- Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918–1950 by Hazel Sheeky Bird
The setting of the English countryside in children’s literature published between the years 1918 and 1950, in Hazel Sheeky Bird’s assessment, provokes multiple scholarly discourses “at the centre of a range of complex arguments about the politics of leisure, class and national identity” (1). Focusing particularly on the genre of “tramping and camping fiction,” Sheeky Bird provides close and insightful readings of a plethora of texts that present the countryside as “a highly contested” site of cultural engagement. Tramping and camping, as activities within literary texts, existed before the twentieth century. The many hikes depicted in Dorothy and William Wordsworth’s writings, for instance, bring them face to face with cultural ills and historical change as they encounter migrants, the working poor, and downtrodden souls. At the same time, the countryside around Grasmere is restorative, spiritually vibrant, and joyful. In The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, poet Arthur Hugh Clough dramatizes a long holiday in the Scottish Highlands, examining a group of young Oxford students purportedly studying the classics and other subjects with their tutor, but learning more, at times, from the natural world around them than from their mentor. In American and Canadian literature of the same period, tramping and camping narratives [End Page 425] invoke other themes: wilderness, pioneering, the search for soulful living. Henry David Thoreau’s essays anchor much of this tradition. Itineracy—through tramping, camping, and other physical, mobile activity—animates much nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, including children’s literature. The literature that Sheeky Bird examines claims transatlantic origins, yet among its most important features is an anxiety about Englishness. Emerging from decades that experienced two world wars, class division, and the decline of the British Empire, tramping and camping fiction expresses contradictory desires, cautiously exploring the fluid borders of social caste, yet projecting adventure that ultimately ties in to the safety and seeming security of an “English” home.
Among the authors whom Sheeky Bird analyzes are Arthur Ransome, David Severn, M. E. Atkinson, Marjorie Lloyd, and Malcolm Saville. The full list of primary texts that illuminate this study is impressive. Sheeky Bird gives a thorough and deep reading of several decades’ worth of tramping and camping children’s literature. Though a small subgenre within “the wider canon of children’s rural and country writing” (34), tramping and camping literature—as well as a subset of this fiction that glorifies sailing—reshapes the open air into a private space of national significance. During its heyday, this literature was enormously popular, read and enjoyed by all classes of children despite the protagonists’ solid middle-class bearings. The lure of escaping the parental home, of pretending gypsy status without suffering injustice, and of invoking Robinson Crusoe and his island was irresistible to young readers. The countryside, in much of this literature, is reclaimed as unsullied space, terra nullius of the child’s imagination, a “pure” part of England; at the same time, tramping and camping narratives can elicit fears of urban sprawl, tourist usurpation, and the spoiling effects of “the vulgarization of the country-side” (74). Tramping and camping fiction projects an ideal of “the national character” and an “island race,” but underneath this declaration of Englishness lie worry, uncertainty, and erosion of global status.
Sheeky Bird has a number of productive scholarly lenses at her disposal in this fascinating study. Ecocriticism, cultural studies, and cultural geography provide thoughtful theoretical avenues into Ransome and his compatriots. Scholarship on tourism and literary cartography is especially useful in the chapters “Landscape and Tourism in the Camping and Tramping Countryside” and “Mapping the Geographical Imagination.” The preeminence of the rural countryside—part of a “hierarchy of landscape taste”—stands in opposition to the mechanization and industrialization of modern England, the very forces that were building the economy and growing the middle classes who could afford holiday ventures (60). Yet tramping and camping fiction, when it acknowledges the urban and industrial, hurries through these places...