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The Roots of Children’s Literature – Scottish Review of Books
by Rosemary Goring

The Roots of Children’s Literature

May 13, 2011 | by Rosemary Goring

It is fair to say that page for page, children’s literature today is of a higher calibre than adults’. Though few of the finest children’s books match the best of the adults’, and there are formulaic, sickly, slapdash and stupid novels for children, just as there are for grown-ups, these are more than outweighed by the ranks of thoughtful, well-written and imaginative novels and non-fiction titles aimed at readers of an impressionable age. When picture books for the very young are included in the tally, the bar is raised even higher, some of these being little short of works of art which no right-minded parent would put into a child’s hand unless it was disinfected or, preferably, gloved.

Modern children’s writers and illustrators appear to have taken onto their shoulders the responsibility attached to nurturing and protecting children, a burden no writer for adults need ever – or should ever – recognise. This moral freight is centuries-long, as The Child Reader, 1700-1840, M.O. Grenby’s colourful history, demonstrates, but there was a time when the idea of books written specifically for children was as alien a concept as that of allowing peasants to read the Bible in English for themselves. In short, the transformation of the world of books from an industry aimed at the mature mind into a ladder of books that allowed the youngest reader to be led rung by rung to the upper echelons of expression and thought was a reformation arguably as influential as that led by Calvin and his cohorts.

The span of Grenby’s book covers what’s known as the long eighteenth century, close on a century and a half that marches alongside the Union of 1707, through the Enlightenment and ends shortly after the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. By this time, writes Grenby, who is Reader in Children’s Literature at the University of Newcastle, ‘A literature specifically for children had become securely established, both culturally and commercially.’ The problem was, only a few were taking advantage of it. By the end of this era, despite dramatic social and cultural change, the majority of children from all classes were still being fed largely on a diet of adult works. Only a lucky few read books written for them alone.

This may sound as if Grenby’s history is a portrait of stagnation. Only when the details emerge of what children were told to read, and chose to read, does a much more nuanced and fascinating picture emerge.

At the heart of this elegantly written survey is an enlightening piece of original research. Taking four major archives, comprising nearly 6000 books, Grenby has used inscriptions and the marginalia left by generations of children, making notes for their friends, commenting on what they were reading, or simply using the blank pages and spaces of their books as any other sheet of paper. Thus in a copy of The Sugar Plum, a girl practised her social skills:

Mary Ann Welhams
Compelments to Miss
Whiting and Should be
very glad of her company
to Tea on Friday next if
it be agreable in the afternoon
Your Humb
Mary Welham
Excuse this Scrach
in hast

Showing how valuable books were, even if one scribbled on them, was a boy from Massachusetts: ‘Don’t steal this/book if you do I will/beat your brains/out.’

Such vandalism might make a bibliophile squirm, but one is thankful to those children who have reached out from their age to ours in a most direct, amusing and, in Grenby’s hands, informative manner.

Studying the comments on books, and even the marks – some of them by pinprick, a common method of highlighting words or passages in those days – Grenby creates a picture of how children were taught to read, and the sort of books they were brought up on. There are obvious flaws in this methodology, as he acknowledges, not least to do with the probability of more expensive books, and more wealthy readers passing down copies we can now pore over compared with cheaper texts that were dog-eared by larger or less affluent families. Even so, what he gleans is illuminating, showing, among other things, how assiduously (and slowly) books were read and re-read, and how only gradually did the intensive reading of a handful  of books evolve into a wider form of literary grazing, as more titles became available, and readers’ options widened.

At the start of this period, and throughout it, standard fare for the child reader included the Bible, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Aesop’s Fables, and a great variety of popular chapbooks and fairy stories. Then there was the Aladdin’s Cave of grown-up novels. As Grenby remarks, while some read indiscriminately between children’s books and novels, ‘for many once they had learned to read novels were their children’s books’.

The emergence of books written for children was gradual and glamorous although, in a phenomenon echoed in our own times, children’s literature was effectively girls’ literature: the new children’s literature – whether books of instruction or delight – was largely powered by female consumers.

