- Children’s Literature and Social Change: Some Case Studies from Barbara Hofland to Philip Pullman by Dennis Butts
Dennis Butts’s name is not as well known or as frequently cited as those of a number of other critics in the field of children’s literature, but it deserves to be. Butts is surely one of the pioneers of the discipline, helping to establish its academic credibility in the UK, at least, and involved in establishing the first MA in the subject at the University of Reading. This particular volume draws on his strengths as a critic and gives his individual voice room to shine through. He has always been keen not to view children’s literature in isolation, but to show how it is irrevocably intertwined with adult literature and, more widely, with the cultural context of its time (including the book trade and technological developments in publishing); and, beyond that, to show how an awareness of the whole sociopolitical-historical nexus (often internationally rather than just nationally) impacts upon cultural production.
In this volume, Butts ranges over two centuries of children’s literature, showing how the Industrial Revolution, the rise and collapse of empire and, equally, the rise and relative demise of the Welfare State, have influenced the writing and reception of British children’s books. It is predominantly about the British context, but he also draws on the situation in America where relevant, especially when discussing the 1970s “problem” novel. Beyond the book’s chronological organization, though, Butts develops another theme, drawing on Frank Eyre’s observation about British children’s books having a “cyclical pattern,” with periods of seriousness and didacticism alternating with more light-hearted, entertaining fare (ix–x). It is this larger framework that gives the volume (a number of whose essays have appeared elsewhere in different form) much more interest and critical gravitas.
He begins with Barbara Hofland’s “simple tales of domestic life under times of stress” (viii), discussing a writer who, apart from Butts’s stalwart work, has been relatively neglected. As he himself says, this contemporary of Austen and Scott was “not a major writer” (1), but she is thereby of interest in the way that she limns out the ideological landscape of her time—particularly the attempt to make sense, in Christian terms, of a newly industrialized society.
Then, in the book’s first, more general chapter, he notes shifts in children’s literature in the 1840s, which, he speculates, came about as a result of the bedding down of the turmoil of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. There’s a move away from the early uncompromisingly moralistic works, in which children are firmly put [End Page 485] in their place, to more of a recognition of children’s plight in the cities, and a need to represent them in more rounded and humane terms. Captain Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest (1847) is discussed as a text exemplifying this shift.
Butts then considers the development of the adventure story at this time, beginning with Charles Kingsley’s injection of a pugnacious “muscular Christianity” into it, as shown in Westward Ho! (1855), and subsequently taken up by Kingsley’s friend Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1856). The following chapter, devoted to G. A. Henty, shows a later shift in the adventure story as it features more openly imperialist narratives. However, as Butts also shows, it is easy to oversimplify Henty’s imperialism, whereas Butts points up the faultlines where those supposedly assured ideological messages do not quite cohere, and the tensions and contradictions of empire become more explicit. He finds the same in Rider Haggard, particularly in his later works: a notion that, despite the empire’s supposed advancement of the civilizing process, it is doomed. Likewise, in Robert Louis Stevenson we see a writer who, in many ways marginalized by the British Empire as a result of his Scottishness, cannot help but undermine its imperialist enterprise.
Moving toward the twentieth century, Butts then examines two...