Rollover Information
About the Series Schedule The Archive Learning Resources The American Collection Home Search Shop
The Railway Children Links and Bibliography The Forum The First Golden Age Who's Who Essays and Interviews Masterpiece Theatre The Railway Children
The First Golden Age [imagemap with 5 links]

The First Golden Age

The Golden Age of Children's Literature: An Introduction
by Abby Wolf

To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, on or about November 1865, children's literature changed. With the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll essentially did away with the adult in children's literature. The fantasy world of Wonderland had its own rules, which appealed to a child's sense of play rather than to an adult's sense of propriety. Instead of offering dry moral instruction, children's literature after Alice made these lessons playful and exciting: To be moral was not to sit about the house with hands-folded piety put rather to gad about the sea, the Empire, and secret gardens with what we now would call childlike abandon. The "golden age of children's literature," ushered in by Alice and ending with A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books (1924-1928), idealized the child as fanciful and free and, most importantly, it insisted that the child could best learn how to be good through a storyteller's appeal to the imagination rather than through an adult's assertion of the rules of behavior.

A Changing World
Social and economic conditions in England and America had much to do with the rise of children's literature as its own market. The industrialization of the first half of the century brought about cheaper and more efficient methods of production. From the 1860s on, books were more easily produced and were generally considered less precious: Little hands could now soil the pages of a book without devastating the middle-class family financially.

There were also fewer little hands. Although the Victorian and Edwardian family was still much larger than what we've become accustomed to a century later (for instance, the author George MacDonald had 11 children; even the socialite Sylvia Llewelyn Davies had five sons, some of whom inspired J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan), in general families had fewer children, which meant that financial resources were not spread quite so thin.

Equally important to these two economic changes were the vast educational reforms that took place in the last decades of the 19th century. In England, the Education Act of 1870 made free elementary education law; by 1880, one million more children were attending school. In the 1880s, girls' education in particular saw a number of reforms, with education beyond the elementary level for middle-class girls becoming more commonplace and, indeed, respectable.

The Birth of an Industry
Along with the increase in book production came a greater variety of books and other reading materials for children. The quality of children's literature improved across genre as well. Christina Rossetti's 1862 poem "Goblin Market" -- which many readers now think of as an adult poem -- and her 1872 verse collection Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book are often cited as examples of the marked improvement in the quality of writing for children.

Now there was not only more for young people to read, but also more for them to look at. Children's book illustrating came into its own as an art form after Alice, exemplified by Kate Greenaway's Under the Window (1870) and Arthur Rackham's edition of Grimms' fairy tales (1900). These artists and others, including Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott in England and Howard Pyle in America, showed the influence of contemporary art movements in their work for children. With this "adult" background, children's book illustrations became an integral part of the drama of the story.

Children's magazines proliferated after the 1860s, also. Perhaps the most well-known titles are The Boys' Own Paper (1879) and The Girls' Own Paper (1880), but dozens of magazines for children were published around the turn of the century, which contained not only literature but also science, sports, history, and many other subjects of interest to the Victorian and Edwardian child.

The Scouts: Feeding the Mind and Body
Also on the rise were movements and organizations specifically for middle-class children. Most famously, the Boy Scouts and Girls Guides (called Girl Scouts in America) were organized in 1908 by Robert Baden-Powell and his sister, Agnes Baden-Powell (Juliette Low organized the Girl Scouts in America about a decade later). Other groups in England included the Church Lads' Brigade, the Boys' Brigade, and the Cadet Corps. All of these groups had as their mandate to instill in children moral fortitude and good citizenship by means of -- to use a more modern coinage -- fun.

Like his compatriot Cecil Rhodes and the American President Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Baden-Powell advocated with nearly religious zeal the connection between the sound body and the sound mind as the foundation for the good citizen (the connection between strength of body and strength of mind had its roots in the "muscular Christianity" advocated by Charles Kingsley, the author of the 1862 children's classic The Water Babies). Boy Scouts would fish, swim, hunt, and participate in other forms of sport and outdoor training, while Girl Guides (and their American counterparts) would do calisthenics and play vigorous outdoor games (and also learn the domestic skills of cooking and sewing). In Baden-Powell's scheme, the confidence they gathered from these activities as well as the sense of camaraderie they developed from them would foster spirited young people equipped to take on the responsibilities of citizenship and family. Baden-Powell's scouting movements were typical in many ways of Victorian and Edwardian children's literature, combining as they did fun and amusement with a robust sense of morality. For even in the most adventurous of the adventure stories so popular with children at this time, pluck is not a substitute for moral rectitude; rather, it is a symptom of it.

