Part II. Forms and genres
27. Childhood, didacticism and the gendering of British children’s literature
In line with the ascendancy of the novel over the last century and a half, the most prestigious writing for children has become realistic children’s fiction, seemingly owing less to the religious and moral admonitions of pioneer women writers than to their, and their successors’, tales. Contemporary children’s fiction, by men or women writers, has inherited more from the nineteenth-century domestic and family classics by women than it has from the ‘bloods’ and adventure stories by men like Stevenson, Marryat or Ballantyne. It is a feminised genre characterised by personal plots (many a contemporary classic for young people is a Bildungsroman), and implicitly it endorses a personal - not public - morality (Eagleton 1985) just as strongly as the tracts did so explicitly.
Radical or Evangelical, women writers of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England wrote both for children and adults in order to improve the lot of women and the working classes. Their aims were practical and, even when they used fiction, it was only in the form of exemplary or cautionary tales. That they wrote for an unprestigious readership has added to their marginalisation, but their effect has been immense, and provided a quite distinct and deliberate cultural origin for a feature of subsequent children’s fiction and attitudes to childhood which we now take for granted. In propounding Christian or practical virtues and making the family and home the site of virtue, they feminised the child and the genre and, in adopting an educative purpose for their writing, they developed an intimate and eventually realistic style.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld was one such woman. Susan Eilenberg described her as being ‘Once regarded as among the most distinguished poets of England, admired by Johnson, envied by Goldsmith, praised by Wordsworth and read by everyone’, but ‘[in] this last century or two thoroughly sunk into oblivion’ (1994: 18). Barbauld is one of that ‘band of women’ derided by Charles Lamb who in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were writing simultaneously for both child and adult readers. In their day they enjoyed prestige, fame and admiration, but they have been relegated to the margins of literature in much the same way as children’s literature itself. Nevertheless, they began a covert process of constructing a feminised concept of the child and giving a didactic, reforming and socialising purpose to children’s literature which has pervaded its development through ever more sophisticated modes of address.
Barbauld was an intelligent, well-educated Nonconformist who wrote poetry and books for children, and translated her own and other writers’ works into French, for example the correspondence of Samuel Richardson (1804). Her social status is significant because she represents a class of women who perceived themselves to be the moral and educative authority of the nation. Her religious convictions, concern for the nation’s morality and concern at what she and others regarded as its spiritual depravity, drove her to join a growing number of women who, from different political motives and in different forms and registers, addressed a child audience. They had deduced that the future spiritual and political character of the nation depended on the present spiritual and political education of its children.
Barbauld’s most notable works for children were Lessons for Children (1780), Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), and (with her brother John Aiken) Evenings at Home (1792-6). The first of these, divided up for children from two years to six, was explicitly intended to teach reading itself, as well as natural history and proper conduct, so the vocabulary and style were limited and terse:
Do not spill the milk.
Hold the spoon in the other hand.
Do not throw your bread upon the ground.
Bread is to eat, you must not throw it away.
Corn makes bread.
Corn grows in fields.
Cows eat grass.
(Barbauld 1780/1820: 15-19)
Influenced, like Wordsworth, by Hartley’s then-fashionable associationist philosophy of mind, Barbauld wrote Hymns in Prose for Children ‘to impress devotional feelings as early as possible on the infant mind ... to impress them by connecting religion with a variety of sensible object’ (Barbauld 1781/1866: iv-v). She uses many nature images to teach the child reader about her God (who is male), and the child’s learning about God and its learning about nature are conflated. It learns about an invisible but ubiquitous and ever- active God, and also about itself as a fallen subject with a debt of obedience to be repaid to a benevolent, bounteous, personal being.
It is symptomatic of women’s cultural underestimation that once-prominent writers like Barbauld have been omitted from the record by all but a handful of revivalist academics. And even that handful largely ignores how these women wrote so influentially for children. For example, Jane Spencer traces the development of the novel from a low- status woman’s genre, associated with immorality and on a par with newspapers, magazines, tracts and pamphlets (Spencer 1986: 86), to a ‘feminised’, sentimentalised and moralising, but successful and respected, form produced mainly by women and ideologically entangled with changing conceptions of women and femininity.
