Reclaiming - Feminism revisited - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


10. Feminism revisited


Lissa Paul




One of the most significant feminist projects of the feminist movement was the reissuing of long out-of-print books by women authors. Many had been gathering dust on library shelves for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of years. Most had long since ceased to make any money for anyone. But the feminist press Virago, particularly, put many of these authors into circulation, including Vera Brittain, Miles Franklin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Now easily available in good-quality paperback editions, they are read for pleasure, not just among scholars, though scholars were often the first to create the demand for these books by finding them, writing about them and bringing them to university course lists and to public attention.

Though there is no exactly comparable resurrection of authored fiction in children’s literature (Angela Brazil is as unlikely to be reissued as Talbot Baines Reed), there is interest in rethinking the genre of the school story, as Beverly Lyon Clark demonstrates in Regendering the School Story: Sassy Sissies and Tattling Tomboys (1996).

There is, however, one class of texts enjoying a new lease on life as a direct result of the second wave of feminism: fairy tales. In fact, the shift in fairy-tale fashions provides a virtual paradigm for shifts in feminist poetics. In the 1970s, with the rise of the second wave of feminist theory, there was increasing discomfort with the gender dynamics in popular Grimm, Andersen and Perrault fairy tales (though Simone de Beauvoir had already drawn attention to passive Grimm heroines twenty years earlier in The Second Sex (1953)). Girls and women play dead or doormats (as in ‘Snow White’, ‘Cinderella’, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’) or are severely mutilated (as in ‘The Little Mermaid’). The move was on for female heroes (I’ll use the term in preference to ‘heroines’ - who tend to wait around a lot). Unfortunately, the female heroes of the early 1970s tended not to be of a different order, as is Tenar in Le Guin’s Tehanu. They tended to be more like men tricked out in drag. The stories were the same as those with male heroes in them. But instead of the stories being about boys seeking adventure, profit and someone to rescue, girls were in the starring roles. They rescued instead of being rescued. Like television situation comedies that colour middle-class families black, most of those tales died natural deaths. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is a dubious exception. It is still in print, and the princess uses the feminist tactic of deceit to defeat the dragon and rescue the prince. But as the prince suffers from the traditionally feminine vice of vanity, s/he is essentially rejected for a lack of machismo.

When revisionist tales virtually disappeared in the late 1970s, reclaimed tales looked like a more viable alternative. But in the first collections of reclaimed tales, the preference for male characteristics in female heroes was still much in evidence. In the introduction to Tatterhood and Other Tales, for example, Ethel Johnston Phelps states a preference for stories with ‘active and courageous girls and women in the leading roles’, ones who are ‘distinguished by extraordinary courage and achievements’ (1978: vx). In other words, she prefers the same old male type, who, as Valerie Walkerdine suggests, is ‘gender- neutral, self-disciplined, and active’ (1990: 120). That is, the preferred hero is still a man. The post-feminist age seems to have produced a thriving genre of fairy-tale fantasies. Revisionist tales in this tradition include Deerskin (1993) by Robin McKinley and White as Snow (2000) by Tanith Lee - both of whom are very prolific and successful. And critics such as Roberta Seelinger Trites, in Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels (1997) and Jack Zipes in Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry (1997) track the quickly shifting contours of feminist readings.

Two collections of reclaimed fairy tales for Virago by Angela Carter (1991, 1992) speak in a different voice, enabling modern readers to hear the voices of women from other times and other cultures. They are so good they are difficult to put down. She doesn’t just present tales about the unrelieved glory of women - a male-order project anyway. Instead, she tries ‘to demonstrate the extraordinary richness and diversity of responses to the same common predicament - being alive - and the richness and diversity with which femininity, in practice is represented in “unofficial” culture: its strategies, its plots, its hard work’ (Carter 1991: xiv). One of her favourite stories from this collection was apparently ‘Tongue Meat’, a Swahili story that tells of a languishing queen who only revives when fed ‘tongue meat’, something that turns out to be a metaphor for stories. The tales of girls and women that Angela Carter revives are exactly that kind of ‘tongue meat’. They establish an alternative feminist tradition - one that hadn’t been visible before. Angela Carter’s death in 1992 at the age of just fifty-two was deeply felt in literary circles. She had been a gifted story-teller and a visionary interpreter of fairy-tale and fantasy traditions. British novelist and scholar Marina Warner (who wrote the introduction to Carter’s second volume of tales) has taken up Carter’s legacy. In fact Warner defines herself as a ‘mythographer’. Her feminist study of fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairytales and Their Tellers (1994) moves sinuously, making connections between scholarly study and contemporary culture. No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (Warner 1999) about threatening lullabies and comic ogres, constitutes a revisionist companion volume.

While it is true that fairy tales seem to have enjoyed the most dramatic revival as a result of twinned interests in women’s studies and children’s literature studies, other reclamation projects are also taking place. The texts being rediscovered by feminist critics are important because they provide a historical context for our own ideological assumptions about gender, about what constitutes good literature, and about what is worth remembering, circulating and retaining for study. The boundaries between male and female, child and adult, increasingly blurred as the twentieth century drew to a close. Critic Judith Butler, especially in Gender Trouble (1990), put forward the idea that gender was a kind of disguise anyway, that it was a kind of performance. Her work opened up the world of trans-gendered possibilities. For children’s literature authors and critics, it became possible to breach child/adult boundaries too. The most visible examples are in books that crossed over into films. Freaky Friday (1972), by Mary Rodgers, about a mother and daughter who change bodies, has twice been made into films (suggesting the resonance of the idea). Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) played with cross-age boundaries as Pan, the boy who never grows up, does, then - within the bounds of the film - has a second chance at childhood. There is an excellent discussion of this cross-age phenomenon by Patricia Pace in ‘Robert Bly Does Peter Pan’ (1996).