Empire Day: For Queen (or King) and Country
Some of the proponents of Scouts-like organizations emphasized the seriousness of the child's moral duty to country and to family over the benefits of play, and in this we see a rift open in what could be called the "golden age of children." Empire Day had been founded by Mrs. Clementina Fessenden, a Canadian, in 1897, with the idea that celebrations would take place each year on Queen Victoria's birthday, May 24. Empire Day would be marked by children throughout the Empire with plays, parades, and concerts which would celebrate Queen Victoria and her Empire.

Empire Day spawned the Empire Movement which, by 1911 -- the last year of Edward VII's reign -- was under the auspices of Lord Meath, also the founder of the Lads' Drill Association in England. The goal of the Empire Movement was, in the words of Lord Meath, "to promote the systematic training of children in all virtues which conduce to the creation of good citizens." Preeminent among these virtues were the "watchwords of the Empire Movement: Responsibility, Sympathy, Duty, and Self-sacrifice." Even if the parades and drills were fun in the same way that Baden-Powell's outdoor games were fun, there was at best a seriousness of purpose and at worst a militarism to Empire Day celebrations that even the war hero Baden-Powell had never articulated so baldly. These "watchwords of the Empire Movement" -- indeed, the watchwords of the Empire itself -- were in tone a far cry from the freedom and fantasy laid out in books like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911).

Fantasy and Freedom
The insistence of Edwardian children's literature on fantasy and freedom -- best exemplified by J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1902), Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908), and The Secret Garden -- begins to make another kind of sense in light of children's imperial movements. If Alice in Wonderland had opened up the world of fantasy as a pleasurable alternative to the "dull reality" faced by girls and boys in middle-class Victorian homes, then these later classic works open up worlds of fantasy that are effectively retreats from the more clearly defined "dull reality" of the young citizen's responsibility and restraint. In such a context, Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, a series of stories and poems which hold on to Edwardian fantasy long after the Edwardian age has ended, is an even more powerful fantasy. Winnie-the-Pooh reminds us of the fantasy of childhood that existed in England and America before World War I would disillusion and destroy a generation raised on stories of liberty and adventure.

Abby Wolf is a Lecturer in the History and Literature program at Harvard University.

back to top

British Authors

Anna Sewell | 1820-1878

The fox hunter and the big game hunter are two iconic figures of Victorian England. But this period also saw the emergence of a number of animal advocacy movements. Antivivisectionism, vegetarianism, and animal humanitarianism took a peripheral but important place alongside the more widespread movements in feminism, anti-imperialism, and social and labor reform. While Anna Sewell was not officially a part of any particular movement, her book Black Beauty made a public case for the abuses suffered by that most English of animals, the horse. Published in 1877, Black Beauty, the "autobiography of a horse," has become a children's classic and is generally considered the first "animal story" of note. Sewell's mother, Mary Sewell, herself an author of children's stories, raised her daughter as a devout Quaker. Their faith extended kindness and compassion to animals as well as to humans, and in Black Beauty, Anna Sewell sought to call attention to the cruelties of fashionable practices designed to improve the appearance of the horse. One such practice was docking, or shortening, the tail, which, in addition to causing the horse pain, also left the animal vulnerable to insect bites and stings. Another practice -- and the one that caused Sewell the greatest agony -- was the use of the "bearing rein," which held the horse's head toward its chest, producing not only a graceful arc to the horse's neck but also respiratory problems, severely curtailed vision, and a loss of balance. One critic has read Black Beauty, with its devastating separation of mother and child and record of inhumane mistreatment, as an abolitionist parable. Whatever the book's political significance, Sewell's contribution to the canon of children's literature was a clear attempt to instill kindness and compassion in its young readers. It's possible that this attempt was successful, at least among its older readers: The bearing rein fell out of fashion toward the end of the century.

