The following is a research project I'm revising. I hope readers find it, if not interesting, at least not utterly boring.
Themes of Violence within Children’s Literature
of the Nineteenth Century
Nicole Kapise Perkins
[ 3 May 2008]
The nineteenth century saw an incredible upheaval in the literature produced for children. In previous centuries, literature for children consisted primarily of moral and religious tracts, such as The New England Primer, published in 1690 by Benjamin Harris. This book contained an alphabet, tables of syllables, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and an account of the burning of a Protestant martyr at the stake (encarta.msn.com).
The 1700’s brought a rise in more fantastic stories with the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift; however, the greater part of published children’s literature still focused on moral advice and educational value.
With the birth of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, children’s literature shook off its moralistic constraints and became lighter, more interesting, and no doubt more entertaining. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Books and the ‘colored’ Fairy Books by Andrew Lang became favorites of both children and adults.
The Romantic genre of the nineteenth century was closely linked to the Gothic genre; indeed often the two overlapped, and both figured prominently in the language of many stories (Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, for example).
The themes of violence within the Gothic genre carried over into much of the nineteenth century children’s literature. The complied tales of the Brothers Grimm, the retold popular myths of Hawthorne’s Wonder Books, original tales by William Makepeace Thackeray and Hans Christian Anderson, as well as traditional ‘nursery rhymes’; all carry strong, often disturbing themes of violence that when reviewed are often found to be unfit for children. Yet these stories, met with enthusiasm in the nineteenth century, remain popular with children in later generations as well.
With the dawn of the Victorian age, literature for children became richer, though not necessarily more nourishing. Readers of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne novels will remember Anne’s account of a ghoulish story of a ghost child wandering the Haunted Wood, ending with a dramatic heartfelt sigh: “A Haunted Wood is so very romantic, Marilla.” (Montgomery, 164)
For readers of the nineteenth century, the lines between romance and horror were blurred. It is this lack of distinction that helped to create the children’s book as we know it today. While many writers focused on the relationship between the two writing styles, many others sought to separate them, feeling that their associates’ original stories and retold tales were inappropriate for young readers. It is ironic to note that many of the latter were prolific Gothic writers; Louisa May Alcott supported her family not on the sales of Little Women and Eight Cousins, but on the income earned from the lurid serial stories she sold to newspapers.
While many successful authors crossed over into children’s literature, the nineteenth century saw many new writers, solely focused on producing literature for children. In 1818 Mrs. Sherwood produced the acclaimed The History of the Fairchild Family. The first edition included an afternoon outing of the Fairchild family to see a hanged man decaying on the gallows; Mr. Fairchild bids his children to sit beneath the corpse and meditate on the sins of fighting amongst each other. In later editions this passage was removed. Lithographs from the book show a child with her clothes on fire, illustrating “the dire consequences of disobedience.” The child’s mother looks on as her daughter burns. Critics have mixed views of this book. While Mrs. Sherwood manages to capture the essence of the Victorian family model and manages to write in such a manner that children were drawn to her work, her strict morals overcame her literary creativity, “and such delights as hot buttered toast and feathered hats became lessons in greed and vanity.” (Egoff, 34) She stated once that children were ‘by nature evil’, and that ‘pious and prudent parents must check their (childrens’) naughty passions in any way that they have in their power.’ It can be said that Mrs. Sherwood wrote not to spoil the child but to encourage the rod.
An English chapbook from 1820 contained the full verses to the traditional nursery rhyme Jack and Jill:
Jack and Jill went up a hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got
And home did trot,
As fast as he could caper.
Dame Gill did the job
To plaster his knob
With vinegar and brown paper.
Then Jill came in
And she did grin
To see Jack’s paper plaster;
Her mother whipt her,
Across her knee
For laughing at Jack’s disaster.
Another chapbook (date unknown) gives this full account of The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children
She didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
Now the shoe that she lived in
I’ve heard was Shoe Lane,
Where the dame kept a school
And the birch produced pain
In a flock of small children of whom it was said,
That they sometimes smelt porridge, but seldom saw bread.
