‘An Adventure of Master Tommy Trusty; and his delivering Miss Biddy Johnson, from the Thieves who were going to murder her’: this is the charming title of a story in the first-ever children’s periodical, the Lilliputian Magazine, brought out by John Newbery in 1751, and with its theme of character-moulding (a silly little girl is cured of vanity through suffering a fright) it set the tone for a good deal of juvenile magazine fiction for some time. Right up until the 1930s and Forties, characters in the children’s papers were still being moulded, sometimes with equal suddenness, as defects such as snobbishness or spite were ironed out of them. But it was during the last century that the reformist impulse in children’s authors was at its strongest. Such papers as there were, were full of fearful warnings about the likely outcome of frivolity or disobedience. Give in to naughtiness, the message was, and you will pay dearly for it: after the misdoing (being boisterous on a Sunday, or coveting a pear), as likely as not, comes the deathbed scene – however, Kirsten Drotner tells us, pictures of dying children were sometimes juxtaposed with elephants and giraffes, presumably to keep readers’ spirits from subsiding altogether. Not that all fictional children were seen as wilful – on the contrary, the misbehavers had their counterparts in the horde of priggish young who set about eroding the turpitude of wicked adults, as in the magazine story of 1827 called ‘The Pious Girl and her Swearing Father’: judging by her clinging attitude (she is illustrated with both arms clasped around his neck), he had plenty to swear about.
Kirsten Drotner has written a serious book about a subject more often approached with snootiness or levity: children’s ephemeral reading, its purposes and effects. She cautions us against judging the bulk of it unduly edifying to start with, or unduly obnoxious once the ‘penny dreadful’ type of paper had caught on, which happened in the 1860s or thereabouts (when, we might gather, a barber had difficulty in distinguishing between his clients and his dinner). However tempting it is to view such material from the standpoint of the present – a practice geared to the arousal of merriment – Drotner believes it’s wrong to extract it from the context of its own time: what she terms ‘the infelicity in separating cultural production from historical circumstances’ is a failing her study doesn’t sanction. She is, indeed, more interested in the context than the content of the periodicals under discussion, and while this cuts out the tedious recapitulation of plot, it also makes her book rather less diverting than it might have been. We get an abundance of social statistics, for example, in place of choice extracts from bygone stories: the numbers of children ‘born into artisan or servant families [who] died before reaching the age of five’, but no examples of fortitude such as that displayed by the youth refusing laudanum on his deathbed: ‘I can bear pain ... but I cannot willingly enter the presence of my Creator in a state little short of intoxication.’ According to Drotner, 19th-century readers were perfectly capable of relishing the ins and outs of a story, while taking or leaving the moral message. This seems a sensible view, and it is, of course, necessary to bear in mind the ideologies of the day, before we succumb to outrage over the horrors once inflicted on inexperienced readers. During the 1860s, for example, the wholesale eating of the ungodly by cannibals or crocodiles, which occurred in papers like Boys of England, merely amounted to a forcible means of communicating a religious truism: good adventurers never came to such bad ends – unless, of course, they were minor characters, and required to ram home the hideousness of heathen ways. Each age has its own ideas about the kinds of reality children can, or cannot, bear: the Victorians didn’t shirk the reality of death, atrocity, having an arm and a leg torn off, all in the interests of Christianity; while we believe quite young children ought to be conversant with all kinds of grown-up issues such as divorce and homosexuality, to inoculate them against intolerance. While the Georgians recoiled from fantasy and fairy tales, we disapprove of anything which upholds a prejudice of the past (golliwog-baiting, or calling an underprivileged boy a ‘ragamuffin’), or which fails to foster braininess in the reader. As far as the latter is concerned, it is surely impossible to estimate the retarding effect of low-grade literature. On the credit side, we have the testimony of Joseph Connolly, book-dealer and author of Children’s Modern First Editions, who graduated from the Beano to the Times.
The Beano (first issued in 1938) is among the papers noted by Kirsten Drotner but not examined in detail, possibly because characters along the lines of Biffo the Bear don’t afford much scope for sober scrutiny. Before we reach this period (and the heyday of the story papers) there’s a lot of ground to cover, and one or two changes of direction. A certain lightening of tone becomes apparent with the Boys’ Own Paper (1879) and its counterpart for girls; however, it wasn’t until the early years of the present century that entertainment, as we understand it, began to replace uplift in the children’s weeklies. The person chiefly responsible for the new note of jollity was Charles Hamilton, better known as Frank Richards, who made a Never Never Land of the English public school, but did it with such dash, amiability and authority that every subsequent generation, right up to the present, has contained its quota of Greyfriars enthusiasts. Greyfriars came into being in 1908 along with Harmsworth’s Magnet, its habitat until 1940 and the paper’s closure; but it wasn’t for another decade or so that Hamilton really got into his stride as an outstanding school-story writer. The very early Magnets have a touch of fustiness about them.
