Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Children’s Literature and Social Change

Dennis Butts. Children's Literature and Social Change: some case studies from Barbara Hofland to Philip Pullman. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2010. ISBN 9780718892081.

Reviewer: David Beagley

Dennis Butts, former chairman of the (British) Children’s Books History Society, is well known as a scholar of the texts, writers and reading of children’s literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He has written authoritatively and widely, particularly in the construction of ‘boyhood’ through the stories and adventures marketed for them, and its relation to Victorian imperialism.

However, this text holds several surprises. The first is its provenance. While it is commonplace in academia to recycle writings and to get the most out of a single idea, this is generally done quietly, even surreptitiously. Butts, however, not only admits that considerable parts of the material have appeared before but surprises us with a full and itemized list of the various sources of the originals. The second surprise is that this collection of disparate pieces, from over 20 years, works really effectively as a survey of themes and practices in British children's literature over the last two centuries. There is a consistency of voice between the older parts and the new creations that enables Butts’ major contention - that children, childhood and children’s literature are not created in a vacuum, but are affected by the historical and political tenor of their times. By striving to present what they feel children ought to read, adult writers (consciously or unconsciously) echo the desires, the worries, the hopes, the prejudices, the values and morals, indeed all the attitudes of their time.

The structure, unsurprisingly, is chronological. We start in the early nineteenth century with Barbara Hofland’s moral instructions, move through family, school and adventure stories from ‘The Golden Age’ (Henty, Haggard, Le Feuvre and Nesbit), fly for a while through mid-twentieth century with Biggles and his compatriots, before finishing with the streetwise post-modernism of Philip Pullman. The focus is not only on the great and remembered texts. Ordinary pot-boilers, magazines, and ephemeral bestsellers of a day demonstrate the immense range of the material Butts considers.

While the strongest discussion revolves around his reputation area of constructing boy- and man-hood in stories, he is able to make cogent links to ongoing themes and practice over generations. The chapter ‘Muscular Christianity and the Adventure Story’ not only tracks the evolution of the boy’s adventure story from the early robinsonnades of Marryat, Ballantyne and Kingsley, through the school stories of Talbot Baines Reed and the magazines such as The Boys’ Own Paper, but also shows how their clear didacticism toward duty, honour and selflessness evolves, from the Christian proselytizing common in early nineteenth century stories (often by female writers) to direct political imperialism by fin-de-siècle and post World War One. Barbara Hofland’s moral family tales lead straight to Biggles awing troublesome natives with his aircraft.

Some of the political interpretations are tantalising and warrant deeper exploration than they are able to be given in this broad sweep. E. Nesbit’s socialist leanings have never been secret but Butts makes some very interesting links in her stories to questioning of social construction of class, family and authority (‘The Railway Children and the Strange Death of Liberal England’). Similarly, he touches on dissident voices to the largely placid social views of the 1930s (‘The Retreatism of the 1930s: a Few Dissenters’). In both cases, the ideas are mooted but are waiting a much deeper discussion than he is able to offer in the space of a chapter.

The didactic imperative of so many writers is revisited in ‘Anarchy, Didacticism and Politics: the 1970s and 1990s’. Butts first compares, for the 1970s, what he describes as the instructive moral tales of Byars and Blume in the USA with the anarchic characters of Gene Kemp and Jan Mark in Britain, suggesting that social misfits were earnest in America but comic in Britain. But the more dangerous and destructive societies of the post-Thatcher 1990s produce more dangerous and destructive stories - drugs, domestic violence, unwanted pregnancy, homelessness seem to be the norm - and YA books become bibliotherapy more than entertainment in the stories of Anne Fine, Berlie Doherty and Melvin Burgess.

However, after a short text analysis of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart stories, showing their continuation of the traditional adventure model - plucky teenage hero battling nefarious villains, far from home - the book just finishes. While there is a detailed notes section, extensive bibliography, and full index, there is no conclusion. After establishing clear themes through the various chapters - didactic intent, religious and imperial evangelism, and the structure of the adventure story - and demonstrating links across eras, Butts just stops at the end of the last example. Even a few pages to pull the threads together would have rounded out the text tidily.

It is the only disappointment, though, with a detailed study that draws on a huge library of the stories consumed by the everyday readers of their day. Butt’s key premise about tracking social tenor through these stories is effective because it lets the texts show that. Certainly the judgements of commentators and critics are included, historical and current, but the stories are the focus.

Children’s Literature and Social Change is readable, comprehensive and offers a most intriguing survey of British children's literature over the last two hundred years. Perhaps there is someone who might see it as a template for similar surveys of the USA, Canada, Australia .... one can hope!


David Beagley

Volume 14, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, May/June, 2010

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