The family story - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


34. The family story


Gillian Avery


It is a curious fact that few authors of juvenile domestic tales have felt equal to depicting a complete family. In American books of the last century it is the mother (or perhaps a spinster aunt) who holds the home together. A happy home circle with both a Pa and a Ma as shown by Laura Ingalls Wilder has always been exceptional. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, domestic security is seemingly unknown, and children struggle to survive against a background of problem parents.

In Britain, Victorian writers ostensibly set great store by family values, but nevertheless preferred to keep mothers in the background, while fathers were distant and often feared; children were shown leading a tightly knit existence in nursery and schoolroom. This remoteness from the adult world continued into the second half of the twentieth century, with parents relegated to the background while children enjoyed their own adventures. By the 1980s adults pose the same threat that they do in the American book.

Nevertheless the Victorians produced some excellent writing. But its appeal was limited. For this the elaborate English social stratification must be blamed. The early and mid-Victorians felt bound to draw attention to class difference, to the duties which fell upon the privileged, and the need for the lower orders to stay in their own station. The late Victorians were more relaxed, but liked to describe prosperous nurseries where the young lived in isolation. It resulted for a long time in class-conscious children’s books aimed at specific sectors of society.

One book, however, did step out of the usual English mode and circulate more widely. It was also unusual in presenting family life with parents who both play an equally active part in their children’s upbringing. This was The History of the Fairchild Family by Mary Martha Sherwood (1775-1851), the first part of which was published in 1818, and which was the first realistic domestic tale for the young. The book was designed to show ‘the importance and effects of a religious education’. The Calvinistic doctrine that is imparted in Mr Fairchild’s lengthy homilies and prayers, and the methods he uses to bring his children into a state of grace, make it a curiosity now. Nevertheless it remained part of juvenile culture in well-conducted families for at least eighty years and was read in homes that were certainly not Calvinist.

Underlying the religious instruction is an attractive account of family life and of likeable, frequently naughty children. Indeed, the forbidding chapter head, ‘Story of the Constant Bent of Man’s Heart Towards Sin’ is a prelude to an entirely convincing story of mischief. The little Fairchilds, with their squabbles and attempts to resist authority, are in fact far more lifelike than the two children in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839), a book expressly written to show ‘that species of noisy, frolicsome, mischievous children, now almost extinct’. Harry and Laura Graham are boisterous tearaways, but they are more like engines of destruction than children. Besides, this is no normal family; their parents are dead and they live with their grandmother but are brought up by a ferocious nurse, with a houseful of servants to clear up after them.

There were several capable early and mid-Victorian writers of domestic fiction, among them Harriet Mozley, sister of John Henry Newman, who wrote The Fairy Bower (1841) in reaction to the stereotypical characterisation of the moral tales prevalent in the early decades of the century. She was, she says in the preface, trying to show families as they really were. Elizabeth Sewell (1815-1906) used fiction with some skill to convey religious instruction in a family setting, as in Amy Herbert (1844) and Laneton Parsonage (1846). Annie Keary (1825-79), less solemn than either Mozley or Sewell, wrote a handful of vigorous stories about families, including The Rival Kings (1857), which powerfully describes the implacable hatred that children can feel for each other - a theme which few juvenile authors have cared to investigate.

But it was Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901) who was regarded as the doyenne of the domestic writers at the time. Family chronicles such as The Daisy Chain (1856) and The Pillars of the House (1873) were intended for the schoolroom girl. She loved to create vast families, often with a complicated cousinhood, from a background such as her own - upper class, devoutly Anglican, high principled, bookish. Her characterisation is nearly always convincing, unexpectedly so when she describes unruly boys or boisterous girls, such as the turbulent young Merrifields of The Stokesley Secret (1861) or the rebellious Kate Caergwent in Countess Kate (1862). But for all her concern for the sanctity of the family, Miss Yonge did not often choose to show a complete one. In The Daisy Chain the mother is killed early in the story in a carriage accident; in Magnum Bonum (1879) it is the father who has been removed, and the mother, too young and immature for the role, has to bring up her brood alone. In The Pillars of the House the thirteen Underwood children are orphaned. The dying father lives long enough to bless the newborn twins: ‘My full twelve, and one over, and on Twelfth-day’. The mother, her mind gone, dies a year later, and the eldest brother takes on the role of father. The immensely high standards of behaviour that Yonge expected of her young characters, the lofty idealism, the crises of conscience, are to be found in much mid-Victorian fiction.

Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-85) was one of the best of the later Victorian writers of family stories, though her style was too subtle and leisurely to be generally popular. (Like Charlotte Yonge, she delineated characters better than she constructed plots.) Brought up in a well-born, well-read but penurious clerical family, she wrote for readers who understood that sort of background. G. M. Young, in Victorian England (1936) recommended Six to Sixteen (1875) as containing one of the best accounts of a Victorian girlhood. A Flat Iron for a Farthing (1872) and We and the World (1880) describe equally well the early years of very different boys: in the first a rather ‘precious’ only child is depicted with affectionate humour, in the second two rumbustious Yorkshire brothers. In shorter stories such as A Great Emergency, Mary’s Meadow and A Very Ill-Tempered Family, all written in the 1870s, she anticipates E. Nesbit’s style.

Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839-1921) was more preoccupied with social status than either of the two former writers. She was always careful to stress that her characters were the children of gentlefolk, and dwelt much upon the marks that identified them as such. She wrote over a hundred books, and is remembered for stories such as Carrots (1876), about sheltered and protected children, very young for their age. All that is required of them is that they should be happy and contented, and above all childlike. Fathers and mothers lead their own lives downstairs; it is nurse and the other siblings who impinge on young lives. (Americans tended to view this arrangement with amazement if not abhorrence. Eleanor Gates’s The Poor Little Rich Girl (1912) describes how the seven-year-old daughter of a wealthy New York couple suffers at the hands of her nurse, and longs only to be with her parents.)

The turn of the century brought a new development, a view of children preoccupied with their own imaginative games in a world where adults are, with a few exceptions, uncomprehending aliens. In the wake of Kenneth Grahame’s nostalgic essays The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), there was a torrent of verse and prose proclaiming that it was children alone who held the key to the universe. The ideal child was the imaginative child. E. Nesbit (1858-1924) made her adults shadows in the wings while her child characters, centre-stage, played out their fantasies. The child like Albert-next-door who does not want to dig for buried treasure is dismissed with contempt. In The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899) and its sequels, the six Bastable children have no mother, and a father so broken by business failure that he plays very little part in their life. They are genteelly poor, but there is always a presence in the kitchen to bring them meals and to clear up the mess. In The Railway Children (1906) Father has been wrongly imprisoned, Mother writes feverishly to support them all, while the three children devise more practical schemes than the Bastables’ to rescue the family fortunes. The neatly happy outcome to everyone’s troubles has always made this book popular.

‘I think it would be nice,’ says one of the Railway Children, ‘to marry someone very poor, and then you’d do all the work, and see the blue wood smoke curling up among the trees from the domestic hearth as he came home from work every night.’ But this was much more the American style. English writers for many years to come assumed a middle- class background free from domestic responsibility. In Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories (1942-63) the children can be certain that everything will be provided for them - the picnic baskets will always be filled by a kindly retainer - while they solve mysteries and capture international gangs of criminals. Nesbit provided even the struggling Railway family with someone to cook and clean.

This was also to be the case with Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986). Her talented children come from middle-class backgrounds and, however straitened the circumstances, there are loyal and loving servants to prop up the often scatty mothers. The great difference is that her best-remembered juvenile characters do not play; with single-minded purpose they are inching their way forward in their chosen sporting or artistic careers; Sebastian, the musical prodigy in Apple Bough (1962), for instance, can rarely be persuaded to put down his violin. Streatfeild’s first book, Ballet Shoes (1936), was published in an era when the holiday adventure story reigned (Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, Joanna Cannan’s A Pony for Jean and M. E. Atkinson’s August Adventure were published in the same year). Holiday adventures certainly involved families, but in these books fathers are abroad or invisible, and if there are mothers they are merely a source of supplies. Parents and guardians have a far larger presence in Streatfeild stories, and the children are in touch with reality. In Ballet Shoes the three Fossil girls (all foundlings, none of them related) contribute to the household expenses through stage earnings at an age when the Swallows and Amazons and their kind are still absorbed in a play world. The happy optimism, the warmth of the home background, the glamour of the stage world which the author could still see through naive, teenage eyes, made it an instant best-seller, the first book about an English family to be popular with American readers.

Until at least the 1960s, a middle-class viewpoint was taken for granted in the English family story. To the authors it represented normal life; working-class characters occasionally stray in, but they are a different species. Enid Blyton gave them names like Sniffer and Nobby and made them exclaim ‘Cor!’ and ‘Coo!’ The three boat-builders’ sons, the ‘Death and Glories’, in Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club (1934) are called Joe, Pete and Bill, which to a 1930s reader would subtly convey their origins (as, for example, the names Tamzin, Rissa, Roger, Meryon and Diccon would to 1950s readers of Monica Edwards’s stories about adventures with ponies). Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street (1937) was initially rejected by eight publishers who felt the setting was unacceptable. It was indeed a new departure to show a happy family where the father was a dustman and the mother a washerwoman. Seventy years before, there had been a fashion for street waif stories, such as Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), but these had a strong religious message and such homes as the waifs knew were certainly not happy. Garnett did not dwell on the darker aspects of poverty; this is a cheerful book where the struggles of a chronically hard- up family are material for picturesque comedy; it is not an exercise in realism.