back to top

George MacDonald | 1824-1905

Between Charles Dickens's and Oscar Wilde's noted American tours came George MacDonald's. In the United States, the fantasy writer and philosopher MacDonald was received as the eminent Victorian he was in 1872, meeting with Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His British literary connections were no less impressive: he numbered among his friends and confidantes John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Lewis Carroll (MacDonald's children were among the first to read the Alice books in manuscript), and his influence can be traced in C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden. Little read now, MacDonald's fantasies for children and adults were critically and popularly well received when they were published from 1855 until the end of the century. These fantasies include the adult work Phantastes (1855) and MacDonald's stories and poems for children, Dealings with Fairies (1867), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and The Princess and Curdie (1883). Like Andrew Lang, who would compile collections of fairy tales in the 1890s, MacDonald rejected realism as a viable mode of storytelling. Although realism was the dominant form of writing in the 1870s and '80s (think of the novels of George Eliot and Anthony Trollope), MacDonald rejected it, as well as the increasing Victorian reliance on science and rational experiment. For MacDonald, realism and science constrained and damaged the imagination, placing limitations on the world of the spirit and the inner life. MacDonald frequently went against the grain of prevailing Victorian belief: His career as a Congregationalist minister ended after only three years, when his sermons were found to be objectionable and lacking in sound dogma. With his insistence on the world of fantasy as the means by which to improve one's understanding of "real life," MacDonald stood as a potent ancestor of imaginative writers of children's literature including Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne.

back to top

Lewis Carroll | 1832-1898

Before Charles Dodgson assumed the name Lewis Carroll and published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, literature for children in England was, for the most part, weighed down with moral training and a vivid seriousness of purpose. Adults had the titillation of the sensation novel in the middle of the century, but for children, literature was chaste and chastening. There were exceptions -- Catherine Sinclair's Holiday House (1839); Edward Lear's nonsense limericks (1846, and reprinted in the early 1860s); and Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), which actually had a serious moral purpose buried within its frolicsome pages. But Carroll introduced entertainment into literature for children to a degree unknown until then. This is not to say that the Alice books -- Through the Looking-Glass followed in 1872 -- cannot be read seriously. Indeed, an academic industry has grown up around the books, extracting from the Alice funhouse theories of language, race, gender, law, moral subversion, and any number of other seriously adult topics. Carroll himself, as Dodgson, was a distinguished mathematician (distinguished more for his brilliance than his scholarship, which was erratic) who subscribed to and advanced complex theories of beauty and aesthetics. But with their logical narratives rooted in illogical premises, the Alice books reproduce childhood wonder as a viable system of thought and a viable method of storytelling. Other Victorian fantasy writers, such as George MacDonald and Andrew Lang, embraced the Alice books for their commitment to an alternate fantastic universe, but a universe no less vivid, important, and real for that. Carroll produced other literature for children, also, notably Rhyme? and Reason?, which included the mock-epic "The Hunting of the Snark" (1883) and Sylvie and Bruno (1889). But with suitably fantastic illustrations by Punch alumnus John Tenniel, it was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass that irrevocably changed the landscape of children's literature, turning it from one of moral gravity to one of joyous amazement.

back to top

G.A. Henty | 1832-1902

"MY DEAR LADS, -- In the following pages I have endeavored to give you a vivid picture of the wonderful events of...." This address marks the beginning of many of the almost 80 historical adventures G.A. Henty wrote for boys in the last three decades of the 19th century. Born into a comfortable family, Henty boxed, wrestled, and rowed his way through Westminster and Cambridge (where he did not complete his degree) before serving as a war correspondent in the Crimea, Italy, and Ethiopia. Enjoying the type of adventure that he wrote about so prolifically, he witnessed the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, journeyed through India with the Prince of Wales, and traveled to California. Henty's books touched on dozens of episodes in British history, including the Norman Conquest (Wulf the Saxon), the establishment of British rule in India (With Clive in India), and the Boer War (With Buller in Natal). All followed the same basic formula: A boy-hero, generally age 15, finds himself on his own as a result of family circumstances; he meets up with a great man in whose company he has an adventure; in the course of the historical crisis he meets and rescues a girl destined to be his wife; the crisis is resolved, the British triumph, and the boy-hero returns as a man to settle down in England, modest but strengthened by the memory of his adventure. To the modern reader, Henty's books are notable for their hearty imperialism, undisguised racism, and jingoistic patriotism. To Henty's readers, though, devoted to his books in large numbers until World War II, British history was turned into adventure, and many boys learned that Great Britain became great and boys became men -- to borrow from another of Henty's titles -- "by sheer pluck."