Although my discussion of the reclamation projects undertaken by feminist critics focuses on prose fiction and fairy tales, the reclamation of women poets is probably more dramatic. One of the most compelling studies of women’s texts lost and found is ‘Lost from the Nursery: Women Writing Poetry for Children 1800-1850’, by Morag Styles (1990). Styles came to write the article because she casually noticed how few women were represented in poetry anthologies for children, especially poets who published before 1900. As she began to explore, she discovered consistent patterns working to obliterate women poets from the record.

In early anthologies, Styles found that poems which had quickly become popular in their own time, like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, rapidly became separated from their authors as they entered anthologies. They were usually attributed to the anonymous authors of oral tradition. So while generations of children learned to say ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, few knew it was by Jane Taylor, or that Sarah Hale wrote ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, or that ‘The Months of the Year’ was by Sara Coleridge.

The systematic exclusion of these women from the children’s literature canon accords precisely with the ideological reasons for their exclusion from the literary canon - and from positions of power and influence. Styles explains that ‘the colloquial domestic writing of some women whose concern in literature for children (and often for adults) is with relationships, affection, friendship, family life often located in the small-scale site of the home’ (Styles 1990: 203) was devalued, lost and forgotten in a world where large- scale adventures and public rhetoric were valued. So the voices of Jane and Anne Taylor ‘talking lovingly and naturally’ in their poetry collections were lost. And Dorothy Wordsworth, with her ‘private, colloquial and domestic’ poetry (202), was relegated to a footnote in her brother’s life.

By bringing the domestic cadences of women ‘lost from the nursery’ to our eyes and ears again, Styles provides a climate that warms to the domestic scene and to the softer, more direct colloquial cadences of the female voice. She teaches us to listen with different ears to the different voice of women’s poetry for children. In a broader literary context, there has also been a re-evaluation of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. Where once she was relegated to the ‘B’ list of nineteenth-century poets, she seems to have moved up as critics listen more carefully to her poetry and recognise how finely tuned her ear was to poetic cadences. Poet Tom Paulin writes a wonderful tribute to Rossetti’s ‘subtly stringent ear’ in a Times Literary Supplement review (18 January 2002) of a collection of her poems edited by Betty Flowers.

I don’t want to leave this section without mentioning other ways in which children’s literature critics are gradually recovering a female literary tradition. By revealing the constructions of gendered patterns of childhood reading, academic feminist critics are beginning to locate the origins of ideological constructions of gender. Two studies of nineteenth-century girls’ books and boys’ books were published within a year of one another: Girls Only? Gender and Popular Children’s Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910, by Kimberley Reynolds in 1990, and Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminist Ethic and British Children’s Fiction, 1857-1917, by Claudia Nelson in 1991. The sudden focus on that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century time period is more than coincidental. It marks a critical recognition of that period as the time when colonial and patriarchal values were being actively inscribed in the culture. In widely circulating periodicals like the Girl’s Own Paper (published initially by the Religious Tract Society) girls were encouraged to accept simultaneously characteristics gendered feminine - ‘purity, obedience, dependence, selfsacrifice and service’ - and an ‘image of feminine womanhood ... expanded to incorporate intelligence, self-respect, and ... the potential to become financially dependent’. The result was a set of ‘contradictory tendencies characteristic of femininity: reason and desire, autonomy and dependent activity, psychic and social identity’ (Nelson 1991: 141). Those contradictions still haunt women today.

Other critics participate in the recovery of more recent histories of the relations between gender and reading. A collection of essays, Girls, Boys, Books and Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture (1999), edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret Higonnet, demonstrates the range of topics that seem to have been prompted by feminism but then engage a joyous, large critical grasp. There is a postcolonial essay by Claudia Marquis, an essay on contemporary Indian stories by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, an essay on dolls’ houses by Lois R. Kuznets and an essay by Lynne Vallone on ‘Riot Grrr' zines (magazines linked to a punk-inspired movement of fourteen- to twenty-five-year- olds, called ‘Riot Grrrls’).

Relations between public success and childhood reading were recounted in several reading memoirs published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The women writing them at the height of, or late in, their professional careers seem to be offering clues that might be of use to librarians and teachers interested in creating a more supportive academic environment for girls. In ‘My Book House as Bildung’, Nancy Huse reconstructs her childhood reading of Olive Miller’s My Book House as a way of establishing a maternal pedagogical line that influenced her choice of an academic career. And in the children’s literature journal Signal, Nancy Chambers has published several reading memoirs by well-known women who are active in a range of children’s literature fields. Among them are ones by children’s book editor Margaret Clark (1991); author Jane Gardam (1991); and Susan Viguers (1988) writing about her children’s-literature-expert mother. In The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading (2002), Francis Spufford (a man) eloquently explains how the books of his childhood in the late 1960s and 1970s formed his literary and ideological tastes. All reveal how childhood reading enabled them to enter public worlds of letters on bridges built from private, domestic literate environments.

The tunes - to borrow a phrase from Margaret Meek (1992) - of women’s texts are different from the ones established in the canon as being of value. What feminist theory has revealed, especially in reconstructions of a female literary tradition, is that the disproportionate emphasis placed on adventure, power, honour and public success squeezed out feminine valuing of maternal, domestic voices, ideas of sisterhood and stories about the lives of women. While only the feminist fairy tales may have found popular readership, scholarship teaches us to value domestic scenes and colloquial voices, and to remember our histories. It enables us to make familiar the new texts that come our way. The scholarship enables us to appreciate their difference.