1823 saw the first English translations of German Popular Tales by the Brothers Grimm. These tales of wicked stepmothers, beautiful princesses and clever goatherds became wildly popular among children and adults, though the content was never originally intended for children. The moral implications are not to be ignored: Cinderella’s stepsisters end their lives lame and blind as punishment for their greed and deceit; Snow White’s stepmother dances herself to death in a burning frenzy at Snow White’s wedding, a fitting end for one who’s beauty is only skin-deep. The villainous handmaid in ‘The Goose Girl’ chooses her own fate: “She deserves nothing better,” said the false bride, “than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.” (Zipes, 327); and in ‘The Juniper Tree’ the stepmother not only kills her stepson, but lays the blame on her daughter, then cooks the boy into a stew and feeds him to his father. Traditional nursery rhymes from the time follow:
Sleep, little one, sleep
Thy father guards the sheep,
Thy mother shakes the little tree
That peaceful dreams may light on thee
A black one and a white one,
And if you will not go to sleep
The black sheep, he will eat you up.
-Traditional German (Hurliman, 3)
Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing I say.
Peace this moment, peace or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.
-The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (Hurliman, 5)
This casual approach to violence toward children was seen as the social standard in Victorian society. Child mortality was very high, especially among the lower classes. Sickness and death were common themes in the literature of the time, including children’s literature. Clemens Brentano’s The Dreadful Tale of Chicken and Cockerel begins and ends with tragedy:
Cockerel hastens to the well,
Well, well, give me water,
Chicken lies on yonder hill
Choking on a walnut stone…
He reached Chicken with the water
But she had choked to death alone,
Choked upon the walnut stone. (Hurliman, 17)
In 1839 Catherine Sinclair sought to change this in her book Holiday House. In her novel, children are allowed to be children: noisy and mischievous, without having to endure sermons and horrifying consequences for their behavior. In her study of children’s literature, Shelia Egoff states that “to many critics, Holiday House represents the true beginning of children’s literature.” (Egoff, 34) Following Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House were books that became today’s classics. Yet even these treasured tales are not without an air of violence or danger, and while today’s adult reader may think of them as charming children’s stories, one still might question why these stories were classified as ‘children’s literature’. Essentially, their elements of faerie and nonsensical adventure separated the men from the boys, and even though L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz begins with death, it is viewed as a marvel of children’s literature.
With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Victorian society began to change. Various groups began to champion for social reform, including the abolition of slavery and the introduction of children’s rights. Rearing children transitioned from grinding their will to dust beneath a sledgehammer of moralistic degradation to training children to become adults: socializing them, and teaching them to conform to law and society’s ideals. With the removal of more disturbing passages from The Fairchild Family and Catherine Sinclair’s presentation of natural children, a softer attitude toward children and children’s literature were becoming apparent. Thanks to the Gothic and Romantic genres, children now had child-themed stories to read and act out, regardless how inappropriate they may have been.
Gothic and Romantic fiction are defined by specific ideas that separate them from general fiction. Romantic fiction is defined as “having no basis in fact: imaginary; marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized, or of, relating to, or constituting the part of the hero, especially in a light comedy.” Gothic fiction is defined by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents (www.miriam-webster.com). In much of the fiction of the nineteenth century there is little distinction between the two. Great romantic classics such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or her sister Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, and Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase are all examples of the overlap between Gothic and Romantic literature. All are stories of passion and devotion, but they are rife with dark mystery and intrigue. In Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase (never published in Alcott’s lifetime because she thought the subject too shocking for polite readers) Rosamund is drawn to the mysterious Philip Tempest whose scarred visage hints at a villainous past, yet even her wildest fantasies couldn’t begin to imagine what a monster her husband is. Heathcliff and Cathy’s dark, passionate love has been recognized through the years for what it is, and the Reverend Mr. Dimmsdale’s horrifying secret remains an eloquent reminder of how dangerous love can be. So great was their success in writing thrilling stories for adults, many writers began to cross over into children’s literature, and quite surprisingly produced some of their finest, and often most memorable works.