There’s more than a touch of inappropriateness about Kirsten Drotner’s appraisal of the Magnet and its companion paper, the Gem. A kind of disorientation occurs when we’re asked to view the boys of Greyfriars or St Jim’s as a ‘pupil community’, or reminded of ‘tensions between norm and deviance [originating] within the school environment’. Are these proper phrases to find attached to the most high-spirited of stories? (‘ “I say you fellows, it’s a lark, isn’t it?” chortled Billy Bunter.’) Drotner doesn’t seem to have studied her material with sufficient attention to grasp the characters of the boys – or, come to that, the names of all the girls, once she reaches the equivalent female papers, the School Friend and the rest of them. Coker of the Greyfriars Fifth, for instance, is heavy-handed but good-hearted, and not a bully as Drotner says. Indeed, we learn from Mary Cadogan’s celebration of Charles Hamilton and his works that Coker was derived in part from Hamilton’s elder brother Richard, whose Christian name provided the famous pseudonym, and who, quite clearly, was anything but a lout in the eyes of the author. And there’s a Cliff House character named Dolly whom Drotner persists in calling Jolly, as though to superimpose mood over nomenclature.
The book is written from a feminist angle, and Drotner doesn’t miss the persistence of gender distinctions, in the periodicals of the mid-century, even while the other great defining circumstance – social class – was decreasing in consequence. Referring to a staple theme of the Twenties – that of the scholarship pupil making good, in spite of taunts (‘She can’t really be a council school girl. Why, her face is clean!’) – she explains how it’s consistent with the ‘bourgeois belief that the individual [is] separate from, and above, social circumstances and economic impediments’. After about the mid-Thirties, children’s papers turned rather more demotic in tone (‘ “Chase me round the gas works, it’s Inspector Meadows,” muttered Alf excitedly’) – while girls, by and large, continued to get the better of boys only by means of some tongue-in-cheek method such as flattery, and boys were still being initiated into the belief that a good British punch on the jaw was worth any amount of foreign deviousness. Drotner touches on the psychological function of cherished periodicals – which, after all, were meant to be grown out of – noting how certain painful areas in children’s lives (suffering from insecurity, low self-esteem, frizzy hair or whatever) are simultaneously tackled and converted into something altogether more momentous and intriguing. That she calls this process ‘conflict transformation’ is a pity, since jargon forms an odd accompaniment to the slang of the stories (‘ “My hat!” gasped Jack’): however, her book is substantial and sometimes quite briskly written, even if it never rises to funniness. Around the turn of the century, she tells us, girls started taking a more active part in adventures, though they never posed a threat to male supremacy, ‘perhaps because they were always too busy keeping their skirts below the ankles’.
All the idiosyncrasies in Whalley and Chester’s History of Children’s Book Illustration are in the pictures; the accompanying text is workmanlike, informative and plain. ‘Children may not alter,’ say the authors, ‘but their expectations may do so,’ and, no doubt, by the early Victorian period, knowing young readers were looking askance at the nursery homilies tolerated by the previous generation, and demanding to be amused: at any rate, the first of the great amusers, Edward Lear, appeared on the scene in 1846, with his exhilarating nonsense (‘There was an Old Man in a tree, who was horribly bored by a Bee’) and matching lithographs. From this point on, there was no holding children’s books or their illustrators: Cruikshank, Tenniel, Doyle, Arthur Hughes and many others all contribute greatly to the decorativeness of Victorian England, as it’s preserved for later generations. Technical advances soon acted as a spur to artists and publishers alike. Edmund Evans, after about 1870, perfected the technique of colour-printing from wood blocks, and thereby opened the way for that celebrated trio of the late 19th century, Crane, Caldecott and Kate Green-away – vigorous, sportive and quaint respectively. Whalley and Chester note the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements on these and other styles of illustration, and show how Caldecott, in particular, affected later water-colourists like Beatrix Potter.