The 1960s saw the beginning of social realism and a new theme, the child alone in the world. John Rowe Townsend’s Gumble’s Yard (1961), while in effect a watershed, has curious echoes of the holiday adventure story, though one with an urban setting. Here are children foiling a criminal gang, and a fifteen-year-old narrator from the same officer mould as Arthur Ransome’s John Walker and his kind - articulate, authoritative, responsible. But these children have been abandoned by the people supposedly in charge of them, their uncle Walter, a loutish petty criminal, and his feckless, almost mentally defective girlfriend. To avoid being taken into care, they try to make a home for themselves in a derelict building. In the new style, the book lacks a happy ending; Walter comes back, but there is no expectation that he can hold down a job for long. In the sequel, Widdershins Crescent (1965), Walter returns to crime, and the children are left to bring themselves up.

There were still to be some books where the family circle was unbroken, and the parents properly concerned for their young. In Philippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small (1962), Ben, who yearns for a dog with such passion that he creates an invisible one, is surrounded by a family who are affectionate and anxious for his happiness, but uncomprehending. Only his grandfather understands a little of the longing that he conceals. One of the most poignant and deeply felt books of its time, it is also remarkable for its classlessness. The background in fact is similar to One End Street, but for almost the first time an English writer succeeds in presenting it from within and not as a phenomenon which has to be explained to readers.

The later twentieth-century authors increasingly saw books with divided and often alienated families. Brian Fairfax-Lucy, drawing on memories of his own childhood, and Philippa Pearce in their joint The Children of the House (1968) showed a tyrannical father, a weak and passive mother and four neglected, unloved children in a great Edwardian country house, whose sole friends are pitying servants. Edward and Jane in Penelope Lively’s Going Back (1975) are only happy when their father is far away and they are alone with the servants. Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark (1971) hates his sick father with an obsessive intensity that comes to take complete possession of him. Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom (1981) describes how a half-starved, terrified child, sent out of London with other evacuees at the beginning of the Second World War, finds a proper home at last. His crazed mother has beaten and abused him; it is only when he is evacuated from London that he encounters affection.

In contrast, Nina Bawden’s families in Carrie’s War (1973) and The Peppermint Pig (1975) have separation forced on them by war and by misfortune. In the first book, Carrie and her brother Nick are evacuated from London in 1939 and sent to a Welsh village where they have to adjust to a very different life with a local shopkeeper, the bullying and irascible Mr Evans, and his downtrodden sister. In the second, set some fifty years earlier, four children and their mother go to live with the latter’s aunts in Norfolk when their father decides to try his luck in California after being obliged to give up his job in London. Joyfully the family is reunited in the final chapter. In Bawden’s Kept in the Dark (1982), Noel and Clara and Ambrose are sent to stay with grandparents they have never met and who disapprove of the marriage their mother has made with an actor, now out of work and in hospital. They learn to adjust to each other, but bullying and emotional blackmail by David, an irresponsible ne’er-do-well cousin, cowes them all and destroys the harmony they have built up. Nevertheless, the mood when he goes is one of pity. ‘Poor fool,’ says the grandmother, ‘so unhappy, so lonely’ - for the feeling in the Bawden novels is of the blessing of family affection.

Helen Cresswell’s seven-book saga of the Bagthorpes (1977-89) is different from all the foregoing in that it presents a united family of the earlier twentieth-century sort - literary father, talented children, jolly uncle, attendant dog - but always involved in farcical adventures. Like Lucretia Hale’s American Peterkin family of a century before (The Peterkin Papers (1880) seems to have been Cresswell’s starting point), the Bagthorpes are clever but totally lacking in common sense and lurch from one zany domestic dilemma to the next.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century a bonded household with two presiding parents became so rare as to seem eccentric. The rules changed dramatically. In 1924 an editor had deleted from one of Ethel Turner’s Australian novels a reference to the first marriage, followed by divorce, of the heroine’s father: ‘marital unfaithfulness and divorce ... by general consent are absolutely banned from books for the young’. Fifty years later, families disintegrated and social problems loomed large. Writers such as Anne Fine and Jacqueline Wilson tackled one a year. Anne Fine, whose first four books have been described as twentieth-century comedies of manners for adolescents, moved into divorce with Madame Doubtfire (1987). She followed it up with Crummy Mummy and Me (1988), about the difficulty of coping with an irresponsible single-parent hippie mother; then Goggle Eyes (1989) where a teenager deeply resents mother’s new boyfriend. In The Book of the Banshee (1991) the teenage daughter makes the house such a hell on earth that Mum is reduced to sneaking in furtively to avoid her. Jacqueline Wilson has followed much the same formulae. In The Bed and Breakfast Star (1994) an assortment of children are moved into bed and breakfast accommodation. ‘We’ve all got the same mum. Our mum. But I’ve got a different dad. My dad never really lived with mum and me.’ In The Suitcase Kid (1992), Andy shuttles between A and B, one week with Mum, one with Dad. Bad Girls (1996) features an adopted child and unsuitable friends.

