate the affections, fancy, imagination and taste of children’, with strong emphasis on the fairy tales, appeared at intervals through the 1840s and was hugely influential. In 1841 John Ruskin wrote his splendid The King of the Golden River.
In this freer atmosphere, imagination began to infiltrate fiction specially intended for the young, and the way was open for a longer form, fantasy. In 1844 Francis Paget produced his exuberant The Hope of the Katzekopfs, an extended modern fairy-tale based on traditional ingredients. Paget complained in his preface of ‘the unbelief of this dull, plodding, unimaginative, money-getting, money-loving nineteenth century’. And in 1855 came the novelist W M Thackeray’s ‘fireside pantomime’, The Rose and the Ring, set in the imaginary countries of Paflagonia and Crim Tartary.
But the view that stories should be doing children good remained strong. Felix Summerly had introduced morality even into such stories as that of Jack and the Beanstalk, which might seem notably lacking in it; and Charles Dickens, riding to the defence of the old tales in 1853, found it necessary to credit fairy tales with an impressive variety of moral virtues: encouraging ‘forbearance, courtesy, consideration for the poor and aged, kindness to animals, the love of nature, abhorrence of tyranny and brute force’.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The works with which fantasy took flight were of course Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1865 and 1871 respectively. Many maintain that these are still the greatest books for children yet written. Whether this is so or not, they are certainly the best known. I hear frequently of children who do not take to them, and there is no point in applying pressure, but sooner or later everyone needs to read them. There are great pleasures (some of which may be more accessible to adults than to children) in the play with words and ideas, the ingenuity and inventiveness, and the brilliant verse parodies; and at the very lowest estimate it is useful to have read the books, if only to recognise the quotations that still come thick and fast in contemporary speech and writing.
So much has been written, from so many angles, about the personal idiosyncrasies of the Reverend Charles Dodgson, about his relationships with Alice Liddell and other child friends, about the possible interpretations and decodings of the Alice books, that it seems superfluous to add to the pile of commentary. It may be worthwhile however to point out their subversiveness. In an age when children were thought of as receptacles for moral instruction, Carroll contrived to make it extremely difficult to extract morals from his work. And there is a wonderful putting-down of the adult world. Grown-up humans have no part to play in the Alice books, but the creatures who make up the rich casts of characters are mostly caricatures of adults and adult attitudes. Alice herself is the one rational being. ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ she tells the King, the courtiers, and the crazy law court at the end of Wonderland; and surely she speaks as the wise child in a world of grown-up absurdity.
The Alice books had broken free of didacticism, but this did not mean that fantasy would never again have anything to do with it. The two best known of the other major Victorian fantasies were value-laden and much engaged with morality. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) is a great sprawling mass of story and exhortation, with some good things in it. The opening chapters, full of social urgency, which tell of the wretched working life of Tom the little chimney-sweep, and the following ones which tell how he swims down-river and becomes a water-baby, are excellent in their different ways; but the story loses shape and direction and becomes unreadable. Cut-down versions have been produced in recent times, but the truth is that The Water Babies is now not much more than a well known title.
George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, published in 1871, also arises out of social concern: a child in working-class London escapes to a dream world which represents a higher reality. More popular than North Wind, and still highly readable, is The Princess and the Goblin (1872), in which the castle in which Princess Irene lives is threatened by goblins who tunnel beneath it: it is a story rich in symbolism and allegory, and also in action. The Princess and Curdie, in 1883, was a rather dark sequel.
Children’s literature by now was branching out in many directions.
John Rowe Townsend has been writing, and writing about, books for children and young people for many years. Three of his books – Gumble’s Yard, The Intruder and Noah’s Castle – have been serialised on television. His history of English-language children’s literature, Written for Children, published by The Bodley Head at £9.99, is in its sixth and, he says, final edition.
In the next article in this series, John Rowe Townsend traces the various streams of children’s books through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.