decorated initial 'T' he tension between instruction and delight, Dickens's response to didactic educational materials, and his disapproval of George Cruickshank's revisionist (teetotal) fairy tales are all reflected in "Frauds on the Fairies" in Household Words 184 (1 October 1853): 97-100. Dickens, on the other hand, was delighted by Hans Christian Andersen's writings for children, although their friendship wore thin when Andersen overstayed his welcome. Yet another aspect of the topic is the numerous works he wrote for children (for the most part, published in serial):The Life of Our Lord (1846); "A Child's Dream of a Star" in Household Words 1, 2 (6 April 1850): 25-6; A Child's History of England in Household Words (1851-3); "The Child's Story" in A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire, Household Words Christmas Number 1852; Tom Tiddler's Ground (with Wilkie Collins, 1861); and A Holiday Romance (1868).

The beginning of children's literature (i. e., literature intended specifically for a child audience) lies in the Puritan society of seventeenth-century England. Their purpose in writing for children was to inculcate their religious tenets in their own children through the readings, the focus of which was often the moral preparation of the child for death. Since the mortality rate of children in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was high, the Puritans deemed it imperative that children be instructed so as to prevent them from going to Hell upon their passing out of this life and into the next. Herein we find the inception of the "instruct" function of literature intended for children. "Delight" was much longer in coming to children's literature. Before its arrival (and some time after, in fact) children took their reading pleasure from material intended for adults. Prior to the nineteenth century children gravitated to such works as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) — especially "The Voyage to Lilliput" and "The Voyage to Brobdingnag." It cannot be assumed that the instruction-oriented works were entirely morbid, forbidding, or gruesome, although Mrs. Sherwood's History of the Fairchild Family (Part One, 1818; Parts Two and Three, 1847) certainly fits that description. There were humorous elements in some works, and there was a range in didacticism from intense to more tempered. Maria Edgeworth's The Purple Jar (1801) is an example of the tempered didacticism which grew more prevalent toward the end of the eighteenth century, but the forces of literature-as-indoctrination remained very powerful until well into the nineteenth century. While its influence waned somewhat, didacticism in children's literature is still a force to be reckoned with even today.

In terms of societal influences on the children's literature of the nineteenth century, it should be noted here that class distinctions in Britain had been quite rigid until the late eighteenth century. With the onset of more widespread reading materials and skills among the population, the upper classes recognized that they had a vested interest in maintaining the restricted nature of children's literature. Thus, fairy tales were firmly discouraged as such stories often included the concept of social mobility from the lower to the middle classes, and even to the aristocracy. The thrust of 'approved' stories was to reinforce class consciousness and depict upper-class people working altruistically to improve the lot of the 'deserving' poor, who presumably knew their place and were suitably appreciative of such charity. The poor were always shown as as humble and somehow ennobled by their suffering.

These works depicting 'rustic charity' were overshadowed, though, by the popular literature of the day, chapbooks, reading material abhorred by the privileged but devoured by the children of the working class and rural labourers--and secretly enjoyed by upper-class youngsters, too. By the beginning of the eighteenth century wide distribution of chapbooks (meaning "cheap books") had been made possible by evolutions in the printing process. Typically these books were issued coverless, in octavo (i. e., a folio page folded eight times to yield eight leaves or sixteen pages), and sometimes coarsely illustrated with crude block cuts that were standardized, and therefore often totally irrelevant to the text. The contents ranged from fairy tales and folktales to melodramatic tales of horror, crime, and degradation, to abridged versions of the works of prominent novelists (some were well adapted, others appallingly so). The inexpensiveness and ready availability through peddlers made these books a formidable challenge to the reading materials considered to be 'suitable' for young minds. There were also weekly magazines (dubbed "penny dreadfuls") which contained gruesome tales to fascinate the reader, even a modern Stephen King fan! One of these weeklies, the Terrible Register, was a favorite of young Charles Dickens, who, having been raised on the horrific stories told him by his young nurse, Mary Weller, was both attracted to and somewhat repelled by these tales. As a disaffected child sent from the family to work in a blacking factory, he eagerly awaited the weekly arrival of this periodical. Later he was to "conduct" two weeklies of his own, Household Words and then All the Year Round, though neither of these middle-class journals mirrors the content of his earlier obsession.

Dickens had in some small way been fortunate in his early years, though he did not realize how lucky he had been until much later in life. His parents, members of the growing middle class, were somewhat aloof in their child-rearing practices. Though instruction still held sway in the children's literature of his youth, his parents did not enforce this philosophy in what they permitted him to read and hear. John Dickens, his father, had accumulated a small personal library of some of the popular works of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; to this small collection of novels and plays young Charles had unlimited access, and reveled in reading and re-reading such works as Smollett's Roderick Random (1748), Smollett's Peregrine Pickle (1751), and even Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). His father enjoyed theatre and recitation, so young Charles saw popular theatrical performances, took part in family recitations and theatricals, and was allowed to play with the toy theatre he had received as a gift. Finally, as a child of nine Dickens wrote a play entitled Misnar, the Sultan of India based on his reading of Tales of the Genii (1764). Its usual companion, The Arabian Nights, young Charles probably read in Jonathan Scott's six-volume edition of 1811, although the collection of oriental tales gradually appeared as English translations of Antoine Galland's French texts (1704-80) in the early eighteenth century.

Created 18 December 2000

Last modified 25 December 2023