Good Books

Marghanita Laski

  • The Promise of Happiness by Fred Inglis
    Cambridge, 333 pp, £17.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23142 6
  • The Child and the Book by Nicholas Tucker
    Cambridge, 259 pp, £15.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23251 1
  • The Impact of Victorian Children’s Fiction by J.S. Bratton
    Croom Helm, 230 pp, £11.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 07 099777 2
  • Children’s Literature. Vol. IX edited by Francelia Butler, Samuel Pickering, Milla Riggio and Barbara Rosen
    Yale, 241 pp, £17.35, March 1981, ISBN 0 300 02623 4
  • The ‘Signal’ Approach to Children’s Books edited by Nancy Chambers
    Kestrel, 352 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 7226 5641 6

The easy truism, that a good children’s book is a book that’s good for children too, has enough truth in it to ensure that most fiction reviewers are at least open to the genre. But unless we specialise in children’s fiction, the current literary theory about it is likely to interest only some and only at specific times: those of parenthood and of grandparenthood. My own present interest is the latter.

The last time of looking at the theory, some thirty years ago, was when children’s books were in a doldrums that had lasted from just before the First World War till well after the Second. Though that forty-year gap was not entirely empty, it is odd to notice now how totally even its better books are ignored. All the books about children’s books reviewed here are worthy, honest and interesting. Two of them, The Promise of Happiness and The Child and the Book, aim at comprehensiveness. Only Nicholas Tucker mentions Hugh Lofting who wrote the Dr Dolittle series, and the Index entry reads: ‘Lofting, Hugh, racialism’; only Tucker, and he only in passing, mentions The Borrowers and its sequels. No one mentions the Orlando books. No one mentions Noel Streatfeild. Clearly some of these and other good writers of the period will and should come back into notice. They are mentioned here to draw attention to the inherent fashionability of the topic.

The effects of any literature on readers remains a mysterious and controversial topic, writes Tucker towards the end of his book, an adage to embroider in cross-stitch above the desk of anyone who theorises about children’s literature. This accepted, we can enjoy argument to our hearts’ content, make pleasing patterns at will; so long as we never forget that we know almost nothing, beyond guesses, of the effects of literature on children.

But knowing is, of course, one thing, believing another. And what we most of us believe in is what Inglis in The Promise of Happiness calls ‘bibliotherapy’, the use of novels as not only propaedeutics but also as moral therapeutics. Theoretically, Inglis, like most of the other writers here, is against this. Practically, he is entirely in favour of the use of books for doing all sorts of kinds of good, as is everyone else here, as who is not, and, when it comes to children’s books, with hurricane force.

The kind of good most persistently sought for children through books has been moral good, as J.S. Bratton demonstrates in her/his admirably interesting survey, The Impact of Victorian Children’s Fiction. Over the hundred and fifty years or so from Bratton’s beginnings to now, perhaps the most constant and one of the most attractive aspects of this growth has been awakening to charity, using the name, rather than the fashionable all-purpose ‘love’, to denote that Pauline virtue of loving-kindness to the naturally repellent, the lame, the maimed, the halt and the blind. There are other interpretations of moral growth. Early in Bratton’s period, in the typical fictional tracts manufactured for the newly-literate poor, the aim is to awaken the child to Christian promise, especially in the light of quite probable premature death. The boys’ writers of the 19th century, from Marryat to Henty, typically sought to arouse male virtue, fearlessness, pride in nationhood and then in empire, and finally achieved, as Bratton drily glosses, with ‘a simple code of conformity glorifying physical power, simplicity of speech and mind, softness of feeling, and self-satisfaction with the state not of manliness, but of being a boy’. Again, we must bear fashion in mind. These childish readers, when grown to rule the Empire, seemed to Santayana the sweetest young boyish masters the world had ever seen.

The critics concerned with modern children’s fiction tend to see the sought growth in terms of identity problems: sometimes, of course, class identity, and especially pride in a working-class or ethnic identity, while middle-class children have rather to make out with what can’t be helped. Nowadays sexual identity comes into the picture too, though most of the glosses on the material are more than usually fashionable and meaningless. To say that older boys and girls tend to read different kinds of fiction is a right or wrong observation: to say that they do so because they are seeking sexual identities glosses fact with jargon.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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