back to top

Mrs. Molesworth | 1839-1921

"Girls," according to the children's writer Charlotte Yonge in 1886, "are indiscriminate devourers of fiction... [The] semi-religious novel or novelette is to them moralising put into action...." In the late 19th century, boys had adventure stories, filled with action and intrigue, to instruct them in how to be good, smart, and strong. Girls had Mrs. Molesworth. Mary Louisa Molesworth typified late Victorian writing for girls. Aimed at girls too old for fairies and princesses but too young for Austen and the Bront‘s, books by Molesworth had their share of amusement, but they also had a good deal of moral instruction. The girls reading Molesworth would grow up to be mothers; thus, the books emphasized Victorian notions of duty and self-sacrifice. Molesworth's stories were formulaic: The heroine of the story, usually a middle-class girl, would learn the value of helping girls less fortunate than herself. The prolific Molesworth was a sentimentalist often criticized for the "cuteness" of her child characters, characterized by lisping and babyish grammar in books such as The Cuckoo Clock (1877) and Robin Redbreast: A Story for Girls (1900). Despite the critics' objections, such lisping would become popular in much of the writing for children that followed.

back to top

Andrew Lang | 1844-1912

Known primarily as a historian, literary critic, and translator (he put out "new versions" of the Arabian Nights and of the Iliad and the Odyssey), Andrew Lang collected and adapted dozens of fairy tales in a veritable rainbow of books between 1889 and 1907, including The Blue Fairy Book (with his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang), The Red Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, and The Red Book of Animal Stories. As an influential critic with a column in Longman's magazine, Lang advocated romance over realism. In this critical capacity, he championed Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard, with whom he collaborated on The World's Desire, a "sequel" to The Odyssey, in 1890. While the bulk of Lang's output was for adults (and highly educated adults at that), his interest in fairy tales and other childhood mythologies represents an important strain in Victorian thought, in which fantasy and imagination were recognized as important seats of learning and education.

back to top

Frances Hodgson Burnett | 1849-1924

A children's cookbook containing many English and a few Indian specialties was published in 1999, "inspired by The Secret Garden." At least six bed-and-breakfasts in the United States and Canada have "Secret Garden Rooms." The devotion inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 book should not be surprising: In 1886, her Little Lord Fauntleroy inspired mothers in England and America to grow their young sons' curls long and to dress their boys in velvet suits and lace collars. Burnett was born in England but emigrated to a rather hardscrabble life in Tennessee when she was 15. In her late teens, she eased her family's financial difficulties with her earnings from stories she sold to women's magazines. Even before she became famous for her books for and about children, Burnett was a popular novelist, with her first, That Lass o' Lowrie's, published in 1877. Her fame grew with the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886. Two years after its publication, Burnett successfully sued for the dramatic rights to the story, a ruling which would be incorporated into British copyright law in 1911. In the same year that Burnett was in court, she published Sara Crewe, later reissued and dramatized as A Little Princess. Her nearly 50 novels, plays, and collections of stories tended toward the sentimental, although they were notable for their faithful reproduction of family life and class distinctions. The Secret Garden, with its unsympathetic heroine, its physically imperfect hero, and its themes of childhood abandonment and resistance to authority, has retained the interest of several generations of readers of all ages. In fact, The Secret Garden is an example of children's literature taken very seriously: In recent years, it has been a favorite of literary scholars writing about gender and class relations in turn-of-the-century England.