The poet John Ruskin was challenged by twelve year old Effie Gray to write a children’s book in 1841. He did so, but held back on publishing the story for ten years. When The King of the Golden River was published in 1851 Ruskin’s fame grew even larger. Nathaniel Hawthorne produced A Wonder Book in 1851, followed by Tanglewood Tales in 1853. These collections of traditional Greek myths retold enchanted young readers: they held all the magic and adventure of a time long forgotten yet were written in the language the nineteenth century child spoke, and they are told in a story-teller fashion. In ‘The Gorgon’s Head’, Perseus sets out to kill the Gorgon Medusa for the benefit of his village rather than to save the Princess Andromeda. The god Hermes is renamed Quicksilver, and the three Gray Sisters of the myth are named Scarecrow, Nightmare and Shakejoint. Hawthorne leaves the traditional ending, however, and the evil king is turned to stone beneath the Gorgon’s gaze.
William Makepeace Thackeray achieved fame with Vanity Fair, his brilliant novel of social climbing, yet just as well known is his lovely story The Rose and The Ring, written in 1855. The story has no moral or message; it is simply a faerie story written as a Christmas pantomime for his children. All is lovely in the kingdom of Crim Tartary until the nobles revolt, and what happens later is a story of fairy magic, love, adventure, and an orphaned princess literally being thrown to the lions.
The much beloved Little Women, Jo’s Boys, Little Men and Under The Lilacs written by child-loving Louisa May Alcott were ‘bits of rubbish’ she penned to entertain children she knew. Under The Lilacs first appeared as a serial story in the Concord newspaper. These are beautiful stories, eloquently describing family life in Civil-War America, and later. But even these lovely stories are not without their touches of despair: Mr. March contracts typhus and nearly dies while serving as an Army chaplain, Beth survives scarlet fever but her continuing ill health eventually kills her, Ben Brown runs away from the circus because ‘Smithers’ beats him after his father leaves for the West, and Sancho, the clever dog who can dance and stand on his head is stolen away by a bad man who cuts off his tassel of a tail and beats him when he won’t obey.
Other stories were to carry violent images as well. Edward Lear’s The Book of Nonsense features limericks in charming rhyme, encouraging children to sing of the ‘unlucky old person of Ems’ who fell in the Thames and drowned and an old person of Chester at whom children threw stones and ‘broke most of his bones.” (Lear, 6) Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter is a collection of short rhymes and original drawings by the author; little Conrad ‘Suck-A-Thumb’ is warned that one day a great tall tailor will come along and cut off his thumbs if he continues to suck them, and sure enough one day the tailor rushes in with his scissors, and Conrad stands thumbless and bleeding. Augustus ‘who would not have any soup’ is shown to starve to death as he refuses his dinner, and in ‘The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches’, “It burns her hair, it burns her feet; it burns the little child complete,” and readers are shown an illustration of kittens weeping over a little heap of gray ash and a pair of little red slippers (Hoffman, 7).
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 The Nutcracker has long been a holiday favorite. Who hasn’t thrilled to the sounds of a lavish Christmas Eve party and the great battle of the toys and mice later in the night? Tchaikovsky’s illustrious ballet gave theatre-goers a visual of the foundation of the book, but only readers will be familiar with the evil hissings of the Mouse-King when he demands Maria’s marzipan dolls and her lovely silk dress (an allusion to the sexual abuse that was prevalent in Victorian households but kept hidden away) or he will bite her to pieces. The hideous transformation of the Princess Pirlipat after the Mouse Queen bites her and later Godfather Drosselmeier’s nephew when he steps on and accidentally kills the Mouse Queen can both be seen as a kind of imprisonment: Pirlipat for her mother’s stinginess and young Herr Drosselmeier for murder, however unintentional it may have been.