In their endeavour to reclaim the centre-ground for women’s writing, feminist critics like Jane Spencer have emphasised this prolific output but they have ignored the part played in it by writing for children. Julia Briggs suggests that twentieth-century feminist criticism may have downplayed the role of women in the history of children’s literature because to be seen as writers for children may have made women writers doubly marginalised:
They were responsible for some of the earliest fairy stories and fables, nursery rhymes and moral tales; yet their large contribution in this particular field has so far attracted little attention from feminist critics. One obvious explanation for this is that until recently, children’s books were regarded as marginal, less than serious as literature, and while feminist criticism was concerned to shift women and their writing away from the periphery, this scarcely looked a promising topic for exploration, indeed women writing for children seemed doubly marginalized. As long as children’s books were not taken seriously, the writing of them could not be felt to advance the status of women as writers in any way.
(Briggs 1989: 222)
Changes in the concepts of women (and their writing) and of femininity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were all making woman’s role more private and domestic, and making women economic dependants of their husbands. They tied the idea of womanhood to a socially constructed idea of femaleness which was virtuous, modest and moral, and impacted upon the idea of the child and of writing for the child, because the idea of femaleness also subsumed an educative role: the reconstruction of femaleness reconstructed the idea of childness and the role of literature in constructing it.
The significance for writing for children of this new ideology of femininity was that it accepted and exploited the position of housebound women, who acted not just as carers for children, but as their educators and guardians and producers of their moral values - playing a role pioneered by the Barbauld ‘crew’ (Block 1978: 237-52). Julia Briggs relates how this new proximity of middle-class women to their children, and the opportunities offered by a burgeoning of publishing (and in some case, economic necessity) allowed women to use writing - for children as well as adults - to address their role in society and gain acceptance and respect in what had become a respectable genre (Briggs 1989: 223). One strand of this new writing by women consisted of ‘conduct-books’ or ‘courtesy-books’, directed at both women and young girls, from which can be traced a whole tradition of writing for children.
Lissa Paul has observed that children’s literature and women in history have shared the same forms of physical, economic and linguistic entrapment (Paul 1990: 150). Historically, both stories by women and stories for children have been characterised by being private, not public stories. Since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women’s stories have been, for the most part, concerned with domestic plots and with everyday happenings to everyday people. A close association between the writers’ personal identities and the lives represented in their fictions was necessarily implied to authenticate work in a mimetic model of fiction. So women’s stories are not like the heroic quests and ‘bloods’ of fiction written by men for boys. On the whole, while men wrote for boys about boys in public spaces, women wrote for girls about girls in private places. But however ‘entrapped’ they were, a significant number of eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century women wrote successfully and prolifically, creating a new phenomenon of writing for children, with prototypes like the novels of Mrs Sherwood, and later classics like those of Louisa Alcott, Edith Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Mary Wollstonecraft (a proto-feminist), Hannah Moore (a religious tract writer) and Maria Edgeworth (a romantic historical novelist) all wrote both for children and adults in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They used, as well as what became conventional novel forms, the epistolatory novel, the moral tale, hymns and sermons, verse, fables, and books of direct instruction. In different ways they were all caught up in a struggle to establish a role and public identity for women at a time when a redefinition of womanhood sought to tie women to the home and domestic life, and to make women less sexually responsive and aware, and therefore more submissive and socially subordinate.
The increasing separation of the home from the workplace in the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century laid the foundations for a bourgeois ideology of femininity, according to which women were very separate, special creatures ... Sexual differences received emphatic attention; and with their endless discussions of ‘femalities’ and ‘feminalities’ eighteenth century writers were helping to construct a new definition of womanhood.
(Spencer 1986: 15)
An increasingly vociferous, religious minority crusaded for female morality, linking morality to religion, and urging less affective (and therefore, ironically, more rational!) behaviour on the part of women - but all for the purpose of making them into better wives and mothers. During this time, too, the religious lobby was attacking the ‘lies’ of fictional writing and its use of the ‘imagination’, in favour of more ‘factual’ forms based on real life and closely related to Bible stories.
Conflicting groups of women used these cultural phenomena for their own, different ends, though all in their way contributed to the rise of the domestic feminised story of domestic feminised children. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, one of the period’s liberal, radical, rational, educationalist women writers, shared the religious lobby’s opposition to the imagination. But in her case it was because, like Godwin, she thought progress away from the imagination was progress towards reason and science. Her opposition to encouraging imagination in women was a way to free them from the constraints of what she conceived as the weaknesses associated with female characteristics and behaviours. She argued that the accepted stereotypes of the proper role of women in society give a reason for educating women more, not less - and more rationally. Far from accepting the reduction of the status of motherhood to domestic oblivion, she is elevating it to a position of power and responsibility.
