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  • The Land of Story-Books: Scottish Children's Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. by Sarah Dunnigan and Shu-Fang Lai
  • Matthew Grenby
The Land of Story-Books: Scottish Children's Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century. Edited by Sarah Dunnigan and Shu-Fang Lai. Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2019. ISBN 9781908980298. 476 pp. pbk. £22.95.

Reviewers, notes Sarah M. Hines in the final full essay in this volume, thought Andrew Lang 'must be the possessor of a Fairy Casket into which he has only to dip his hand and out comes tales by the score'. How else to explain his twelve Fairy Books and their 437 tales? Sarah Dunnigan and Shu-Fang Lai, who edited this volume, may have thought themselves in a similar position. They dipped their hands into the casket of nineteenth-century Scottish children's literature, and out came a full score of essays, written by an international range of contributors. Some of the authors discussed in these essays are well-known: Scott, Stevenson and Barrie. Others are completely new, at least to this reviewer: Jessie Saxby? Violet Jacob? Mary Gordon (hardly better known as 'Mrs Disney Leith')?

In truth, qualifications for inclusion are a little fuzzy. This is a very long nineteenth century, stretching from 1750 to the First World War. The category of Scottish children's literature is stretched too. Mary Gordon's Scottishness inheres, it seems, in her possession of estates in Aberdeenshire, to which, like Queen Victoria, she travelled in a private railway carriage every summer. Some Scots-born authors do not qualify (Dunnigan tells us), like Kenneth Grahame, though he lived in Scotland until he was five; whereas many others discussed here form part of a 'Scottish literary diaspora', largely based in London. (Indeed, some seem to be negotiating their exile in their writing, like George MacDonald, who provides a bizarre account of a boy haunted by nightmares of flying bagpipes in his 1871 adventure story Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood.) Others authors discussed here have no personal Scottish connection, save that they wrote about Scottish subjects – notably Eleanor Atkinson, of the American Mid-West, whose 1912 novel Greyfriars Bobby cemented but did not create the fame of the eponymous dog – while several earn inclusion by virtue of their reappropriation of Scottish story tradition. Linda Claridge Middup, for example, discusses the use made of Border ballads by the quintessentially English author Dinah Mulock Craik in her 1852 fairy story Alice Learmont, while Jessie Saxby, born on Shetland, produced versions of classic fairy tales with a distinctly Shetlandic or Viking setting. Only in some of these essays are the effects and implications of this Scottishness investigated. Saxby's 'late Victorian "Scandinavianism" incorporates the Shetland isles into a "golden age" of British imperialism', suggests [End Page 193] Dunnigan (p. 360). Anne Stapleton argues that 'significant aspects of Scottish culture shape characters' ideas, emotions, and actions' in the work of fin-de-siècle fiction of Margaret Oliphant, producing children's books that exhibit the influence of both Enlightenment enquiry into human behaviour and Scotland's religious controversies. The result was a saleable hybrid that was in equal parts 'strong in philosophy' and 'very sound in doctrine' (p. 248).

As will have become clear, one of the main strengths of this volume is the introduction it gives to some little-known aspects of literary history. Shu-Fang Lai gives a fascinating account of Robert Chambers's writing for children, chiefly in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, which sold 30,000 copies of its first issue in 1832, rising to a colossal 84,000 subscriptions in 1844. The aim was to furnish children with 'lots of nice little stories' and nuggets of science: 'things one's papa does not think of speaking to them about, because he is too busy' (p. 65). Much was actually aimed at adults, it seems. In an 1844 essay called 'Jacobinism in the Nursery', Chambers sounds remarkably modern: 'To give [children's] faculties a chance of being rightly developed', he advises, 'never address to them a rude, harsh, or discourteous word […] or appeal to so mean a thing as punishment for effecting an end with them'. Rather, parents...


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