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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 126-130
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Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children's Books
M. Daphne Kutzer.Empire's Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children's Books. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
Claiming Perry Nodelman's and others' pioneering work in postcolonialism and children's literature as inspiration,Empire's Children is a broadranging and thoughtprovoking study that promises to [End Page 126] expose the political unconscious of British empire-building as it is reflected in many 20th-century British children's books not obviously associated with colonialism or imperialism. Examining such seemingly neutral texts as A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books and Arthur Ransome'sSwallows and Amazons, Kutzer finds many of the same assumptions about power, privilege, and social hierarchy that inform more obviously imperial-themed books by Rudyard Kipling and R. M. Ballantyne. The argument has two basic points: first, British children's books present empire "as natural and good to children," (xvi) and second, "that although diluted, this presentation of empire continues well into the twentieth century, although gradually empire is encoded as nostalgia for a more arcadian and ordered English life" (xvi). The first point has been made by numerous other critics, but the second is interesting and ambitious.
Kutzer organizes the book in a combination of chronological and generic criteria: she begins with an examination of the nineteenth-century boys' adventure story, using Ballantyne'sThe Coral Island as her exemplum. She then presents an obligatory Kipling chapter; a chapter on the Edwardian domestic fiction of Frances Hodgson Burnett and E. Nesbit; one on the post-World War I fantasies of Hugh Lofting and A. A. Milne; one on the domestic adventure series (if I may invent a genre) of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons cycle, published between 1931 and 1941; and culminates with a survey of a variety of books and genres published after the Second World War: Rosemary Sutcliff's Dawn Wind, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, L. M. Boston's The Children of Green Knowe, Tolkien's TheLord of the Rings, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, and Lynne Reid Banks' The Indian in the Cupboard series.
A strength of the book is its refusal to indulge in the more outré and obfuscatory jargon common to theoretically informed work while making use of important concepts such as the political unconscious, orientalism, and other tenets of postcolonial literary theory. This makesEmpire's Children useful for introducing laypeople and undergraduate students to foundational ideas in postcolonial literary theory and offers them some approaches to well-known and classic children's books using that theory. Its description of British history is broad albeit somewhat schematic. Its discussion of individual texts is often thought-provoking and its conclusions sometimes delightfully unexpected; for example, the assertion that Hugh Lofting's often-censored works are in fact more nuanced and sensitive to the achievements and infamy of empire than many less obviously racist books. Kutzer's discussion of why this is so is [End Page 127] convincing and important. Similarly, her treatment of Kipling's works, from the ones set in India to those in England, acknowledges his relatively nonideological, descriptive, meditative approach to empire as well as his obviously imperialist side. These qualities make the book useful for a lay or undergraduate reader who might want to know more about the relationship of British history to British children's literature. Welcome, too, is the move from emphasis upon Victorian imperialism to its twentieth-century manifestations.
However, the book's argumentative strategies are too often problematic; its critical orientation results too often in arguments that offer neither complex analysis of the texts nor innovative historical connection. It has the weaknesses often attributed to New Criticism--the underuse of historical context--with none of its strengths: the focus upon textual and formal ingenuity, and respect for the craft of each writer. And although each chapter includes references to historical events and authorial context, the...