Like so many of her women-writer contemporaries, not least Maria Edgeworth, she was using her writing for children to subvert and interrogate the role of women in society. She remodelled Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or Little Female Academy of 1749 into a children’s work bearing a title conjured to connote her ideological stance of Original Stories from Real Life with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections of Mind to Truth and Goodness (1788). Like Fielding’s original, Wollstonecraft’s version was intended to regulate the behaviour of young girls, but Wollstonecraft has no allusions to fantasy and fairy tale such as we find in the giants ‘Barbaric’ and ‘Benfico’ and in ‘The Princess Phebe’ of Sarah Fielding’s work. The ‘real life’ of Wollstonecraft’s title affirms the factual nature of the work. Fielding’s benevolent and liberal-minded Governess, ‘Mrs Teachum’, has been replaced in Wollstonecraft’s reworking by a more literalist and rationalist woman. The educating, moralising voice of authority is no longer that of a child character, as in Fielding, but that of Wollstonecraft’s singularly adult ‘Mrs Mason’.
The Governess was reworked again, in the early nineteenth century, by Mrs Sherwood with yet another apology for Fielding’s use of the imagination:
Several Fairy-tales were incidentally introduced into the original work; and as it is not unlikely that such compositions formed by that period are of the chief amusement of the infant mind, a single tale of this description is admitted into the present edition. But since fanciful productions of this sort can never be rendered generally useful, it has been thought proper to suppress the rest, substituting in their place such appropriate relations as seemed more likely to conduce to juvenile edification.
(Sherwood 1820: Introduction)
Barbauld, Edgeworth, Trimmer and Wollstonecraft came from different quasi-political positions, but they had enough in common to be published by the same liberal dissenting publisher who also published Godwin, Tom Paine, Erasmus Darwin, and Coleridge, Hazlitt and Wordsworth (Barrell 2003: 10). Hannah More, by contrast, represents the conservative Evangelical wing of late eighteenth-century women writers. In her Introduction to Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (With a view on the principles and conduct prevalent among women of rank and fortune) (1799), she demonstrates how successfully the century’s bourgeois ideology of womanhood had influenced the minds and behaviour of educated women but also seemingly licensed them to instruct the less educated. She proposed, for example, that
The chief end to be proposed in cultivating the understanding of women is to qualify them for the practical purposes of life. Their knowledge is not often like the learning of men, to be reproduced in some literary composition. A lady studies not that she may qualify herself to become an orator or a pleader, nor that she may learn to debate, but to act ... She should cultivate every study which, instead of stimulating her sensibility will chastise it. Will bring the imagination under dominion. That kind of knowledge that is fitted for home consumption, is particularly adapted to women.
(More 1799/1830: 1-3)
By the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, writing for children was dominated by women who can be divided between the rational educationalists like Wollstonecraft and Evangelicals like More. Religious and secular alike, they aimed at the education of children and the regulation of their behaviour. The titles of books written in the last two decades of the eighteenth century are enough to indicate the shift that had taken place since Sarah Fielding wrote The Governess - with its giants and fairies - to instruct and entertain children: Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (1780) and Evenings at Home (instructional dialogues) (1792-6); Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories (1788) and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787); Trimmer’s An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and the Reading of the Holy Scriptures: Adapted to the Capacities of Children (1780); Edgeworth’s The Parents’ Assistant (1796).
The intended readers of the children’s books of Barbauld and Trimmer (and of others such as the Kilner sisters and Eleanor Fenn) were children of the middle classes. But at the same time, the Evangelicals like More, especially with their tract literature, aimed at social reform of the working class through education. The success of their campaign depended on bringing literacy to the urban masses, and inculcating a doctrine of subordination which preached that these urban masses were to submit to their God (in all cases), to their husbands (in the case of wives), and to their parents (in the case of children). Middle class or working class, the children addressed by these didactic books were implied as socially existing children, defined by their class and gender and conceived negatively - in need of reform and/or conversion. The texts assume that conversion will be simply and unproblematically achieved by direct address and the assumption of a one-to-one writer-to-reader relationship and the ‘Dear Reader’ device. Already, fiction for children was being conceived as a teacher-to-pupil phenomenon, with a disempowering, repressive transmission mode of address. The distinct educative purpose of early children’s literature produced a distinct implied narrator.
Twentieth-century readings of Edgeworth’s moral tales by Myers (1986), Vallone (1991) and others, have, by historicising these texts, revealed them as more than simple, straightforward moral tales for indoctrination. Myers points out how Edgeworth’s tales featured rational linear plots concerned with the experiential reform and progress of their heroes or heroines:
Edgeworth’s oeuvre considers issues of adult authority and child empowerment and explores what it’s like for juveniles who seek both separation and relation, young people who must develop their own sense of self, yet maintain the affiliative network that defines social being.