back to top

Robert Louis Stevenson | 1850-1894

Though he found no pirates in Belgium and France and was the target of no murderous plots in his native Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson's first published works were a travel journal of a canoe trip and "picturesque notes" on Scotland's capital. Even if these locations lack the exoticism of Treasure Island and the intrigue of Kidnapped, Stevenson's eye was still trained on the local details which he gathered into colorful narratives of people and places. Born into a line of engineers, schooled to be a lawyer but making his living as a writer, Stevenson first serialized Treasure Island in Young Folks Magazine in 1882. The story was an immediate success, and it was published as a book the following year. Like G.A. Henty, another adventure writer, Stevenson presented his boy readers with a boy-hero whom they could admire for his pluck. But unlike Henty, Stevenson did not endow his boy-hero with a heavily Christian moralism. The light touch which made Treasure Island so popular was also present in A Child's Garden of Verses, a book of poetry for children published in 1884, and in Kidnapped, published in 1886. A rousing adventure set in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Kidnapped allowed Stevenson to indulge his interest in Scottish history; whether his readers were as interested in Scottish history as in ripping good adventure is unclear. The same year saw the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a story of corruption and hypocrisy which indicted Victorian moralism. Stevenson was, in fact, at odds with much Victorian convention. He traveled extensively in the United States and the South Pacific (which was not odd for a man of his class); and he married an American divorcée and settled in Samoa (which was). Although he is now best known for his writing for young readers, in his abbreviated lifetime he wrote for adults as well. His travels in the South Sea Islands led him to write about the loss of island culture which resulted from American and European domination as akin to the loss of Highland culture in Scotland. But in spite of this serious view of 19th-century life, Stevenson would return to the romance and adventure of the past: Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, was published in 1893, a year before his death.

back to top

H. Rider Haggard | 1856-1925

An often repeated anecdote has it that King Solomon's Mines was written on a bet: H. Rider Haggard claimed, and his brother doubted, that he could write a better and more successful adventure story than Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Hence King Solomon's Mines was written, published, and became a phenomenon in 1885. Born into the large family of a country gentleman, Haggard was a colonial administrator in South Africa during the Zulu War of 1879 and the first Boer War of 1880. He drew on his experience in Africa to write King Solomon's Mines, a story, like Treasure Island, of maps, buried treasure, villainy, and English pluck. In South Africa, Haggard developed an appreciation for African cultures and rituals. While such appreciation is evident in King Solomon's Mines and its 1887 sequel, Allan Quatermain, also apparent is Haggard's subscription to Victorian ideas of European superiority (Haggard's other well-known novel is She, published in 1886, about the 2,000-year-old white queen of an African civilization). Following the pattern of a traditional quest narrative, in which the young hero sets out on his own to fulfill the demands of himself, his family, and/or his country, but narrated by the middle-aged protagonist Quatermain, the two romances turn the British Empire into an adventure for sons and fathers alike. In so doing, Haggard combined the adult historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott with the boys' historical fiction of G.A. Henty and Stevenson. Haggard traveled extensively through the Empire and beyond and wrote energetically, almost until his death in 1925. On a trip to America, he met and befriended President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1919 Haggard was created a Knight Commander of the British Empire, in recognition of the public administrative work he continued to do even as a famous and well-rewarded author. Haggard returned to Africa in his writing dozens of times, publishing several novels, volumes of history, and even agricultural reports about the continent he made vivid in the English imagination through the adventures of Allan Quatermain.

