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  • British Hymn Books for Children, 1800–1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhoodby Alisa Clapp-Itnyre
  • Jameela Lares (bio)
British Hymn Books for Children, 1800–1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood. By Alisa Clapp-Itnyre. Ashgate Studies in Child-hood, 1700 to the Present. London: Routledge, 2016.

In this dense and informative study, Alisa Clapp-Itnyre explores a remarkable phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the British children's hymn book. Even though this genre of children's literature is now little known, it represents what was once a pervasive phenomenon. Children sang hymns not only in church but also at school and at home, and hymn collections published especially for them proliferated to an extent not known before or since (3–4). In the face of various zero-sum paradigms proposed by some other children's literature scholars, such as that of adult versus child, this author argues that nineteenth-century British children's hymn singing not only empowered children but also tended to blur class, gender, and age distinctions. Many of the same hymns appeared in collections marketed separately to adults and children and across classes, and the first- and second-person address tended to efface reference to gender even while it provided religious instruction in pleasurable packaging. Clapp-Itnyre's overall argument is that "nineteenth-century hymns created an empowered child singer" even though, as she acknowledges, there are racist, maudlin, and sentimental hymns in the collections (10).

The author's methodology is archival, depending primarily on her examination of over two hundred nineteenth-century children's hymn books and on her cataloguing of over sixteen thousand hymns. Her argument that children's hymn singing reduced barriers of age, class, and gender is supported by her frequency counts of hymns over different collections, demonstrating a shared core of hymns representing a shared culture. Clapp-Itnyre limits her study to hymn books rather than including additional potential sources in periodicals, where some of the newer hymns first appeared. Her focus is almost exclusively on English hymns rather than on other British traditions in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. She also limits her study to Protestant hymns, though that category includes the High Anglican tradition, which shares many aspects of Roman Catholicism. One could in any case argue that the majority culture at the time was Protestant.

The first chapter, "Creating Communities of Song: Class and Gender in Children's Hymn-Singing Experiences," offers a historical survey of the context in which hymns were sung, such as in public schools for the upper classes, in middle-class homes and churches, and in Sunday schools for the working class and impoverished. Clapp-Itnyre acknowledges class differences between some of the collections. Public school hymnals could voice class privilege, middle-class hymnals could urge the status quo, and working-class hymnals could stress future rewards in heaven while urging a blameless life on earth. Nevertheless, the author stresses that all hymnals had much in common with [End Page 351]those of other classes and that they appealed to and included both genders.

In chapter 2, "Re-Writing the History of Children's Literature: Three Periods of Children's Hymnody," the author identifies three distinct nineteenth-century periods for study. The Evangelical period (1809–1840), an outgrowth of Wesleyan Methodism and other dissenting and Low Church movements, produced hymns that were overtly didactic and focused on core Christian doctrines such as heaven, human sin, and Christ's atonement, but that were nevertheless zestful because of Isaac Watts's concern with "pleasure" and "lightness." The mid-century saw both the upswing of the High Church Tractarian movement and the revival of Wesleyan Methodism, and both groups encouraged young recruits with attractive hymns. The late century, which she calls rather confusingly the "Romantic" period, produced hymns that were more in tune with Golden Age children's literature in their optimism and intentional focus on the child.

Chapter 3, "Complicating Child-Adult Distinctions: 'Crossover' Children's Hymn-Texts and Tunes," deals with the question of which hymns can be denominated "child-centered" because they use "simple language, literal images, and basic meter and rhyme" (90). The author demonstrates, however, that the hymns appearing...


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