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  • British Hymn Books for Children, 1800–1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood by Alisa Clapp-Itnyre
  • Christopher N. Phillips (bio)
Clapp-Itnyre, Alisa. British Hymn Books for Children, 1800–1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood. Routledge, 2016.

In a field in which the traditional point of origin is not an author or a text but the publisher John Newbery, Alisa Clapp-Itnyre's study makes a vital intervention in literary historiography by adroitly considering the material and literary [End Page 116] histories of a print genre. Hymns are the focus here, but Clapp-Itnyre's unit of analysis is more precisely the hymnbook, the bound collection of hymn texts that supplied homes, schools (from public to Ragged to Sunday), church ministries, and social reform movements with material for children as well as adults. Rivaled only by almanacs and Bibles as the dominant print genre of the nineteenth century in Britain, hymnbooks have long been the elephant in the room, hugely popular and woefully understudied. This is the first serious book-length study of the children's hymnbook in any context, and this book is invaluable not only for its trailblazing status but also for the case Clapp-Itnyre builds that we must fundamentally reconsider the parameters of children's literary history, the figure of the child, the terms of pleasure and agency in children's literature, and the meaning of the child vis-à-vis the adult in the midst of the Victorian era's "cult of the child." Drawing on extensive archival work on both sides of the Atlantic, this is a major intervention into the foundations of children's literary study, and it will surprise few of the scholars who have taken children's hymnody seriously before that a new look at a forgotten genre could have the power for such a reconsideration.

Each of the book's first three chapters lay out the experience of hymns along a different spectrum that serves to highlight both the variety of hymn experiences constrained by identity frames such as class and age, as well as to make visible what was actually shared across lines of social difference. Clapp-Itnyre's discussion of class focuses on the school, church, and domestic institutions where hymns were most used, from the liturgies of elite public school chapels to alphabetic education in charity schools for the poorest hymn-singers. The most theologically dense hymns in children's collections tended to appear in collections made for Rugby, Harrow, and their peers, while hymns of consolation and praise were ubiquitous, with a number of the same texts ("Jesus, Lover of My Soul" and the missionary hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" are two examples) appearing in collections across class lines. Overlap in repertoire is in the remarkably high number of "adult" hymns included in collections for children. While the founding text of the genre, Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs (1715), was written entirely for young readers, many if not most later collections incorporated congregational texts by Watts, Charles Wesley, the Anglican bishop Reginald Heber, and many others. Clapp-Itnyre astutely argues that the line between writing for a mass public and writing for children was quite thin, particularly in a religious context. As she shows, the desire of adult compilers (and all of them were adults) to share their personal favorites with the rising generation helped make hymnody much less bifurcated into "child" and "adult" classes, even as children's literature grew further apart from writing for older audiences over the course of the nineteenth century. [End Page 117]

Particularly in chapter 2, Clapp-Itnyre in fact describes a new periodization of children's literature, noting three main phases over the course of the nineteenth century, following the fortunes of two rival strategies for writing children's hymnody. The first strategy, that of Watts's Divine and Moral Songs, aims to reach the level of children's cognitive and linguistic abilities, empowering them by respecting their special status as children. The second approach, associated with Charles Wesley, placed greater emphasis on bringing children up to a more sophisticated level of understanding and expression, trusting that the truths of faith and...


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pp. 116-119
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