American family stories, certainly in the nineteenth century, had a far wider appeal than their English counterparts. They were not bedevilled by class considerations, and there was a sense of the domestic circle gathered round the hearth (even if the father in fact was often missing). Children in the American home were not segregated from adult life, they had responsibilities, and if it was a farming family their help was vital. The books are often full of practical detail; frequently, life centres round the kitchen - represented as the source of warmth, comfort and food, but a region unknown to the inhabitants of Victorian nurseries. There are lavish descriptions of food, which the austerely reared British children brooded over with intense pleasure.

The earliest writer to celebrate American domesticity was Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) in whose A New-England Tale (1822) we find the charismatic female orphan who was to become so popular with American writers. We also find the granite-hewn spinster, a miracle of domestic skills (another very popular character). In Redwood (1824) we can note the start of an American tradition of portraying fathers as insignificant, if not far worse. Mr Lenox, a New England farmer, is in fact industrious and frugal. But his wife is much his superior. She is the driving force in the home, and this is how it was to be in the majority of American books. Sedgwick wrote several books for children, all remarkable for degraded fathers. ‘He a father!’ says a son in The Boy of Mount Rhigi (1847), ‘He makes me lie for him, and steal for him; and if I don’t he tries to drown me.’ Huckleberry Finn’s father, it will be remembered, is much the same.

The fathers who show up best are the pioneers and the farmers. William Cardell (1780-1828), of whom little is known except that he was a schoolmaster, wrote two books which are among the earliest to describe the life of settlers. The Story of Jack Halyard, the Sailor’s Boy, or The Virtuous Family (1825) begins on a New Jersey farm. ‘Of all men, I think,’ said Mr Halyard, ‘the American farmers are the most independent, and the most happy.’ (For years to come writers were to express the same view.) But Mr Halyard dies, and Jack has to make his own way in life; we leave him prosperous enough to buy back the farm. The Happy Family; or Scenes of American Life (1828) describes with much practical detail a family’s trek over the mountains from Massachusetts to Ohio. Here they build a log-house and become self-sufficient. Cardell takes his family beyond this, to the point where they are comfortably wealthy, with a fine house and a horse and carriage, but for many the log-house and the farm represented the perfect life, where families could live in harmony and godly simplicity. Writers were often to use farm life to bring about conversion and a proper sense of values in spoilt city children. Later examples include Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1917). Here an over-protected nine-year-old is sent to a Vermont farm where she becomes, in the words of her relations there, both smart and gritty. In Betsy Byars’s The Midnight Fox (1968) Tom, initially terrified by even the cows and chickens on Aunt Millie’s farm, gradually learns to love animals.

The orphan theme was also to be very popular with American authors. Susan Warner (1819-85), who wrote what she supposed was Sunday School fiction under the name of Elizabeth Wetherell, specialised in these. Her first book, The Wide, Wide World (1850), clearly derives from Sedgwick. It is an immensely long account of the moral development of an orphan, readable for its descriptions of domestic life. The father is discarded without regret at an early stage; the mother dies, and Ellen (given to outbursts of stormy weeping) is brought up and taught domestic skills by her flinty-hearted Aunt Fortune, a paragon housewife. (There was a similar scenario in A New-England Tale.) The book was very popular with girls; not only was there highly charged emotion, there was also between thirteen-year-old Ellen and her spiritual mentor - the young man she calls her ‘brother’ - a romantic if not erotic relationship, never hitherto found in a Sunday book. In Queechy (1852) the author (never good at controlling a plot) succeeds in bringing her heroine to a nubile age so that she can melt into the arms of a wealthy English aristocrat. Warner did not often introduce parents into her fiction; but when she did they could be harsh instruments of oppression as in Melbourne House (1864), where little Daisy Randolph is the only God-fearing member of a worldly but also cruel family.

The Warner style had a profound effect on Martha Finley (1828-1909), who wrote as Martha Farquharson. Her Elsie Dinsmore, the first of a long series which went on until 1905, appeared in 1867, and would seem to be modelled on Melbourne House, though the setting is a never-never-land in the ante-bellum South, where the protagonists, all plantation owners, live in sumptuous luxury. Apparently disapproving of the freedom with which Warner heroines allowed themselves to be caressed by male strangers, Finley keeps it within the family. In the Dinsmore books it is the father (only seventeen when he begot Elsie) who is the lover. He is insanely possessive, violent and tender by turns, and though he eventually and painfully allows Elsie to marry, readers insisted that the husband should be shed so that she could return to Father.

Orphan stories continued into the twentieth century. In Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) the fatherless heroine is sent to live with two spinster aunts. Her Aunt Miranda is a termagant spinster in the Aunt Fortune mould, and indeed the book has more than a passing likeness to The Wide, Wide World, though Rebecca is lively and literary rather than tearful and godly. Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs (1912) places its heroine (literary, like Rebecca) in an orphanage, whence an unknown benefactor (later to fall in love with her) sends her to college. Eleanor Hodgson Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) is a ray of sunshine, again afflicted with a vinegarish aunt, who sees good everywhere and transforms the lives of those around her. Frances Boyd Calhoun’s Miss Minerva and William Green Hill (1909) is a curious variant, with Tom Sawyer and Pollyanna rolled into the person of one small boy, a wrecker but a charmer, also saddled with an aunt.

