Moral purpose and didacticism - Critical tradition and ideological positioning - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland


Moral purpose and didacticism


At the heart of any consideration of ideology will be a consideration of moral purpose and didacticism and it is useful, I think, to recognise the historical nature of the debate. My examples are largely British. In the Preface to The Governess, or Little Female Academy in 1749, Sarah Fielding wrote:


Before you begin the following sheets, I beg you will stop a Moment at this Preface, to consider with me, what is the true Use of reading: and if you can once fix this Truth in your Minds, namely that the true Use of Books is to make you wiser and better, you will then have both Profit and Pleasure from what you read.

(Fielding 1749/1968: 91)


Contrary views have almost as long a history; Elizabeth Rigby, for instance, writing in 1844 in The Quarterly Review, while admitting that no one would deliberately put what she calls ‘offensive’ books in the way of children, goes on:


but, should they fall in their way, we firmly believe no risk to exist - if they will read them at one time or another, the earlier, perhaps, the better. Such works are like the viper - they have a wholesome flesh as well as a poisonous sting; and children are perhaps the only class of readers which can partake of one without suffering from the other.

(Hunt 1990: 21)


The debate was lively in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and has continued on and off ever since. So far as Britain was concerned, at one stage it looked as if it had been settled, Harvey Darton having introduced his 1932 history of Children’s Books in England with the words: ‘By “children’s books” I mean printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them, not solely to make them good, nor to keep them profitably quiet’ (Darton 1932/1982: 1; his emphasis).

For some while after that, explicit discussion of values was left in abeyance. There was discussion both about how to write for children in ways that were not condescending - an ideological formulation in itself, of course - and about what the differences might be between fiction written for children and fiction written for adults, but considerations either of moral purpose or of didacticism did not appear to be at issue. In fact the debate had never gone away: it had rather gone underground, as my discussion of the Leavisite paradigm below demonstrates, or recoded itself in educational terms. The debate reemerged more overtly with Fred Inglis in 1981:


Only a monster would not want to give a child books she will delight in and which will teach her to be good. It is the ancient and proper justification of reading and teaching literature that it helps you to live well.

(Inglis 1981: 4)


Pat Pinsent makes similar claims: ‘I would go so far as to claim that sustained experience of literature from an early age can be a means of combining pleasure with the acquisition of tolerance, a combination less readily available from other sources’ (Pinsent 1997: 21).

Elsewhere, the picture is mixed. Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (1999) and Cotton (2000) both suggest that the same historical distinction as that described by Darton between writing for moral purpose in the nineteenth century and writing for pleasure in the twentieth can be found in a number of European countries - France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland - and in North America. Large numbers of children’s books were published, but in European countries that remained as dictatorships after the Second World War - Cotton quotes Spain as an example - the production of children’s books remained very much under state control and did not flourish (Cotton 2000: 16). Similarly, Peter Hunt draws on various sources to note that, in newly emergent children’s literatures in newly emergent postcolonial countries, moral purpose and didacticism are also high on the agenda (Hunt 1992b).

In fact, as John Stephens (1992: 3) has observed, writing for children has almost always had a purpose over and beyond that of just giving children pleasure and, as Lesnik-Oberstein points out (1999: 15), a central question has always been and will always be the question of which books are ‘best for children’ - however one wants to define ‘best’.

In the British context the educational purposes of literature have also always been an issue, with official reports and curriculum documents from the 1920s to the 1990s emphasising the importance of the role of literature, and by implication children’s literature, in the personal and moral development of school students (Board of Education 1921; DES 1975; DFE 1995). In addition, the English National Curriculum has spawned a market for books aimed at particular niches within it: Franklin Watts’s Sparks series, aimed at primary schools, is marketed as ‘Stories linking with the History National Curriculum Key Stage 2’. In the member states of the European Union, with the dishonourable exception of Britain itself, the dissemination of translated books is seen to have an important educational and hence ideological function, fostering mutual understanding and European unity.

The recognition that the question of values had in fact always been there had actually re-emerged in Britain in the late 1940s (Trease 1949/1964) but the debate grew more intense in the 1970s, and it was at this point that ideological considerations came to be labelled as such.