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  • Literary Ladders in the Golden Age of Children's Books
  • Laura C. Stevenson (bio)

In May of 1893 Mary Louisa Molesworth published an article entitled "On the Art of Writing Fiction for Children" in Atalanta magazine. She knew the art well; she was the eminent Mrs. Molesworth who had written nearly one hundred children's books, among them the nursery classic Carrots (1876) and the influential tales The Cuckoo Clock (1877) and The Tapestry Room (1879). Looking over her profession as one of its solidly established members, she said, "Writing for children calls for a peculiar gift. It is not so much a question of taking up one's stand on the lower rungs of the literary ladder, as of standing on another ladder altogether—one which has its own steps, its higher and lower positions of excellence."

For over a century this statement has remained famous as an assertion of the dignity of writing for children, and it so aptly describes the current idea of children's literature that its accuracy has not been questioned. In English-speaking countries children's literature has become a field of its own, with its own space in public libraries, its own graduate programs, and its own respected journals. While it may attract adult interest, both serious and frivolous, it is assumed to be written for children by adults sensitive to children's interests and points of view.

This separate-but-equal concept of children's literature is often accompanied by the idea that adult writers for children have historically retained a childlike quality that makes such writing possible. Humphrey Carpenter's Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature (1985), in fact, has connected the famous children's literature of 1865-1911 with authorial immaturity. His heavily Freudian interpretations stop short of saying that there was something sexually askew with all important children's writers such as Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling, James Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and E. N esbit. He does, however, firmly attach their works for children to their "warped lives." Jackie Wullschläger's later book, Inventing Wonderland: [End Page 428] The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A. A. Milne (1995), puts the matter more succinctly in its opening sentence: "Once there were five writers who never grew up."

The theory that the famous works constituting the golden age of children's literature should have been the product of childlike authors unable to cope with the repressions of the Victorian adult world does have its attractions. It allows one to assume that great children's literature comes from innocence—and that innocence, despite the personal penalty it may impose, acts as a filter through which authors may pour their deepest feelings. This romanticized view, however, is invalidated not only by the immense financial success of Kipling, Barrie, and Burnett and the substantial professional achievements of Grahame, Potter, and Nesbit, but also by a simple chronological fact. During the year in which Mrs. Molesworth's article appeared, five of these six young authors began to write for children in a new and unprecedented way; the sixth, E. Nesbit, adopted their techniques three years later and soon joined them in celebrity.

To explain why six ambitious authors all turned to the same genre at the same time, it is imperative to look beyond their private lives into the professional world that shaped their careers. The literary marketplace in which they had to establish themselves was hardly one in which innocence could survive; it was changing with unprecedented speed determined by technological developments and a new generation of entrepreneurial editors. Mrs. Molesworth's description of her profession accurately described the world in which her generation had made its reputations, but the literary world of Kipling, Grahame, Nesbit, and their generation was no longer characterized by a single "adult" fiction ladder and a children's literature ladder with slightly different rules. It was a world in which the rules were no longer clear—and in which experimentation with the literary potential of a new idea of childhood yielded immense professional success.

The dominant ladder that characterized Mrs. Molesworth...


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pp. 428-444
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