Attitudes towards the child in children's literature: A Comparison of the Victorian Age and the Inter-War Period

Term Paper, 2008

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Attitudes towards the child in children's literature: A Comparison of the Victorian Age and the Inter-War Period

Prior to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, childhood was not considered a separate stage of development. People at that time rather thought of children as miniature adults without a legal status. Due to new upcoming theories of philosophers such as John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau however, children were seen in a new light. Thus, from the late eighteenth century onwards, parents slowly began to look at their children as individuals with concerns, wishes and fears much different from the adult. This new perception of childhood initiated authors to write literature both for and about children, which ultimately led to a new literal genre that we nowadays take for granted: children's literature.

The following essay will compare the attitudes towards the child in children's literature of the Victorian Age with the attitude portrayed in inter-war children's literature. It will explore how the perception of the child in the nineteenth century changed, how this change is reflected in the fiction of the time and how it affected the children's literature of the inter-war period. It will argue that whereas early children's literature was mostly didactic and addressing the adult rather than the child reader, novels of the middle and late nineteenth century concentrated more on young readers and their specific needs and desires by introducing a more entertaining and fabulous style of writing. The essay will then take a closer look at children's literature of the early twentieth century and demonstrate that fiction of that period continued to put the child in the focus of attention while at the same time dealing with new topics and offering ways of escapism with respect to the threat of the Second World War.

The mid-eighteenth century is commonly regarded as the starting point of English children's books.[1] In this period, influential thinkers questioned the concept of the child as miniature adult and established childhood as a separate stage in human development. Krips aptly puts it in a nutshell in saying that children's literature could scarcely be imagined "until it was understood that children had their own needs and desires."[2]

Yet even with the acknowledgement of childhood, children's literature was not yet constituted; or, in Hunt's words: "Children used books long before books were produced specifically for children."[3] The first children's books of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were usually didactic in their purpose and understood themselves as an instrument for socialising the child.[4] Influenced by the Evangelical School of Thought and John Locke's educational philosophy, the British started to look at children as susceptible individuals who must be taught morals and proper behaviour and who could be shaped according to the adult's wishes.

The Evangelical school was based on the perception of the child as a sinful and evil creature that above all had to acquire Christian virtues and morals. All methods to help the child redeem its sins and overcome its natural faults were approved of. Unsurprisingly, the Evangelical theory led to a very rigid educational approach, in the consequence of which children's behaviour was controlled and constricted and all forms of entertainment and amusement vehemently opposed.

A prominent example of the Evangelical approach can be seen in Mary Martha Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family, which was published in 1818. In these highly moralistic and didactic tales, Sherwood voices the prominent belief of the parents' full responsibility over the spiritual and intellectual education of their children. In rather shocking, harsh lessons, Emily, Lucy and Henry have to learn to master their sinful behaviour. Although the incidents described in the stories are simple ones that make up the children's lives; and although the lessons they are confronted with are the usual teachings of obedience, patience and good temper[5], the situations are nevertheless frightening and the lessons quite cruel. Meigs points out that "while the moral issue is always the primary factor in every happening, the lesson is presented through the situation, not from the long-winded explanation and preaching of any one character"[6], which is why they have an even more disturbing effect on both the children within the story and the child reader. In one story, the author's attitude towards children – that stands characteristically for the domineering attitude of the time – is revealed through the character of Mother Fairchild: "All children are by nature evil, and while they have none but the natural evil principle to guide them, pious and prudent parents and masters must check their naughty passions in any way which they have in their power, and force them into decent and proper behaviour, and into what are called good habits."[7] It matches the Evangelical belief system that Emily, Lucy and Henry are not described as individuals, but function as mere representatives of 'evil children' in general. The History of the Fairchild Family can therefore be seen as a guideline to parents and children of adequate role behaviour and good manners.

Though the English philosopher John Locke argued from a very different point of view, his ideas in the end amounted to the same with regard to children's literature and suggested didactic rather than entertaining tales. In his essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke defended his belief of children being born as blank slates ('tabula rasa') without any innate virtues or morals.[8] Following his line of thought, children's minds were empty and neutral and could easily be influenced and moulded by their instructors – for the better or for the worse. In contrast to the Evangelical notion of the child being born as inherently sinful being, Locke proposed that infants would develop their personalities depending on their upbringing. A careful education was thus of utter importance as it was supposed to have lasting effects on the child's nature. Though Locke "advocated much milder ways of teaching and bringing up children that had been used in England"[9], his ideas nevertheless led to a didactic approach in children's literature, which was designed for self-improvement and concentrated on the teaching of morals and virtues rather than factual knowledge.