In 1862 something incredibly revolutionary happened to children’s literature: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took Dean Liddell’s daughters on a picnic, and in an afternoon of storytelling, Lewis Carroll and Alice were born. In later years the college don, mathematics lecturer, and childless bachelor would remark that he “distinctly remembered how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line in fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” (1887 essay, Hurliman, 64) What happened afterwards was a story of such bizarre nonsense that it actually did make sense, and though some passages border on disturbing and fuel the debate of whether or not Dodgson was in fact an opium addict, as of the printing of Egoff’s study of children’s literature (1988), Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was the most quoted book in the English language, after the Bible and Shakespeare (Egoff, 47). The following year Anglican minister and social reformer Charles Kingsley would write The Water Babies for his youngest child Grenville and take the fantasy world to an even stranger place. While Dodgson placed Alice in a looking-glass world where everything was a darker reflection of the other side and doomed oysters danced along the shore, Kingsley plunged little Tom first down a chimney where he becomes a horror unfit for proper children’s eyes and then later into a river where he is saved from drowning only at the last minute by being transformed into an ‘eft’. With this book Kingsley created the first true ‘Other World’ fantasy: his water world is beneath an English river, but therein live faeries, water babies, talking fish and efts. So strong was Kingsley’s message about the cruelty and deprivation Tom existed in as a child chimney sweep that following the publication of The Water Babies, the Chimney Sweep Act of 1788 that had lain dormant for seventy-five years was finally reviewed and enforced (Egoff, 36). The opening paragraph of The Water Babies is considered by many critics to be one of the finest passages in children’s literature to date.
Hans Christian Anderson published his beloved tales in 1875, and for the first time in history faerie stories had an unhappy ending. Even the compiled tales of the Brothers Grimm ended with ‘happily ever after’; not so Anderson’s stories. The poor little Match Girl freezes to death because she can’t go home or her father will beat her; the ‘Steadfast Tin Soldier’ is blown into the stove by the sinister Jack-in-the-Box’s magic and melts into a heart-shaped medallion, and the sorrowful little Mermaid, when given the choice between murder or suicide, throws herself overboard on the last morning of her mortality and dissolves into sea foam. Anderson’s unhappy childhood fueled his faerie stories of sadness and longing, and even in his later years was unable to recognize what a profound impact he and his work had on children of the nineteenth century. He died alone, as poor as he was in childhood, unaware that his characters had reached immortality.
One would expect that clerics writing children’s books would try to focus on happier, spiritually fulfilling stories, but the works of Charles Kingsley and Charles Dodgson show otherwise. George MacDonald was to continue the trend in 1872 with The Princess and The Goblin, and again in 1883 with the sequel, The Princess and Curdie. The former is an interesting twist on the classic faerie tale theme. The goblins plan to kidnap little Princess Irene and force her to marry their prince; Curdie saves her, and is later captured, and so it is Irene who becomes the hero of the story, rushing off to save the miner’s son from certain death. While there is little violence in this story, the implications are there, and are met in the sequel. In The Princess and Curdie the morals of the people of the kingdom have begun to degenerate, and their greed and selfishness destroy not only their lands but the very foundations on which their city is built. The people refuse to change, and suddenly one day “the whole city fell with a roaring crash. The cries of men and the shrieks of women went up with its dust, and then there was a great silence.” MacDonald mirrors the Great Flood in his collapse of the city: through their sins, the people are horribly punished, so that future generations (the children of his generation) could strive for something greater. Again, here is an example of a lovely story of magic and adventure with a kind and beautiful princess and a clever commoner, but even though it is a children’s story (or perhaps because it is) there is an undercurrent of violence and death that both the characters and the readers could not escape from.
Dinah Maria Mulock Craik’s story The Little Lame Prince begins in tragedy, as the little prince is dropped by a careless maid on the morning of his Christening and the fall cripples him for life, and later that same morning his mother very quietly dies all alone, “without a fuss, just as she lived her life.” (Craik, 14) The Prince’s cheerfulness and kind nature make him an instant hero, however, and his curiosity about the world around him inspired children to look around at their own world with enthusiasm.