back to top

Edith Nesbit | 1832-1888

A Woman Between Worlds

back to top

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | 1859-1930

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902, there was some speculation that the honor was bestowed to recognize his achievement in The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the more seemly prelude was his pamphlet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, in which he sought to explain the British position in the Boer War. Today it is surely Sherlock Holmes for which Conan Doyle is best known. Holmes was an immensely popular creation during Conan Doyle's lifetime, also -- too popular for the author, who wanted his name associated more closely with his other works. Conan Doyle wrote several volumes about the Great War between 1914 and 1920; from 1918 on, he became a self-styled authority and promoter of spiritualism, not only writing about it but also opening a spiritualist bookshop and museum. In 1922, Conan Doyle was one of the most public advocates of the spirit world in the Cottingley fairy photograph scandal (the magician Houdini was one of the well-known detractors, and their difference on this matter, in which Conan Doyle was eventually held up for public ridicule, caused a break in the friendship of the two men). As for his literary output, Conan Doyle preferred his historical romances, with their chivalric adventures and careful historical detail, to his detective fiction, although at least one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of the Four, has some of the elements of the adventure story for boys, with its recollection of the bloody Indian Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Among the most notable of his historical adventures are The White Company (1891) and Sir Nigel (1906). Conan Doyle, trained in medicine and with a sharp eye for scientific and logical plausibility, also wrote a number of science fiction stories. The character Professor Challenger of 1912's The Lost World, about living remnants of the prehistoric world, did not match Holmes in popularity, but he did inspire a large following himself, and he appeared again in other science fiction adventures, including The Poison Belt in 1913, and a collection of stories published posthumously in 1952. Upon his death in 1930, Conan Doyle left his family with the conviction that he would surely communicate with them from the spirit world which he held so dear.

back to top

Kenneth Grahame | 1859-1932

Kenneth Grahame was the cousin of Sir Anthony Hope, who wrote the swashbuckling Victorian masterpiece The Prisoner of Zenda. Grahame's own Edwardian masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, could hardly be more distant in spirit and substance from its cousin. Even in the 1890s, Grahame had already moved away from the adventure story epitomized by Hope's novel. His Dream Days (1895) and Golden Age (1898) were minor successes, critically praised at the time for their realistic portrait of childhood, filtered through the sharp eyes and sensible voice of their child narrators. A Scotsman by birth and a banker by profession, Grahame approached his writing from the periphery of the literary world. The Wind in the Willows, with its vivid characters of Rat, Badger, Mole, and Toad and their life on the riverbank, was originally not intended for publication but rather as a collection of stories for his son. Published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows became considerably more popular with A.A. Milne's 1930 stage version of it, Toad of Toad Hall. In 1916, Grahame edited The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children, but he wrote no more original work after that (the death of his only child, in 1918, led Grahame into a retiring existence until his own death). For decades, The Wind in the Willows has been considered one of the finest examples of the idealization of the English countryside so central to Edwardian children's literature; Beatrix Potter and Milne are the two other premier practitioners of this 20th-century pastoral. But some critics view Grahame's idealization as a form of the author's resistance to English mores, suggesting that his animals cavorting along the river represent a pagan freedom frowned upon by the Victorian standards of behavior and belief still largely in place when Grahame was writing.

back to top

Sir James Barrie | 1860-1937

At the forefront of the Edwardian cult of childhood was Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie's play about a boy who would not grow up. Between 1904 and 1915, Peter Pan played on the London stage to sold-out crowds every Christmas. Peter Pan also ushered in a greater commercialization of children's literature. Peter Pan in Kensington Garden, published in 1906 and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, was the Christmas gift of choice for children swept up in the Neverland of the fairy story. After Peter Pan, the book industry began to produce not only more elaborate editions of children's books, like Rackham's, but also better and cheaper editions. The Edwardians' idealized children also became an ideal market. Barrie, who was made a baronet in 1913, knew the London literary market well. Born in the provincial Scottish town of Kirriemuir, Barrie went to London to embark on a journalism career. For the St. James Gazette he wrote a series of columns about his native town, which in the Gazette he called "Thrums." In 1888, Barrie published Auld Licht Idylls, a collection of these columns, and this volume, along with its sequels, A Window in Thrums and The Little Minister, solidified his literary reputation. Other plays and books followed, most notably the 1902 novel The Little White Bird, in which the story of Peter Pan appears for the first time. The Little White Bird is notable also for its theme -- a version of which would appear two years later in Peter Pan -- of a boyish man who refuses to "grow up" but who also seeks affection and allegiance from an idealized boy. Barrie's boy-love disturbs the modern reader in ways that the vast majority of Edwardians would not have even had the language to articulate. Instead, a huge Edwardian audience loved Peter Pan for its celebration of the triumphs of joyful youth. Barrie never again enjoyed a success on the scale of Peter Pan, but he did enjoy the perpetual success of his creation, which granted him an eternal connection of sorts to the youth he so idealized.

