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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XVI. Children’s Books

§ 21. Later Writings for Children

The importance of these works lies not in their individual merits but in their collective mass. Public opinion was changing. The “renascence of wonder” had spread to the nursery, and a new age was at hand. It is hardly possible to treat of later books within the limits of this work; their numbers and variety defy compression. The reign of Victoria, almost from its inception, saw children’s books much as they are now, in their morale and ideals. Fresh ideas came, and new methods of production changed the outward appearance of the nursery library. But, in essentials, it was full-grown; it was emancipated from the tyranny of dogma, and the seeds of all its developments had taken root.

The modern era can be dated almost by one book—George Cruikshank’s edition of the German Popular Stories of the brothers Grimm (1824–6). Once again, English childhood re-entered fairyland by foreign aid. The immediate popularity of the book was evidence of the change in taste. A further step towards freedom and aesthetic attractiveness was made by Sir Henry Cole (“Felix Summerly”) and the enlightened publisher, Joseph Cundall, with The Home Treasury; while Catherine Sinclair’s delightful Holiday House (1839) showed that not only was amusement harmless, but naughtiness itself might be venial and even pleasant. The moral tale was killed, and the crudities of the rival “pretty gilt toys for girls and boys” were reborn and regenerated in the work of greater artists and more ambitious publishers. Morality turned itself to usefulness: the Howitts (Mary first introduced Hans Christian Andersen to English readers), “Peter Parley” (S. G. Goodrich was the most active claimant to the pseudonym) and similar writers composed their excellent books and poems from a plain, serious point of view—they furnished matter of fact, cheerfully phrased, not matter of doctrine, aggressively insisted upon. Harriet Martineau and others wrote stories which were nothing but stories, and in which the wider range of human knowledge enormously increased the narrative interest.

The logical coincided with the historical development. Modern fairy tales began to be written, and the higher kind of levity produced nonsense. Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books (1866 and 1872) and Sylvie and Bruno (1889) were works of genius; but they could not have won a hearing and undying applause if the minds of the audience had not been prepared by what had gone before. The fairy tales of Andersen, Kingsley, Jean Ingelow, George MacDonald, Ruskin, Thackeray, Mark Lemon and other writers still living were not glorified folklore; but they could not have been published—perhaps not even written—but for the glory that had come to folklore after repression. Only an age ready to be childish after having learnt the hopelessness of tacking morals on to fairy tales could have welcomed Lear’s Book of Nonsense (1846). Magazines of wide scope came with the ’sixties. Education was utterly divorced from pleasure—in books. Concurrently with the rapid increase of the adult novel, and, as the natural consequence of the relief from insistence upon “instruction,” stories pure and simple grew in favour and numbers—stories either of real life, like Miss Yonge’s or Mrs. Ewing’s, or of genuinely romantic adventure, like the tales of Ballantyne, Marryat, “Percy St. John” and many others; nor were the adult works of Marryat, Kingsley, Lytton, Stevenson and others forbidden. They culminated in the modern school of juvenile fiction, adult in form and young only in style and psychology. Henceforward, indeed, children’s books demand not history, but criticism.