Historic Juvenile Collection: Victorian Children’s Literature

One of my favorite descriptions of Victorian times is expressed through The Kinks’ album, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

It’s not that Dickens, or the Bronte sisters don’t do a good job, but it takes them hundreds of pages to say what Ray Davies said in 16 words.
”Long ago life was clean
sex was bad and obscene
and the rich were so mean.”

Victoria, The Kinks

That sentiment is the backdrop of this post as it is also clearly expressed in the literature deemed appropriate for children. This post, like the  stories for children of that time, are divided into two distinct sections- -one for girls and one for boys.

Ladies First

Perhaps not surprisingly, book for girls celebrated domesticity and family life.  Popular tales included Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) which chronicles the story of Rebecca, an imaginative and sunny child who is sent by her impoverished family to live with her two aunts in Maine.  

Another popular author for girls was Charlotte Yonge (1823–1901) who (among other things) wrote a beloved series called The Daisy Chain (1856.)  Wikipedia describes it as “a collection of true stories of courage and self-sacrifice.” Apparently, this book was so adored that during the heyday of its popularity,  “A midshipman was able to supply from memory a missing page in his ship’s copy of The Daisy Chain.”  ( via Wikipedia) In the preface, Yonge describes the stories as “a Family Chronicle–a domestic record of home events, large and small, during those years of early life when the character is chiefly formed…”

In case I’ve peaked your curiosity, you can read some of her work through the Gutenberg Project or the University of Florida’s Digital Collection.

Personally, I love that she apologizes to her readers for her wordiness in the introduction, before they even have a chance to realize the stories are too long. (List of long things in Victorian era: hemlines, attention spans, short stories…)  I did learn that Yonge had quite a contentious relationship with her father and one can’t help but see that in some of her work. She writes “He required a diligence and accuracy that were utterly alien to me. He thundered at me so that nobody could bear to hear it, and often reduced me to tears, but his approbation was so delightful that it was a delicious stimulus…. I believe, in spite of all breezes over my innate slovenliness, it would have broken our hearts to leave off working together. And we went on till I was some years past twenty. (via Wikipedia)

“Innate slovenliness?” Enough to threaten the likes  of  Jo March?

Not quite. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was a commercial success when it was published in 1868, perhaps due to, not in spite of, the tomboy Jo March character.

Louisa herself  wrote “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race,” she claimed, “and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences …” It is no wonder it is written that Jo, may be “the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality –a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.”

Boys

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Boys were encouraged to have adventures and read books by Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. On a superficial level, the stories were filled with adventure, pirates, buried gold and conquests. On a closer read, they are filled with characterizations of good boys and bad boys as well as lessons on the “differences” between civilized (British) society and (largely) everybody else.

I assume we all know enough about Twain’s more famous works (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for example) but he also wrote (in 1871) Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance which I’d like to note because of it’s fantastic ending. Twain writes: “The truth is, I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particularly close place, that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business, and leave that person to get out the best way that offers or else stay there. I thought it was going to be easy enough to straighten out that little difficulty, but it looks different now.”

That’s it, that was the ending. From this perspective, it doesn’t seem the girls were missing out on all that much.

Animals

Despite the differences in Victorian stories for boys and girls , there was something widely considered appropriate for either: animals.

Books like Kipling’s The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book were thought to appeal to both sexes–I suppose all children were capable of appreciating morality lessons taught by anthropromorphized animals. In the case of Kipling, characters include a talking bear and wolf-child who was raised by wolves in the jungles of India. To read more about wolf-children and the fact that Kipling, his father and others, believed in them, click here.

These paved the way for books like Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908.

And perhaps even Charlotte’s Web.

And with that I’ll leave you in (what feels like) ancient history.

**This post was inspired by the article “Children’s Literature” by Jan Susina in Gale’s Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society.**