The prolific Jacob Abbott (1803-79) wrote about more normal family life. From his accounts of country children, English readers first learnt about such New England pleasures as maple sugaring, sleigh riding, camping in the woods. His books are an American version of Maria Edgeworth’s Harry, Lucy, Rosamond and Frank tales, and like her he aimed to produce sensible, alert and independent children, though as this was America he expected more in the way of work from them. However, it is not the parents who are so influential in the moulding of character as the older children whom he shrewdly introduces as mentors. In the Rollo series which began in 1834, Jonas the hired boy teaches little Rollo useful skills; in the ten Franconia stories (1850-3) there is a Swiss boy whom the children call Beechnut, with a wonderful talent for planning unusual games and amusements. There are also ingenious punishments, for Abbott was a schoolmaster, albeit a benign and enlightened one.

Rebecca Clarke (1833-1906) who wrote under the name of Sophie May, continued in the Abbott style. Her stories have more religious content, and show children (the younger of whom talk in winsome baby fashion) being gently and rationally guided into good behaviour. Female influence here is dominant; there are mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, but fathers rarely appear. Little Prudy (1863) was followed by a steady stream of stories about Prudy (who grows up and has children of her own), Dotty Dimple and Flaxie Frizzle.

Far less didactic and never sentimental, but also with something of the Abbott flavour, is Doings of the Bodley Family in Town and Country (1876) by Horace Scudder (1838-1902). This gentle saga of Nathan, Philippa and Lucy Bodley, their father and mother, the hired man, and various household animals including Mr Bottom the horse, contained much from Scudder’s own childhood. Later Bodley books became travelogues and have fewer domestic events. Lucretia Hale’s The Peterkin Papers, first published in book form in 1880, brought a new element of farce into the family story. The Peterkin family muddle everything, and are unable to bring common sense to the smallest domestic problem.

The febrile atmosphere created by Warner and Finley for girls’ reading gave way to the straightforward good sense of Louisa Alcott (1832-88). ‘I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world,’ she makes Jo exclaim in Good Wives, and the quartet of books about the March family, beginning with Little Women (1868), is the supreme celebration of family affection. ‘It seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven,’ says the dying Beth. It would be impossible to guess from Little Women that Alcott’s own childhood had been overshadowed by the irresponsibility of her father, who at one stage had contemplated abandoning his family. Mr March is revered, though he is superfluous to the story and is rarely seen even when he returns from the Civil War. It is ‘Marmee’ upon whom the whole household depends. (It was to be the same in Eight Cousins (1875) where no fathers are ever seen; they are either too busy, or, as in the case of Uncle Mac, dare not open their lips.) Little Women, dashed off in six weeks, brought Alcott instant fame, and also money to prop up the needy family. But she came to resent having to provide what she termed ‘moral pap’ for the young. Little Women and Good Wives were written from the heart; in her other books we can often detect a note of weariness.

What Katy Did (1872) and What Katy Did at School (1873) by Susan Coolidge (Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (1835-1905)) have been kept continuously in print in Britain since their first publication. (The third book in the cycle is an unmemorable travelogue.) But they are almost unknown to American children. The first may have been inspired by Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, in that a widowed father, also a doctor, is left to bring up a large brood of children. But the Carr children are far more absorbed in play than is usually the case in American books, and the heroine’s metamorphosis, via a spinal injury and ‘the School of Pain’, from a self-willed tomboy into a serious-minded adolescent, is again in the English style. The second book is about boarding-school life, one of the earliest examples of a genre to become very popular in Britain, but always a rarity in America.

The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881) and its sequels by Margaret Sidney (Harriet M. Lothrop (1844-1924)) were far better received by American readers. Though the Peppers are poor, they are a ‘noisy happy brood’ and make their little house ‘fairly ring with jollity and fun’. The widowed Mrs Pepper ‘with a stout heart and a cheery face’ holds the home together. Good things come winging to them, and a rich family, enraptured by their spirit, carries them all off to live in a mansion. Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901) by Alice Hegan Rice (1870-1942) is a more serious account of poverty. Mrs Wiggs is another widow who holds the family together (Mr Wiggs having ‘traveled to eternity by the alcohol route’); like Mrs Pepper her philosophy lies ‘in keeping the dust off her rose- colored spectacles’.

Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (1914), followed by two sequels, shows the Bad Boy (a favourite character with American authors) in a prosperous middle-class setting with unlimited leisure for play and make-believe. The mise-en-scene and characterisation in Richmal Crompton’s Just William (1922) and subsequent volumes follow Penrod too closely to be merely coincidence. Penrod Schofield is well-meaning but is a powder keg who wrecks every occasion - dancing-classes, parties, pageants, his grown-up sister’s flirtations. And as William was to do, he crumbles when faced with the femininity of little girls.

The Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) which began with Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and finished with Those Happy Golden Years (1943) are remarkable for their portrayal of the parents. This pioneer family of the 1870s and 1880s is seen uncritically through a child’s eyes. Even so, the character of Pa emerges - restless, reluctantly held back from further adventuring by the greater prudence of Ma. The journeys, the joyful triumph when a new home is established, the sense of security when they sit round the fire with the door safely barred against the dangerous world outside, the strength of the family’s love for each other, all described without a trace of sentimentality, make this series the most satisfying of all accounts of happy family life.

The search for a home has always been a favourite theme with American writers. Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children (1942), which describes four orphans setting up house in an abandoned railway truck, was so successful that the author followed it with eighteen more. Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming (1981), far more sophisticated, describes the weary trek made by four abandoned children to find the grandmother who may take them in. Dicey, the resolute sister who leads them, is a heroine of a particularly American sort: strong-willed and independent.

Such girls have been a feature of family stories. In the previous century there were heroines like Elizabeth W. Champney’s Witch Winnie (1889), a high-spirited though fundamentally serious prankster; or like Gypsy Breynton in the series by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) - an engaging tomboy whose skills win the admiration of even her brother. There is something of Gypsy in Leslie of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977), a girl who can outrun all the boys. This girl is also imaginative, and with her special friend Jesse she creates a secret kingdom.

American heroines can be craggy or cussed. There is the single-minded Harriet of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964), or Claudia in E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) who runs away with her brother and successfully camps out in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. On a more serious level is the fourteen-year-old Mary Call Luther in Vera and Bill Cleaver’s Where the Lilies Bloom (1969), who holds the family together when the father dies. Here is the flinty spinster in embryo: ‘I sure would hate to be the one to marry you, Mary Call ... You’re enough to skeer a man, standin.’

Middle-class families leading stable, secure lives, their doings described in episodic fashion as in Penrod, featured in many authors’ works before the 1960s. Beverly Cleary’s chronicles of life in Portland, Oregon, began with Henry Huggins in 1950 and continued through the 1980s. Cleary’s most famous character, Ramona the Pest, who first appears in Henry and Beezus (1952), is the archetypal awful little sister. (Dorothy Edwards’s My Naughty Little Sister (1952) was the English counterpart.) Elizabeth Enright’s books about the Melendy family began in 1941 with The Saturdays. Here there is no mother, but a devoted old retainer in the Streatfeild style. Eleanor Estes, beginning with The Moffats (1941), described New England village life of a quarter of a century before. The Moffats’ father is dead; Mama is a kindly and efficient, though unobtrusive presence. In Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins (1960) there are two wise and loving parents; the sweetness is cloying.

These were writers from a generation where it was the usual convention to write - as far as children were concerned - about tranquil family life. While accepting this as a starting point, their successors could see the difficulties that might lie within the family unit. Many of the stories of Paula Fox (1923-) touch on children’s emotional confusion as they try to make sense of the adult world. But the main theme of her Lily and the Lost Boy (1987) is the relationship between Lily and her younger brother. The family is a closely bonded one on an extended holiday in Greece, and Paul has become a good companion until, to Lily’s chagrin, he finds a new friend, the ‘lost boy’ of the title. The forlorn life of the latter, with his hippie father, a remittance man financed by his wealthy ex-wife in Texas, is contrasted with Lily and Paul’s secure existence. Another hippie father, more satisfactory this time, is the hero of E. L. Konigsburg’s Journey to an 800 Number (1982: Journey by First Class Camel in the UK). He earns a living giving camel rides. ‘Yes, you were a flower child,’ he tells the toplofty Max, who preens himself over his superior social status and has been sent to stay with him while his mother honeymoons with another husband. ‘And your mother was a hippie. A college drop-out, nice middle-class family.’ It was he, Max discovers, who had taken her in when she arrived at his ranch pregnant and destitute.

Families can be outwardly united yet seethe within. Thus in Bridge to Terabithia (1977) Katherine Paterson (1932-) describes the isolation felt by Jesse surrounded by irritating sisters. The plot of her Jacob Have I Loved (1980), with a background of a Methodist fishing community on a small island in Chesapeake Bay, turns on the bitter and long-lasting jealous resentment felt by a girl towards her more beautiful and talented twin sister.

Lois Lowry (1937-), writing at a time when so many of her contemporaries presented disunity, in her story series about Anastasia Krupnik and her volatile little brother Sam, succeeded in making a happy family seem credible. But Lowry varied these light-hearted accounts of life in an academic family (father a professor of English, mother a freelance artist, children precocious and dauntingly articulate) with more serious novels. A Summer to Die (1977) describes how Meg, who resentfully feels herself to be an ugly duckling, becomes less self-absorbed as she watches her older sister die from leukaemia. In Autumn Street (1980) the traumas of the Second World War disrupt Elizabeth’s childhood. Number the Stars (1989) is set in wartime Denmark where Annemarie’s family is trying to help their Jewish neighbours to escape into Sweden. In contrast the Krupnik chronicles deal only with the minor embarrassments of being young. They begin with Anastasia Krupnik (1979) when ten-year-old Anastasia is outraged to hear that her mother - without consulting Anastasia - is going to have a baby. That baby - Sam - takes twenty years to reach nursery school (Zooman Sam, 1999) by which time Anastasia is through the worst problems of adolescence and mature enough to be protective and motherly.