Writers of children’s fiction in the nineteenth century could not seem to avoid the undercurrent of violence that was so ingrained in society. One would think that a greater effort would have been made to provide children with a manner of escapism so that somehow, perhaps in books, they could find a kinder place, a proverbial ‘room of their own’. On the one hand, these writers all achieved something magnificent: they wrote children’s stories. Never mind the underlying tones of violence; compared to the moral tracts of the eighteenth century, these stories were joyful light reading. On the other hand, writers often write what they know. While many of these stories are considered faerie tales, the writers often drew on their personal experiences or philosophies to form the basis of the story (Anderson’s childhood, for example, or Ruskin’s studies as a naturalist).
Many of these stories were light-hearted lessons in conformity and proper behavior. Princess Irene purposely seeks out Curdie after he has saved her because she promised him a kiss, which she was prevented from delivering. ‘A Princess always keeps her promise,’ she says, implying that any child can be a princess or prince if they are good, honest, and fulfill their promises. Tom from The Water Babies eventually manages to grow into a good-natured thinker, and as an adult becomes a man of letters. Proper behavior will lead to cleanliness of spirit, and make a child grow into a person of importance, Kingsley seems to imply.
While the Victorian era was hailed as the century of the family, there is greater evidence that suggests children were often left to fend for themselves. Parents provided housing, education and nourishment, but it was up to the children to develop their social structure and socializing skills. Often families were large, with many children, and hours of enjoyment and play could be derived from picture books and novels. Even into the nineteen hundreds children were acting out Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the story of Bluebeard; Howard Pyle’s’ The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and his King Arthur cycles fueled hours of play, and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper were a success not only with American children, but also with European children who couldn’t begin to conceive of a land with Indians existing in it.
Overall, the children’s literature of the nineteenth century had a very positive impact on children. Children were encouraged to read, and with the social reforms of the time, children of lower class families had an opportunity to learn to read as well. The violent themes were easily overlooked, or accepted for what they were: elements of a society that was in limbo. The Industrial Revolution brought changes to society that had never been considered. Now instead of having to feed a houseful of children, the children could be sent out to factories to earn a living. As child mortality rates rose, reformers began to examine the conditions children were working in, and soon those same factories that brought such success and wealth to towns were forced to reduce the number of workers. Families again had to care for large numbers of children on limited incomes. Child mortality due to illness was high, and it wasn’t uncommon for three out of five families with four or more children to lose at least one child. Sickness, death, and abuse were an everyday part of life for children of the nineteenth century, and the literature crafted for children illustrated that. One could argue that children were given a kinder view of their world: sickness and death may abound, but here in the realm of faerie, it’s nothing to fear. It’s just a part of the world as we know it.
Children today know a much greater sense of freedom and opportunity than the Victorian child could have dreamed. Every child attends school; social programs exist to provide children with food to eat and a place to live. Twenty-first century society still has some demons crawling about: homelessness, poverty, and child abuse are not things of the past. Thanks to the foresight of nineteenth century reformers, however, the wondrous worlds of literature remain open. Any child can visit a library, either in their school or in town, and lose themselves in adventures in which they can be the star. Because writers of the nineteenth century decided to write a new kind of book, something adults might read, but was not necessarily for adults, children today have the opportunity to read books that are written specifically for them. Society has evolved, as has children’s literature. There is still violence and danger in this world, but thanks to the works of Catherine Sinclair, G.E. Farrow and Mrs. Molesworth, today there are stories of happiness and fun; Lewis Carroll is still a favorite today, as is Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, in spite of the darkness of their stories. These writers paved the way for such visionaries as Todd Parr, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss and Astrid Lindgren, and while There’s a Wocket in my Pocket and Underwear Dos and Don’ts are a world away from Holiday House, one need only look through a looking-glass to see that children’s literature is a universal language.
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