EVOLUTION AND IMAGINATION IN VICTORIAN CHILDREN’S BOOKS by Jessica Straley, Reviewed by Stephen Prickett
 

EVOLUTION AND IMAGINATION IN VICTORIAN CHILDREN’S BOOKS
By Jessica Straley
(Cambridge, 2016) xi + 258 pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Prickett on 2017-09-07.

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Straley's thesis is a simple and potentially interesting one: "that evolutionary discourse -- and literary writers' alternating enthusiasm for and resistance to it -- shaped children's literature into the genre we know today" (176). Key to this shaping process is the scientific theory of recapitulation. This was often encapsulated by the slogan "phylogeny precedes ontology" (3-5) -- put simply, the idea that our earliest genetic formation reveals our links with the rest of the animal kingdom, not merely in the variegated shapes of the embryo itself (claimed to resemble successively those of a fish, a dog etc.) but also in subsequent childhood development. Though now largely discredited as a scientific theory, Straley claims that it did much to shape Victorian evolutionary theories of childhood, and in particular had a powerful literary after-life in contemporary writing for and about children. The cover-design, of monkeys playing with a little blond Victorian doll, seems to say it all -- especially if we note that the monkeys are chained.

Behind this newly articulated idea of childhood, Straley sees the presence of two notable educational theorists: John Locke, whose Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) were, rather counter-intuitively, reinforced by Rousseau's Emile; or on Education (1762). Both authors preached that children should learn from practical hands-on experience rather than from books -- a message re-enforced by such sentiments as Wordsworth's "One impulse from a vernal wood, / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good,/Than all the sages can." Later still, this under-valuation of book-learning morphs into the creed of self-reliance propagated by the scouting movement, led by Robert Baden-Powell, whom Straley mistakenly calls "General" and even, at one point, "Robert-Powell" (136). "Locke and Rousseau," Straley concludes, "are rightly credited with the invention of children's literature, a genre painfully at odds with itself about what kind of experience it offers the child" (19). Such "anti-literary" literature, she argues, fully underwrites the idea of childhood development as a recapitulatory, biologically pre-determined pattern. Boys should be boys, out in the woods playing with knives and fire -- not to mention singing songs from the Mowgli stories; the corresponding notion that girls should be girls, playing with dolls and learning to sew, does not go over quite so well.

To support her interlinked theses, Straley has chosen to focus on five particular sets of children's books that she believes express the major evolutionary concerns of Victorian children's writers. The first, Margaret Gatty's five-part anti-evolutionary series, Parables from Nature (1855-71), provides the basis for a wide-ranging discussion of Creationism, Natural Theology, and various forms of resistance to Chambers, Lamarck, Darwin, and (not the same) "Darwinians" such as T.H. Huxley or Herbert Spencer. The second centers no less discursively on Charles Kingsley's Water Babies (1863) and his pro-Darwin, Christian, and providentialist version of evolution -- heavily influenced, Straley claims, by Spencer's book, Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (1860). The third exemplum, Lewis Carroll's Alice books, is less thematically linked to evolution, as the sub-title of chapter 3 ("scientific nonsense and literary parody") admits, though Straley bravely tries to make an evolutionary joke out of Alice's various metamorphoses, most specifically when she grows an elongated neck and is called a "serpent" by the pigeon. Chapter 4 highlights the various Mowgli stories in Rudyard Kipling's two Jungle Books (1893 -- 95) before linking the development of the wolf-child to his own, apparently semi -autobiographical, adventures as an adolescent trouble-maker in Stalky & Co (first published 1899). Finally, chapter 5 examines Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1909). With some suggestion of political correctness, Straley construes this book as "the cultivation of female evolution" -- perhaps as a counterweight to the female figures created by Kingsley and Carroll, both men. Straley admits that Burnett tends to lose interest in Mary, and even Dickon, after the first half and pays increasing attention to the enfeebled but aristocratic Colin, but she attributes this shift to the way even a writer of Burnett's quality can be subverted by the restrictive mores of the time.

Behind this clearly articulated plan Straley has assembled an enormous amount of evidence, not merely from children's books, but also from contemporary nineteenth-century science writers, journalists, educationalists, and even theologians. The bibliography alone runs to almost 19 pages. Yet, extraordinarily, the very size and multiplicity of this vast critical apparatus fails to conceal enormous and unexplained gaps in the basic history of the period and the relationships between the authors involved. A wider acquaintance with children's books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries might suggest much greater diversity of both theory and practice than Straley suggests. Though she cites Rousseau's praise for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as good reading for children, she does not mention that other ever-popular "children's" book, Gulliver's Travels (1726), originally, of course, ferocious political satire, which fits her thesis less well. But there are other, more significant, lacunae.