(Myers 1986: 134)
Also, on issues of didacticism and of the authors’ own denouncements of fancy and fairy tale, Myers looks beyond the surface trappings of ‘innocent-looking stories about talking animals, heroic girls, authoritative mothers and worthy peasants’ to discover what she describes as ‘a fiction of ideas’. However tirelessly didactic and ostensibly down-to- earth, women writers’ moral and domestic tales smuggle in their symptomatic fantasies, dramatising female authority figures, and covertly thematising female power.
It is difficult to imagine how this revisionist reinterpretation by Myers could be extended to the seemingly reactionary moral Cheap Repository Tracts of Hannah More, with their flat, allegorical figures (‘Wild Robert’; ‘Patient Joe’; ‘Jemima Placid’ and so on). These works were not, on the whole, intended for children, but for the families of the urban poor. However, their simple language and stories made them obvious vehicles for promoting literacy among poor working children - the literacy essential for the project of reform-through-education. Like Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (1780), they taught reading and good behaviour together. Late eighteenth-century books for the poor and books for children were categorised together in what Charlotte Yonge later described as ‘“class literature”: books ... for children or the poor’ (quoted in McGavrin 1991: 34). However, it is clear from their titles and the readerly address of some of these tracts that they were also read by middle-class readers.
The Cheap Repository Tracts were sold in their thousands every week, for one penny; in one year over two million were bought and distributed to the poor by the well-to-do (Hopkins 1947: 212). Hannah More herself published one hundred Cheap Repository Tracts between 1795 and 1797 (Smith 1984: 91). Often written in rhymed couplets, the tracts simulated the format and register of popular chapbooks, and thus exploited the already available readership of the newly literate working classes. The new morality came with women’s redefined role. That, together with the influence of Protestantism and the Sunday School movement, moved the emphasis away from women’s sexuality to their morality (Cutt 1974: 226). Women’s opportunity to write and their perception of themselves as carers for their children and moralisers of the nation all made tract literature and writing for children an attractive vehicle for proselytising.
There was nothing neutral or innocent about any of this writing. It was, even if piecemeal and unorganised, an attempt by a select number of interest groups of Christian women, mostly conservative, to exercise social control over the working poor and children through literacy and religious instruction. They cleverly conflated issues of national politics and domestic circumstances to carry a biblical message, while at the same time making an appeal to national acquiescence, submission and moral reform. Given the political background from which these tracts were written, it is not clear, despite their authors’ declared intention, whether the primary mission was conversion for spiritual redemption or conversion for purposes of social control. By this time, for these writers, the two were not only linked but indistinguishable.
From all of this early writing, the child as both reader and as text emerges as a paradoxical figure: innocent but Fallen; but also as victim with a redemptive role and exemplary power to convert corrupted adult society. This image of the child as both subject in the discourse and as the idealised projection of the child reader of the discourse, is one that shaped tract literature. To perform as the ideal reader of these tracts, the child (and adult) reader needed to be minimally literate, submissive and unquestioning. It is an image of the child that was paradoxically both disturbed and consummated in the works of Hesba Stretton (1832-1911).
Mary Martha Sherwood (1775-1851) took all the best and the worst of the moral tales and evangelical tracts and assembled them into a new form of realistic narrative fiction that anticipated the domestic novel, in works such as Little Henry and His Bearer (1814) and, most famously, The History of the Fairchild Family (1818). As in the earlier works of Barbauld and Trimmer, these narratives were directed at a middle-class and an ostensibly child readership. But in fact they were carrying forward the eighteenth-century tradition of tract literature, in using the device of ‘double address’ (Wall 1991: passim) - speaking to parents while overtly addressing the child. In this sense, these early ‘children’s’ fictions were not ‘children’s fictions’ as we have come to regard them in recent Western culture. These were not books for solitary silent child readers. They were family literatures, to be read convivially, in a family context, in the company of, and collusion with, parents.
The History of the Fairchild Family (Sherwood 1818) has become notorious in children’s fiction for its gruesome scenes which make moral points to the child characters; but what has become so shocking about these events for readers in subsequent centuries is the fact that, in this domestic novel, Sherwood was pioneering a style in which events are dramatised in a realistic setting. The nearly believable characters speak in a recognisable middle-class idiom and behave believably as if driven by recognisable feelings. To convey the Evangelical message in this particular style and form was new. Sherwood did maintain something of the character of the earlier tracts (each episode concludes with a prayer and a hymn), but she advanced the genre by converting biblical texts like the story of Cain and Abel into events of contemporary family life rather than into metaphors of nature as Barbauld, Trimmer and Sherwood herself in earlier works had done.