Mildred Taylor, drawing on her own family history, created the indomitable and resourceful Logan family to evoke black experience in the 1930s and 1940s. She wanted, she said in her Newbery acceptance speech in 1977, ‘to show a black family united in love and pride, of which the reader would like to be a part’. The Newbery Award was given for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), the second book in the chronicle of the Logan family, who cling to the land they have inherited in 1930s Mississippi, suffering hardship, discrimination and injustice. Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins, The Great (1974) creates another black family facing hardship but welded together.

The warmth and strength shown in these family relationships come as welcome relief to the descriptions of shattered home life which became common in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Paula Danziger - her usual theme the hostility felt by the young towards authority, and parents in particular, as in Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? (1979) - in The Divorce Express (1982) spelt out what seems to be the brightest message: ‘If you take the letters of the word DIVORCES and rearrange them, they spell DISCOVER.’

Australian writers have played an important part in the family story in recent years, and one element has been the importance of landscape. The waterless desolation of the outback, the ferocious summer heat, the threat of fire and other natural disasters; these lurk frequently in the background. Brenda Niall gives a whole chapter of her book Australia through the Looking Glass to survival stories. Apparent security can be so easily shattered, as Ivan Southall showed in Hills End (1962), set in a remote mountain community of timber-workers. One hot summer’s day when the rest of the inhabitants depart to the nearest town eighty-five miles away, seven children return from an expedition to find that Hills End has been destroyed by a cyclonic storm; there are no adults to come to their rescue. They learn painfully then that the sanctuary of home is an illusion.

The first Australian writer for the young to achieve international distinction was Ethel Turner (1872-58). Born in England, in 1881 she went with her parents to Sydney where most of her novels are set. Only Seven Little Australians (1894) and The Family at Misrule (1895) - her first and most famous books, both published in London - have a country background, though it is not until the children visit the cattle station which had been their stepmother’s home that the scene becomes markedly Australian. Ethel Turner had warned readers not to expect model children. But she was following the prevailing literary fashion; English writers, reacting against the books of their own youth, were busy peopling their books with scamps, pickles, madcaps, tearaways, harum-scarums. The Woolcot children were only different in having an unsympathetic adult background - a savage, irascible father and a timid young stepmother. This gives the story edge; it has always been difficult to create convincing happy domesticity. The children’s misdoings admittedly are on a larger scale than those of their English contemporaries; when the rebellious Judy runs away from school, she walks seventy-five miles home, a week’s journey. The other children, afraid of their father’s fury, hide her in a shed, raiding the larder to feed her. Ethel Turner, who on her own admission had loved imagining deathbeds as a child, creates one for Judy, killed by a falling tree: the episode became a favourite recitation piece at Australian literary gatherings.

A near contemporary, Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958), was also a favourite with English children and, though none of her stories about Billabong Station achieved the best-selling status of Seven Little Australians, with its international reprints, her popularity was more evenly sustained, and the series lasted for over thirty years, ending in 1942. She supplied the adventurous outdoor life that had great appeal for a population that was becoming increasingly urban. She was Australian-born, and had spent childhood holidays on her grandfather’s cattle station on which Billabong was partially based. Norah Linton, whom we first meet as a resourceful, independent twelve-year-old in A Little Bush Maid (1910), her widowed father and older brother Jim are ‘mates’, closely bonded and working together. ‘A big station is a little world in itself, and the Bush teaching makes for self-control and self-reliance, and a simple, straight outlook on the world that is not a bad foundation for character.’ It was easier to imagine this sort of family life as idyllic. The Lintons live in some style, surrounded by devoted servants and stockmen. But even here the Bush threatens, as does fire, and in Norah of Billabong (1913) there is a dramatic account of a lost child rescued and restored to its mother. ‘It’s so big and lonely and cruel ... Why, it scares men to get lost in the Bush.’

As in so many Australian stories and in American ones with a farming background, urban characters make a poor showing when they visit. The very name Cecil given to a Linton cousin in Mates at Billabong (1911) shows the author’s contempt; Colin Thiele in February Dragon (1966) similarly bestows the names Cuthbert and Angelina on despised town cousins; their empty-headed chattering mother through wanton carelessness unknowingly begins the terrible fire - the February dragon - that devastates the whole area she has been visiting.

Nan Chauncy (1900-70) also wrote of tightly knit, self-contained rural families, this time in Tasmania. She came to Australia with her parents when she was twelve; Half a World Away (1962) gives some account of what the move meant. To exchange the Home Counties for Tasmania, sedate middle-class comfort for primitive simplicity in a remote valley, was for her a wonder that never palled. The early books are written from the point of view of the newcomer establishing a home. In Tiger in the Bush (1957), Devil’s Hill (1958) and The Roaring 40 (1963) she portrays the Lorenny family, living in a primitive slab-and-bark house in a hidden valley. The two older children go off to school in Hobart happily enough; for Badge, the youngest, it is anguish to leave home and have to mix with scornful contemporaries.