Children’s literature primarily designed for entertainment developed much later in the nineteenth century and was largely influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Townsend summarizes: "Before there could be children's books, there had to be children – children, that is, who were accepted as beings with their own particular needs and interests, not merely as miniature men and women."[10] It is Rousseau's arguing against the notion of the child as a miniature adult that made him one of the leading figures for children's literature as we know it today. In his book Emile or on Education, he says: "The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know without asking what a child is capable of learning. They are always looking for the man in the child without considering what he is before he becomes a man."[11] Yet, apart from that, Rousseau was groundbreaking in many other aspects as well and especially the Romanticist movement originating in the second half of the 18th century in Western Europe imbibed concepts originally expressed by him.

Similar to Locke, Rousseau believed that children are born as innocent beings, who learn as they grow up and whose minds are easily impressionable. However, in contrast to Locke and the Evangelist movement, he considered infants to be inherently good. For him, the evil had to be seen in society's manipulation and corruption and its harmful influences on the child. Therefore, the child must be protected against society's negative impact. Sharpening its physical senses as only way to access unmediated, unadulterated knowledge, and growing up in nature are keen elements in Rousseau's theory. His idea of the child's natural goodness and innocence and his emphasis of nature and emotion led to the revolutionary premise that "a child cannot be inoculated with knowledge, he will genuinely learn only what he himself experiences."[12] Whereas Locke demanded a rational and more liberal approach to education, Rousseau wanted an entirely new one and was "all for naturalness and simplicity, the language of the heart, the ideal of the noble savage"[13].

An early example of Rousseau's ideas as well as of the new Victorian attitude towards the child can be found in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, which was published in 1849. As in earlier novels, Dickens chose a child, David Copperfield, as the main protagonist for his story, who is described as an individual rather than Sherwood's conception of her child-characters as mere representatives of children in general. We shall see that the development from the conception of the child as a type to a complex individual was continued throughout the nineteenth century. Both in Water Babies by Charles Kingsley and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, we already deal with complex characters. As suggested by Rousseau, David Copperfield grows up in a rural area in Southern England and his problems arise when Mr. and Miss Murdstone intrude upon the private and idyllic life he leads with his mother. Through the Murdstones and Mr. Creakle, Dickens criticizes the authoritarian teaching methods based on absolute obedience and severe punishment and opted for a milder, more child-oriented form of schooling: "He would beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death. […] Then he was gone; and the door was locked outside; and I was lying, fevered and hot, and torn and sore, and raging in my puny way, upon the floor."[14]

As already mentioned above, Rousseau's ideas found great favour by the Romantics. As Rousseau, the Romantics stressed "strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience"[15] and embraced the concepts of childhood innocence and untamed nature and rural countryside as opposed to urban industrialization. The Romanticist movement led to a turning-point in children's literature as it resulted in a renaissance of fables and fairy tales in the Victorian Age. Cosslett explains: "If the child is seen as nearer to nature as the adult, nature stories must be specially suitable for childish readers; if the child is more imaginative than the adult, the fantasy element [...] is also more suitable to children."[16] Before, fairy tales and fantastic elements in literature were viewed with suspicion and initially fiercely opposed for various reasons: Rousseau did not approve of them on the ground that they were unreasonable[17] ; the Evangelists disliked them because that they were closely connected with untruthfulness, and because they feared that fairy tales and fantasy would prove morally harmful to the developing child[18] ; and the majority of Victorians regarded them as being neither useful nor educational. However, with Romanticism, the distrust of the Victorians towards fairy tales gave way to an increasingly sentimentalised and nostalgic view of childhood in the middle of the nineteenth century[19] and slowly found entry in the canon. Yet while fairy stories then available may not have been overtly instructional, they were not free from moralistic effects[20] and Hunt goes even further in questioning the existence of non-didactic books in general: "It is arguable impossible for a children's book (especially one being read by a child) not to be educational or influential in some was; in cannot help but reflect an ideology and, by extension, didacticism."[21]


[1] See Townsend (1965): p.18.

[2] Krips (1997): p.44.

[3] Hunt (2000): p.27.

[4] See Krips (1997): p.43.

[5] See Meigs (1969): p.80.

[6] Meigs (1969): p.80.

[7] The History of the Fairchild Family: p.186.

[8] See: Jamie Gianoutsos: Locke and Rousseau: Early Childhood Education. – 29.07.2008.

[9] Townsend (1965): p.27.

[10] Townsend (1965): p.17.

[11] Rousseau (1762): p.1. (study pack)

[12] Robison (1983): p.318.

[13] Townsend (1965): p.40.

[14] David Copperfield: p.58.

[15] Romanticism. – 10.08.2008.

[16] Cosslett (2001): p.475f.

[17] See Avery (1965): p.16.

[18] See Ang (2000): p.10.

[19] See Krips (1997): p.43.

[20] See Krips (1997): p.44.

[21] Hunt (1994): p.3.

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Attitudes towards the child in children's literature: A Comparison of the Victorian Age and the Inter-War Period
University of Sussex
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Lydia Prexl (Author), 2008, Attitudes towards the child in children's literature: A Comparison of the Victorian Age and the Inter-War Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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