Their survey, in fact, covers pretty well the whole range of children’s book design, from its 17th-century beginnings to Maurice Sendak – following on from F.J. Harvey Darton’s Children’s Books in England (1932, revised edition 1982) and Percy Muir’s English Children’ Books 1600-1900 (1954). They distinguish between ‘hack’ and acceptable woodcuts in the early chapbooks, showing samples of each, but otherwise, it is only the cream of the field that attracts their attention. (Even here we find omissions: the work of Harry Rountree is excluded altogether, and neither Charles Robinson’s nor Harold Jones’s gets a showing among the illustrations.) The authors allude to the ‘ubiquitous girls’ school story’, but tell us nothing about its illustrators – not even Mabel Lucy Attwell, who provided the pictures for May Baldwin’s Dora: A High School Girl of 1906 (and other pre-Twenties Chambers titles) before popularity and vulgarity overtook her. (An Attwell drawing from Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, published by Tuck, is included.) Reasonably enough, since this is a history of mainstream illustration, the type of periodical discussed by Kirsten Drotner is more or less absent from consideration, but an odd exception is made for the Fifties Eagle, whose first issue is reproduced in colour. What else? Prettifiers like Anne Anderson and Honor Appleton get in, but not the more distinctive Gladys Peto; Robert Lawson is here but not Lawson Wood; A.E. Bestall (briefly) but not Thomas Henry.
In compiling the book – which is, in fact, very nearly comprehensive – the authors have drawn on the holdings of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in particular the Guy Little Collection in the National Art Library and the Renier Collection at Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. Other, similar collections, on a smaller scale, have been amassed, or acquired, by various local authorities throughout the country, and by a handful of libraries (including Wandsworth and the Hertfordshire County Library). Manchester Polytechnic Library has now brought out a catalogue of its holdings covering one hundred years of children’s reading (1840-1939), arranged under 21 headings – ‘Nursery Rhymes and Alphabets’, ‘Picture Books’, ‘Stories 1900-1939’ and so on – splendidly produced, with colour and black-and-white illustrations, and giving a good indication of what’s been available at various moments during this interesting period. We have only to glance at the catalogue to see how the Edwardian idea of manliness was purveyed for adolescent boys (‘A Lad of Grit’, ‘By Sheer Pluck’), who might have felt unentitled to call themselves British, if they didn’t feel confident of playing up on a battlefield.
Children’s fiction furnishes plentiful material for the social historian, as a good many recent studies (including Kirsten Drotner’s) have demonstrated. For collectors, however, the sociological bearing of a children’s book is probably incidental to its appeal as an object – though it’s hard to define exactly what it is that drives specialists in the genre to pursue certain titles down to the last distinguishing mark on the cover. (If, for example, you own a first edition of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s The School at the Chalet with a bit torn off the dust-jacket, you will likely be prepared to pay the earth – up to £100, according to Joseph Connolly – for an intact replacement.) Collectors are probably conservative by temperament, susceptible to evocativeness, and impelled by some unfathomable pressure, like the frequenter of second-hand markets in Michael Longley’s poem:
Drifting between thrift and nostalgia,
That ache to reach home before the dust’s
Final version of your school stories ...
Collectors will spot immediately that not all the books in the Manchester Polytechnic collection are first editions (though many are), and that few come complete with their dust-wrappers (though some enticing Arthur Ransomes and the first of Richmal Crompton’s incomparable ‘William’ series do). They may also wonder why a lot of dates aren’t specified, including some clearly announced by the publishers – The Rivals of the Chalet School, for instance, is dated 1929 – and others not all that hard to ascertain, whether of firsts or of reprints. Sometimes, as the most indefatigable collectors know, a first edition is identifiable only by the colour of its endpapers, or by the presence of a date on the title-page or verso.
Joseph Connolly, who caters for bibliomaniacs of all kinds, has produced a useful and ebullient guide to children’s modern first editions. He’s perhaps not so sound an assessor of girls’ as he is of boys’ writers, leaving out, for example, the lively (and collected) author Dorita Fairlie Bruce, exponent of the kind of schoolgirl honour that prompted a spirited repudiation from Stevie Smith:
Girls! I will let down the side if I get a chance
And I will sell the pass for a couple of pence.
Nor does Connolly, apparently, see any difference between a rare Oxenham title, like Deb of Sea House, and a separately published extract from a longer novel, such as The Girls of Rocklands School: both of these he puts at up to £20. It’s hard, though, to quarrel with his mention of £10 as the upper limit for a late Brent-Dyer – nasty in appearance and very peculiar in content, sometimes featuring thunderstorms, non-stop flooding and jars of green dye falling on people’s heads – even though collectors have been known not to baulk at £37. Early Brent-Dyers, with delectable dust-jackets and illustrations by Nina K. Brisley, are another matter.
There’s a very funny story by J.I.M. Stewart in which an elderly connoisseur of boys’ books gets himself suspected of a rather less innocuous addiction. Not that it makes much difference when the truth comes out: in most people’s minds, an adult interest in the trappings of childhood counts as a quirk. Books like Connolly’s, though, should go some way towards correcting the impression that everything to do with children’s books is inevitably infantile.