Colin Thiele in The Sun on the Stubble (1961), based on his memories of childhood in a South Australian German Lutheran community, evokes the same desolation at having to leave home. The book begins with Bruno’s despair: ‘After twelve years in the warmth of home, he was being thrust out, torn up by the roots, sent off to school in Adelaide.’ As in Chauncy’s Lorenny family, the presiding presence is the mother. ‘Her strong instinct of motherly protection, inherited from her Silesian ancestors, was something she had brought to South Australia, along with the Lutheranism, the gregariousness and the astonishing capacity for hard work.’ We find the same sort of mother in Eleanor Spence’s The Green Laurel (1963), where Dad earns his living at fairgrounds driving a miniature train. Mum shares all the work ‘but still found time to transform two rather battered tents into a cosy and welcoming home’. But twelve-year-old Lesley longs for a real home, ‘a home with roots’. This she gets when Dad has to go into a sanatorium and Mum and the two girls are given accommodation in a housing settlement on the outskirts of Sydney, a huge expanse of huts where immigrants are housed temporarily. Lesley’s dismay at these bleak surroundings tempers when she finds friends. ‘With all of us together, a home can be any sort of place.’ In The Left Overs (1982) some twenty years later this still holds good, though with changing fashions in scenario: ‘any sort of place’ is this time a children’s home where five assorted children of mixed race live happily with a house mother, feeling strongly that they are a family.

Hesba Brindsmead’s first and best-known book, Pastures of the Blue Crane (1964), was one of the first to move out of the convention of a united family. Ryl is the child of separated parents, and ‘from the age of three she was expected more or less to make her own way in the world’. The father in New Guinea whom she barely knows dies when she is thirteen, and she learns from a solicitor in Melbourne that his money has been left to her and her grandfather, Dusty, whom she has never met. A run-down banana farm in northeast New South Wales is part of their joint inheritance. ‘These two stubborn and arrogant people’, as the solicitor sees them, succeed in settling down amicably together and reclaiming the farm.

By the late 1960s the themes of misfits and social problems were standard, and the settings increasingly urban. L. H. Evers had already written The Racketty Street Gang (1961), set in a run-down district of Sydney where the well-ordered family life of recent immigrants from Germany is contrasted with the violence and squalor experienced in their various homes by the German son’s three friends. Reginald Ottley’s The War on William Street (1971), also set in Sydney, is in the same vein. Hesba Brinsmead’s second novel, Beat of the City (1966), features four adolescents in Melbourne pursuing what the author describes as instant plastic substitutes for happiness.

Many writers have chosen to examine the plight of the misfit, the outsider in a family or community. Patricia Wrightson in I Own the Racecourse! (1968) uses a very light touch in her treatment of Andy, who, as she puts it, ‘lived behind a closed window’. His friends are fond of him, and are protective, but cannot persuade him that he doesn’t own the Sydney racecourse that an old tramp offers to sell to him for three dollars. The kindness with which all around him treat him is in great contrast to the unhappiness usually inevitable in stories of misfits, as in Ivan Southall’s Josh (1971), Michael Dugan’s Dingo Boy (1980) or Simon French’s Cannily, Cannily (1981).

Like their British and American contemporaries, Australian writers have extended the idea of the family story to cover a wide range of problems that the young may face in modern society; in the twenty-first century, there are signs that they and their readers are turning their interest to fantasy.


Further reading

Andrews, S. (ed.) (1963) The HewinsLectures 1947-1962, Boston: The Horn Book.

Avery, G. (1975) Childhood’s Pattern: A Study of the Heroes and Heroines of Children’s Fiction 1770-1950, Leicester: Hodder and Stoughton.

- (1992) ‘Home and Family: English and American Ideals in the Nineteenth Century’, in Butts,

D. (ed.) Stories and Society. Children’s Literature in Its Social Context, London: Macmillan, 37-49.

- (1994) Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books 1621-1922, London: Bodley Head.

Baym, N. (1978) Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women, 1820-1870, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Davidoff, L., Doolittle, M., Fink, J. and Holden, K. (1999) The Family Story: Blood, Contract and Intimacy, Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman.

Hunt, P. (ed.) (1995) Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ingrams, L. (1987) ‘The Family Story: A Context for Care’, in Saxby, M. and Winch, G. (eds) Give Them Wings: The Experience of Children’s Literature, London: Macmillan, 177-95.

Niall, B. (1984) Australia through the Looking Glass, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Silvey, Anita (ed.) (1995) Children’s Books and Their Creators, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Townsend, J. R. (1983) Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children’s Literature, Harmondsworth: Kestrel Books.

Tucker, N. and Gamble, N. (2001) Family Fictions, London: Continuum.