The 1913 re-issue of The Fairchild Family, edited by Lady Strachey is instructive of the changing concepts of the child and the changing role of child literature:
Unfortunately the book has other characteristics which have caused it to drop out of the library of the child of the present day. Mrs Sherwood’s theory of life was that of Calvinism in its most extreme form and the work is overshadowed with those gloomy inexorable doctrines of the innate depravity of human nature and the terrible doom from which escape is so rare, and one of morbid insistence on death in its most terrible forms as a precursor to hell. In the present edition all those passages are omitted, although the religious teaching on which the work is based has been retained in its milder and more tolerant form. Other omissions are those of the prayer and hymn with which every chapter ended and of one or two lengthy episodes. It is hoped that the alterations will succeed in opening out to the present generation of children a source of as much enjoyment as was found by their forefathers in The Fairchild Family.
(Strachey 1913: Introduction)
This suggests that literature for children at the beginning of the twentieth century was again being rewritten by middle-class women whose presented purposes in writing for children were to entertain. The extratextual child reader has been relocated in the realm of innocence: its sensibilities need to be protected. In Lady Strachey’s revised edition of The Fairchild Family all the pastoral elements of the earlier work have been brought into sharp relief by the omission of those extended details that Strachey described as being overshadowing and gloomy, and the evangelical messages are played down - although it is important to note that the spirit of 1913 saw fit to revive this work at all.
Hesba Stretton (Sarah Smith), who disturbed and consummated the image of the passive child, wrote prolifically for children and adults and had a wide national and international readership. The time-span of her work is represented by Fern’s Hollow (1864) to Thoughts of an Old Age (1904). She is responsible for several well-known literary children, notably Jessica of Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), Meg of Little Meg’s Children (1868), and Tony and Dolly of Alone in London (1869). Her motives for writing were mixed. She wanted to bring the attention of the upper classes to the plight of children of the urban poor in the slums of Manchester, Liverpool and London. But her books were published by the Religious Tract Society, and she also wrote for children and newly literate adults to bring about Christian conversion. However, compared to Hannah More, with whom she shares her squalid settings, she works hard, if indirectly, to better the lot of the poor by appealing to potential benefactors. The slum-dwelling Jessicas, Megs, Tonys and Dollys, who always seem untouched by the squalor of their surroundings and parental neglect, have a capacity for spiritual renewal that correlates almost exactly to their deliverance from their squalor, ignorance and ‘heathen’ existence. In Stretton’s novels we have the first - if late - true incarnation of the Romantic child, untainted by Sin as it was in the works of Evangelical writers. Jessica, of Jessica’s First Prayer, moves between the slum attic she shares with her drunken mother, the coffee-stall of the miserly Daniel, and the palpable glow and warmth of the Evangelical chapel. In that chapel, eventually, the minister and his three well-heeled children admit her to their religious fold and offer her the chance to earn financial support. She acts as a catalyst who exposes the hypocrisy of organised religion, and a paradigm of virtue who shames middle-class churchgoers into sympathy and charity towards the poor.
In these later Evangelical works of children’s fiction, all of them written by women, the paradigm of the Romantic child, as reader and as text, which was to influence and affect the children of children’s literature for many decades to come, had arrived: individual, potentially independent from adult patronage, powerful, and empowering. Above all, and despite gender differences, it was feminine.
As evidence of the profound and long-lasting influence of women on children’s fiction, Claudia Nelson’s Boys Will Be Girls (1991) - a title which parodies and subverts that of one of Mrs Sherwood’s books - Boys Will Be Boys, the Difficulties of a Schoolboy’s Life (1854) - shows how women writers of mid-Victorian children’s fictions influenced the Victorian stereotype of childhood and feminised both the child and children’s literature texts, including books by men. Tom in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) is an example, and one stereotype we have of a Victorian child is Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885), the male eponym of an early Frances Hodgson Burnett novel. The domestic and moralising influence in stories for children extends beyond novels about children. It can be detected in Beatrix Potter’s animal stories or Anna Sewell’s didactic Black Beauty (1877), ostensibly about a (male, if gelded) horse.
In line with the feminine ideal, ‘the preadolescent of either sex took on many of the qualities of the ‘Angel of the house’ (see Nelson 1991: 2). These female qualities were to some extent taken over even by the Victorian and Edwardian male writers of the undomestic adventures - the ‘manly’ virtues now included modesty, honesty, consideration and chastity. Although late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century children’s literature seemed to be split on gender lines, according to who wrote it, who read it and where it was set, it was all informed by a project to promote personal morality which was in an essentially feminine tradition going back to Barbauld and her like.
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