To take the most glaring example, there is no mention whatsoever of George MacDonald. MacDonald is not simply a favorite author of this particular reviewer. He is quite simply a key figure in the very narrative that Straley is trying to outline. He was a close friend of both Kingsley and Carroll -- in effect one of a triumvirate who were accustomed to circulating manuscripts and criticizing each other's work. Before the publication of Alice in Wonderland, Charles Dodgson (a childless bachelor) sent the script to MacDonald (who had eleven children, both natural and adopted) asking if it would appeal to its intended audience. MacDonald accordingly read it aloud to his assembled family and asked for their opinions. Greville MacDonald, his eldest, summed up the collective response by declaring that there should be "ten thousand copies" made. Had the MacDonald family turned it down, the naturally shy and unassuming Dodgson would very probably have taken the matter no further, nor, one suspects, would he ever have created his better-known pen name of Lewis Carroll.

But MacDonald's importance to Straley's book does not stop there. Of all the Victorian writers fascinated by the fictional possibilities of evolution, MacDonald is arguably the most important. Both his most famous children's books, The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1883), have been continuously in print ever since they were first published -- unlike, say, Mrs. Gatty, who has long been out of print. Both books have plots that actually depend either on evolution or its converse---- degeneration. Straley devotes some time to Kingsley's Doasyoulikes in the Water Babies, who are, in effect, no more than a minor reported digression from the main story of little Tom's undersea adventures, but she seems unaware that the whole plot of the Princess and the Goblin depends on the degenerative Goblins. Once human, they greatly altered in the course of generations by living in cold, wet, and dark places, and so sank to their present hideous and grotesque state not merely by evading the responsibilities of ordinary citizens above ground, but (it is clearly hinted) by interbreeding with their own even more mis-shapen animals. To write about evolution in Victorian children's fiction without mention of MacDonald, therefore, is almost like leaving Alice out of the Alice books.

Other gaps are no less curious. Straley quotes Charles Lyell's influential Principles of Geology (1830-33) to the effect that climate changes might bring back extinct animals so that "the huge iguanadon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyl might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns" (qtd. 111). This seems an excellent starting-point for children's evolutionary education. Yet Straley does not mention that the spectacle of extinct animals was literally realized with Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's dinosaur park in the grounds of the Crystal Palace -- opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the presence of 40,000 spectators in 1854. It is still there, as shown below.

Indeed, in a work on evolution and children's books, the absence of dinosaurs -- even more popular with children then than now -- is extraordinary. Had Straley looked to the children's books of E [Edith] Nesbit (another writer continuously in print ever since first publication) rather than Burnett, she would have found a marvellous collection of dinosaurs memorably illustrated by H.R. Millar (who was also, of course, Kipling's illustrator). Here are two examples:

H.R. Millar, Dinosaur, from E. Nesbit, Enchanted Castle (1907)

H.R. Millar, Giant Sloth [also a dinosaur], from E. Nesbit, The Magic City (1910).

There would be other good reasons for looking more closely at Nesbit. A Fabian and a friend of H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw, she moved in radical feminist circles and suffered from few of the inhibitions about the role of women in society that Straley criticizes in her other women writers. From that point of view at least, she exemplifies advanced feminism much better than Burnett does. If we discount adventures with dinosaurs, her children are otherwise disconcertingly realistic, and she offers perhaps the most hard-hitting social critique to be found in any popular children's books of the period. Most startlingly, in The Story of the Amulet (1906), when the somewhat irritable sand-fairy, the Psammead, is asked to find a home where a little orphan girl will be cherished and loved, the fairy and the girl and the four other children are all taken back to pre-Roman Britain -- where, as the fairy caustically explains, this was the last time children were fully appreciated and valued in their country.

In short, this book oddly mixes an ambitious theoretical superstructure with some cherry-picked evidence that hardly does justice to the rich diversity of Victorian children's books. Though there are some useful points, the result is too patchy and misleading to be really useful.

Stephen Prickett is Regius Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Glasgow and an Honorary Professor of the University of Kent. His books include European Romanticism: A Reader (2010), reviewed elsewhere on this site, and Victorian Fantasy (1979), just re-issued for its 3rd edition by Edward Everett Root, Brighton.


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