Nineteenth-century children's literature was dominated by two major trends, one highly didactic and the other emphasizing entertainment based in fantasy or adventure. Although the two would merge in the late Victorian era, moral tales and instructional literature defined the genre's early steps at the beginning of the century. As historians of the genre have documented, European and American cultures saw little need for children's books in the eighteenth century; when that need arose in the late 1700s, it was focused almost exclusively on education. Although some playful poems and tales did exist early in the nineteenth century, educators, writers, and publishers treated texts for pleasure with suspicion; the style would not become generally accepted as appropriate for children until the second half of the century.
Critics who study children's literature have found that what is viewed as appropriate reading for children adheres closely to a culture's notion of what a child is—a notion that may change considerably from epoch to epoch. As critic Anne Scott MacLeod has shown, the nineteenth century opened with a prevailing belief in a rational but imperfect child and moved to the Romantic idea of childish purity and innocence. When late eighteenth-century popular cultures were dominated by religion, either Catholic or Protestant, notions about the nature of children were grounded in the doctrine of Original Sin: the belief that all individuals are born with and prone to sin and must therefore battle against temptation to reach a state of grace. As a result, literature written for children—which became considerable in the first half of the nineteenth century—consisted of "moral tales" designed to instruct children in proper behavior, the most important of which was obedience to one's parents and God. The use of the moral tale had its most active adherents in various Protestant Sunday school movements, popular both in Britain and the United States, through which religious societies disseminated instruction in faith. Consequently, most of the authors were devout Protestants—especially women concerned with the instruction of children, including most notably Anna Letitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. This literature made no effort to coax or please the child into learning, but instead assumed that indulgence harms children while discipline matures them.
There was also a second, secular branch of instructional literature developing at this time. The image of the rational child—the child as a miniature adult—also encouraged parents to discourage whimsy in their children, turning every activity into a lesson. The model came from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel-cum-educational-theory Émile (1762) showed the boy made into an ideal rational man through this method of instruction.
A competing construction of the child, however, survived the first part of the century and gradually took precedence in the latter half. Most critics will label this the Romantic figure of the child, finding its expression and inception in the work of the Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As imagined in Wordsworth's The Prelude and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," the child is not only unfallen and beautiful, but has special perceptive powers denied corrupted adults. As this image became dominant in the more secular Victorian era, poems, fairy tales, and fantasies designed to entertain children—or to instruct them playfully—shouldered out the didactic literature of the religious societies.
When publisher John Harris printed William Roscoe's The Butterfly's Ball in 1807, the virtually nonsensical poem set off a wave of imitators, which Harris published at a fast pace. English audiences had fairy tales made available to them in print in 1823, when publishers issued editions of both The Court of Oberon; or, Temple of Fairies, which introduced Mother Goose in a print format, and an English version of the tales collected in Germany by the brothers Grimm. The books fulfilled a need that was not addressed in the didactic literature, although the heyday of fantasy was still far off. Their participation in the fantastic and often amoral met with the rejection of the leading authors of children's literature, although fairy tales did manage to make some headway even in the early part of the century when their promoters, like the Grimm brothers, refashioned the tales they transcribed into stories palatable to early nineteenth-century middle-class morality.
The gradual blending of these various currents allowed for the prevalence of a hybrid creature in the 1860s, the beginnning of the "golden age" in children's literature, when it became common for children's verse and novels to offer a "sugared pill"—a lesson imbibed through entertainment. Lewis Carroll marked the extreme in playful entertainment with the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. By the end of the century, fantasy and adventure novels dominated the market, defined by Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Louisa May Alcott, among others. Although inexpensive adventure novels known as "shilling shockers" or "penny dreadfuls" drew some fire for their sensationalism, they still served an instructional function, as contemporary critics have shown. Recently, several critics have examined in particular how this prolific genre taught children socially accepted gender roles. They encouraged boys to be ambitious, courageous, and patriotic; they encouraged girls, ultimately, to find pleasure in their families and homes. Although the package had changed considerably, children's literature maintained its educational imperative.
Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (novel) 1868
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (novel) 1865
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (novel) 1872
A Christmas Carol (novel) 1843
The Parent's Assistant (short stories) 1796
Early Lessons (short stories) 1800
Juliana Horatia Ewing
Jackanapes (novel) 1884
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
German Popular Stories (stories) [first English edition] 1823
A Wonder-Book For Girls and Boys (short stories and poetry) 1852
Tom Brown's School Days (novel) 1857
The Water Babies (novel) 1863
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Anne Scott MacLeod
SOURCE: "From Rational to Romantic: The Children of Children's Literature in the Nineteenth Century," in Poetics Today, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1992, pp. 141-53.
[In the following essay, MacLeod describes the history of nineteenth-century children's literature as a shift from rationalist concepts of the child to Romantic concepts, a shift she argues was shaped by mid-century social protest.]
