- Introduction:Notes Toward a Theory of Class in Children's Literature
This issue of The Lion and the Unicorn on theories of class evolved out of an MLA session on children's literature and class held in New York in 1992. Judging by the response to that initial call for papers, critics from various disciplines saw the need to consider children's literature in a variety of class-related contexts: religion, pedagogy, and empire as well as race, economics, and gender. This introduction first outlines how the following essays develop those contexts, and, second, how past critics have dealt with the relationship between class and children's literature. Finally, I suggest some directions in which class analysis might go.
The opening essay, Ruth Bottigheimer's "God and the Bourgeoisie: Class, the Two-Tier Tradition, Work, and Proletarianization in Children's Bibles," examines the production of Bibles in relationship to class and economics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The next two essays, by Sarah Robbins and Judith Plotz, argue that the efficacy of children's literature comes from its pedagogical relationship to class structures. Robbins discusses Mrs. Barbauld's primers in relation to questions of class, gender and domestic production. Plotz considers how the classics served as the blueprint for the administration of an empire by linking Rudyard Kipling's "Regulus" to classics classes for the Victorian ruling elite. Drawing on the idea of "blowback," a term from espionage discourse, the essay by Jerry Phillips on Burnett's The Secret Garden demonstrates the class and race-related tensions and conflicts that erupt as empires collapse under the intolerable weight of their own imperialist ideologies. Phillips argues that Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel suggests, among other things, what happened to the British Empire and its subjects when the latter returned home to the "mother country." Finally, "A Notable Irrelevance: Class and Children's Fiction," by Valerie Krips also draws on tropes of detection and discovery. Subtly, Krips uncovers the layers of narrative in Pearce's novel to reveal a deep and abiding sense of history and class.
Class and children's literature have been linked throughout history. According to the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, John [End Page 113] Newbery, often referred to as the "Father" of children's literature, recognized how class is determined by unequal economic relations and how a profit might thereby be made. Newbery saw how the connections between class and children's literature would strengthen the position of the emergent middle class whose capitalist ideologies and liberal humanist philosophies would gradually dominate the modern era. Children's literature and class structures have been firmly linked ever since. For example, Arthur Ransome wrote the quintessentially middle-class Swallows and Amazons (1930). Complete with nurse, the Walker family (actually the mother and children) are on holiday in the idyllic Lake District whilst Navy Commander Mr. Walker sails the high seas, symbolically defending the British Empire. The colonies defended by Mr. Walker in 1930 hardly belonged to Mr. Ruggles the dustman and Mrs. Ruggles the washerwoman, the working-class mother and father in Eve Garnett's 1937 novel The Family from One End Street. A comparison of both books clearly shows how class interests shape children's literature and its production and reception.
Given the centrality of class in children's literature and in children's lives, the absence of a sustained class analysis in children's literature criticism is surprising. One of the few critical works that addresses class issues, now out of print, is Bob Dixon's Catching Them Young, vol. 1, Sex, Race and Class in Children's Books; vol. 2, Politics in Children's Books (1977). Described by Peter Hunt in Children's Literature: The Development of Criticism (1990) as "pugnacious" (192), Dixon's book certainly delivers a number of powerful blows, particularly against bourgeois education and critics. Free from the fierce theoreticisim of, say, John Stephens's Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction (1992),1 Dixon's work nonetheless convincingly hammers home the thesis that throughout history children have been the recipients of some of society's worst racist, classist, and sexist values, and that these values...