- The Family in English Children's Literature, and: The Fantasy of Family: Nineteenth-Century Children's Literature and the Myth of the Domestic Ideal
Leo Tolstoy begins his epic Anna Karenina with a familiar maxim: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (3). Do differences in families imply dissonance, departure from the ideal? While Tolstoy as a nineteenth-century novelist constructs familial well-being according to universal laws, we as late moderns in the field of children's literature and culture studies resist that surety. We may, in fact, join sociologists who debate definitions of family or who argue that the term itself is simply too ambiguous. "The family" is indeed a highly-charged ideological construct in which any discussion of its "historical development" and "future" is itself constructed in political and ideological terms. Is family more of a shifting organism or a state of mind than a particular form or household arrangement? We come armed with our historical sense of fluid, evolving concepts of family and our literary sensibility of families as the cradle of language, where our stories begin.
Little about the contemporary family is simple or self-evident. Steven Mintz, in his brilliant work, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, [End Page 244] finds discussions of childhood in recent decades to be marked by a "politics of childhood" and a "discourse of crisis" where we worry too much, or about the wrong things. Part of this narrative involves change in family structure with nontraditional families on the rise. The most recent national census marked the first time that less than a quarter of American households were made up of a married man and woman and one or more of their children. More than a third of all families with children are single-parent families, most headed by women. A significant number of children live in lesbian or gay families. Cultural conservatives link an increasing divorce rate and growing number of working mothers to "the breakdown of the family," exaggerating evidence of decline and ignoring contradictory data and the historical record. Culture wars focus attention on what counts as a family and what families should look like rather than the genuine stresses that afflict the generations. Many of the family-related problems reflect the country's failure to adjust institutionally to changing family patterns as, in Mintz's words, "the normative experience for a near majority of American children" (341).
These altered realities are the point of entry into these two new critical studies exploring the representation of the family in children's literature. With particular focus on British children's literature and culture, Ann Alston and Elizabeth Thiel in their respective works suggest that these social changes have barely affected the ideology of children's literature that privileges the traditional family (breadwinning father, caretaking mother, minor children) and its conservative codes. Ann Alston's book, The Family in Children's Literature, surveys the nostalgic and a historical vision of ideal nuclear families pervading Anglo-American children's literature over nearly two centuries and explores the incongruity of its vision with that of the lived experience of its audience. Elizabeth Thiel's book, The Fantasy of Family: Nineteenth-Century Children's Literature and the Myth of the Domestic Ideal, explores how this fantasy of family, nurtured throughout the Victorian era, belied the realities of nineteenth-century family history.
Both authors make the vital connection between Victorian and contemporary discourse, finding parallels and tensions between ideology and practice. Together they offer a powerful critique of a certain model of the family—a fantasy, a myth—implicated in the children's books we embrace in our reading, writing, and research.
Alston's book is a provocative place to start. Of the two books, The Family in Children's Literature covers the broadest range of texts and themes. Tracing the...