In the course of the nineteenth century, American children's literature made a momentous journey from eighteenth-century rationalism to nineteenth-century romanticism. When the journey was complete, the children of children's fiction, rational, sober, and imperfect at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had become innocent, charming, and perfect: the rational child had become the romantic child. The change in children's literature was by no means either smooth or steady, nor was it predictably linked to changes in adult literature. In fact, for the first half of the century, children's fiction was all but static in form and content. When the shift occurred around 1850, it was brought about by social change; the literature was reshaped and pressed into service as a form of social protest in a changing society. Fundamentally, the shifts in children's literature followed—although at a little distance—the nineteenth-century adult taste for romantic and sentimental literature....
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F. J. Harvey Darton
SOURCE: "The Moral Tale: (i) Didactic" and "The Moral Tale: (ii) Persuasive; chiefly in verse," in Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life, Cambridge at the University Press, 1932, pp. 158-81, 182-204.
[In the following excerpt from his seminal study of children's literature, Darton discusses in detail the history of instructional literature, listing many of its practitioners and conventions.]
Between about 1790 and 1820 there were at least a score of writers for children whose recognition by the public was sufficient, on economic grounds, to get them into print regularly. The stronger ones . . . have escaped Time's scythe, though maybe they are only preserved for show in an old-fashioned garden. Those of less hardy growth are now little more than names, and must here have something like catalogue treatment. They were very much of a pattern. They were far better at telling a story than at constructing one. Their very themes made for feebleness of plot. They did not, till the end of the period, run to great length, a fact which upsets all comparison with modern books. Nor, except for an evidently increasing ease (fluency is the better word), did they differ greatly in their conception of what a Moral Tale should be. It should illustrate a particular platitude, and that was about all. Most of the heroes and heroines, or, if you will, villains...
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Fairy Tales And Fantasy
SOURCE: "Once There Were Two Brothers Named Grimm," in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books, 1987, pp. xvii-xxxi.
[In the following excerpt, Zipes briefly outlines the history of the Grimm brothers' famous collection of fairy tales, describing both how they collected and edited the stories and how the tales were first received in various nations.]
Though the Grimms made important discoveries in their research on ancient German literature and customs, they were neither the founders of folklore as a study in Germany, nor were they the first to begin collecting and publishing folk and fairy tales. In fact, from the beginning their principal concern was to uncover the etymological and linguistic truths that bound the German people together and were expressed in their laws and customs. The fame of the Brothers Grimm as collectors of folk and fairy tales must be understood in this context, and even here, chance played a role in their destiny.
In 1806 Clemens Brentano, who had already published an important collection of folk songs entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn, 1805) with Achim von Arnim, was advised to seek out the aid of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm because they were known to have a vast knowledge of old German literature and folklore. They were also considered to be...
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Making Men/Making Women
SOURCE: "Reluctant Lords and Lame Princes: Engendering the Male Child in Nineteenth-Century Juvenile Fiction," in Children's Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association Seminar on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association, Vol. 21, 1993, pp. 3-19.
[In the essay that follows, Richardson uses psychoanalytic theory to demonstrate that, contrary to contemporary and even late-Victorian notions of masculinity, children's literature in the mid-nineteenth century often imagined a "manliness" that was almost effeminate.]
Wordsworth's phrase "The Child is Father of the Man," from his self-authorizing epigraph to the "Immortality" ode, could equally well introduce any number of nineteenth-century representations of childhood. What in Wordsworth's time are still relatively new-fangled notions—that childhood is a period of crucial psychic and moral development, and that adult life is largely shaped, if not quite determined, by childhood experience—grow increasingly self-evident as the nineteenth century progresses, eventually to become codified in the work of Freud. This genetic, developmental approach to childhood is as central to texts representing the child to itself as to those representing the child to adults. Nineteenth-century British children's fiction, whether didactic, fantastic, or "realistic" in character, almost invariably...
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Avery, Gillian. "Death." In Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories 1780-1900, pp. 212-25. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1965.
Examines the presence of death in nineteenth-century children's literature, characterizing it as a form of punishment in early didactic stories and as a sign of innocence in later Victorian writing.
Bingham, Jane, and Grayce Scholt, eds. "Nineteenth Century (1800-1899)." In Fifteen Centuries of Children's Literature: An Annotated Chronology of British and American Works in Historical Context, pp. 131-256. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Places children's literature of the period in social, national, and historical contexts; prefaces a chronologically arranged annotated list of published children's books. The essay is excerpted in the entry above.
Bottigheimer, Ruth B., ed. Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, 317 p.
A collection of critical essays, all of which consider the various social functions that fairy tales serve in different cultures.
Bratton, J. S. The Impact of Victorian Children's Fiction. London: Croom Helm, 1981, 230 p.
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