By the later eighteenth century bookshops solely for children were opening, with windows low enough to allow them to peek inside. Particularly astute booksellers, such as John Newbery in London, sold novels in which the bookshop itself featured.

And while this upmarket business suggests books were only for those with money, Grenby shows that, in a century where literacy was widespread and growing, even the poor owned books and were deemed worthy of them, as seen by those workhouses that provided their inmates with books, at considerable cost.

Nor was reading for children seen as primarily the preserve of the middle and upper classes. In one rare but instructive case, a woman helped child prisoners in Yarmouth’s jail to read. Libraries increasingly offered a section for children.

Meanwhile, books were often stolen, indicating their financial as well as intellectual value. One young man, a Mr Fudger, was either an accomplished liar, or too unusual to be believed. Brought before the judge to account for various items he had allegedly stolen from the house where he worked as a porter, Fudger was quizzed on his acquisition of a book of fairy tales. He claimed that his master’s wife ‘asked me if I was fond of reading, and she lent me that book’. ‘I believe he cannot read well enough to read a book,’ his master countered, and Fudger was jailed for six months.

But the story of the way children read in this period would be only half-told if those who controlled their reading weren’t given their say. As Grenby astutely observes, the ways in which children viewed their books were very different from those of their elders, leading to what he calls ‘an attritional war’ between them. For children, books were a first sign of their growing independence. Sometimes a book was the only object a child could call his or her own. Samuel John-son may have been right when he advised a friend of his to remember that ‘the parents buy the books, and that the children never read them’. This doesn’t mean they were not treasured.

To adults, however, a book was a means to an end, a way of inculcating a child with proper ideas, of taming their unruliness. Maria Edgeworth, socialite, novelist, educational reformer and prig, urged adults to edit the material they put before their young. This included inking over or scissoring out offending passages. This, she admitted, might ‘shock the sensibility of a nice librarian. But shall the education of a family be sacrificed to the beauty of a page, or even to the binding of a book?’

Not even a woman as heedless of social-convention as Mary  Shelley was exempt from the prevailing moralistic attitude towards the way children were taught to read. In the opening chapter of Frankenstein, as Grenby writes, ‘Victor blames the whole horrific course of his later life on his father’s failure to guide his reading, in this case to explain to the thirteen-year-old the erroneousness of Cornelius Agrippa.’

In one of his most interesting asides, Grenby notes that not even those such as Mary Wollstonecraft, or her husband, the radical thinker, William Godwin, saw children’s literature as a way of encouraging social reform. Another of Grenby’s passing comments left this reader wishing he had expanded greatly upon it. Reflecting on the growing body of material written for children, he writes: ‘Children’s literature may have been one of the most important agents of consensus-building, spreading and solidifying the moral and ideological positions that would characterise nineteenth-century culture and enabling the gradual coherence of national identity.’

That is a big assertion, particularly given his own observation that despite the growth of a children’s literature distinct from adults’, for decades children continued to read either only adult or only a few child-centred works. I’d like to have read a chapter on what shape this coherence took, and what material it drew upon.

Surprisingly, the driving force behind the slow revolution in children’s literature was not intellectual. Grenby concludes that it was not changing literary tastes, or widening educational horizons that brought about a children’s canon. Instead, it was a by-product of social change, notably of ways in which affection were shown. As wealth increased, so did a culture of gift-giving. Then, as now, a children’s book was the perfect present, be it a token from a fond aunt or a prize from a teacher.

Things are immeasurably different today, of course, but what is striking about The Child Reader are the similarities. Then, as now, it is hard to know how children viewed their books, because nobody asked. Then, as now, literature was deemed suitable according to adult judgements, not children’s. And then, as now, there was a strong whiff of worthiness about the whole business.

Fortunately for yesterday’s children as for today’s, books remain subversive for the simple fact that, whether it is by Charles Lamb or Philip Pullman, a story opens the mind and fires the imagination. No matter how long they struggled for popular recognition, those who first wrote, sold or read children’s literature were truly modern-minded.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of The Herald

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, £55 320PP ISBN: 978-0-521-19644-4

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