back to top

Rudyard Kipling | 1865-1936

Rudyard Kipling was a bookish, unathletic boy, whose mannish appearance (he had a visible mustache at the age of 12) belied his physical weakness. This image of Kipling, unable to participate in games at his school and left to his books and his writing, is sharply out of line with the standard image of Kipling as jingoistic tubthumper. But a good deal of Kipling's biography is out of line with the picture of Kipling as imperial bully. This man who would famously celebrate the "day's work," making heroic the drudgery of imperial administration, was the son of a teacher of sculpture and the nephew of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, an important Pre-Raphaelite painter: In his youth in England (where he lived away from his parents between the ages of 6 and 16), Kipling was thought to be something of an aesthete. In other words, Kipling is more complicated than he is often made out to be, and this is especially evident in his writing for children. There are, of course, the Just-So Stories (1902), animal stories which are not very complicated. But Stalky & Co., his collection of school stories published in 1899, does more than glorify the athleticism and brutality of the public school; in it, Kipling admires boys for their cleverness and their mental agility more than for their physical forcefulness. If Captains Courageous (1897) is a typical model of the boys' adventure story, then Kim (1901) breaks that model. Both enjoy the temporary pleasure of evading authority, as the critic Irving Howe wrote; but Kim enacts a small revolution by representing Hindu spiritualism as real and even worthy at times, rather than as the figure of fun that many imperialist writers set up purely for the purpose of deflation. The Jungle Books (1894 and 1895) are perhaps the most imperialist of the lot, with their emphasis on the rules of civilization and self-restraint. But they also propose a model of fairness, respect, and cooperation that is at least theoretically more humanist than imperialist. Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) revisit scenes in British history with the aid of Puck (two children in the stories accidentally call Shakespeare's fairy to life while performing A Midsummer Night's Dream), and these scenes provide sometimes complicated lessons about what it means to be an English child in the British Empire. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 and then during World War I (in which he lost a son) and the postwar years, Kipling became a more polarizing figure, one resembling the popular image we have of him today. But his writing for children suggests the possibility of a mind that could imagine life outside the rules of the British Empire.

back to top

Beatrix Potter | 1866-1943

In 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle (one year before he was knighted) bought one of the few hundred privately printed copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit for his children. The next year Peter Rabbit became available to a wider audience, and over the next 10 years, Potter wrote and illustrated 20 more books for children, including The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908), and The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912). Potter's first professional work, in 1890, was for a German greeting card firm, which commissioned her to illustrate a volume of children's verse in 1893. She brought to her work her governess-supervised childhood study of plants and animals, from which she gathered so many of the structural details that are evident in even her early work. John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite painter best known for Ophelia, was a friend of Potter's family and encouraged her work. While her illustrations have none of the gilded ornateness of the Pre-Raphaelites, their influence can be seen in the meticulous attention to detail in her reproduction of nature (if mice wore dresses and carried brooms, they would no doubt look just like Potter's drawing for The Tale of Two Bad Mice). It is not merely the detail of her illustrations and the charm of her stories that have placed Potter at the acme of the "golden age" of children's literature. Rather, her innovative philosophy of children's literature wrought changes that one can still see in books being produced today. Potter believed that children's literature should be for children: The books should be small enough to fit comfortably into a child's hand, and each page of written text should have an illustration to go with it. Partly as a result of her failing eyesight, Potter produced new work only occasionally after her marriage at the age of 46. After her successful career as an author and illustrator, Potter embarked on a second career, this time as a sheep breeder in her beloved Lake District. She is remembered there for her work as a conservationist and an agriculturalist, although outside the Lake District her great fame still rests of her lovely creations for children.

back to top

Lucy Maud Montgomery | 1874-1942

Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books have provided Prince Edward Island, the setting for many of them, with a considerable tourist industry. Montgomery's own early life on Prince Edward Island resembled that of her spirited heroine. Montgomery lived with her strict, religious grandparents after her father remarried (her mother had died when Montgomery was two). To escape the emotional strictures that oppressed her in her new home, Montgomery retreated into a world of literary fantasy, dwelling on fairies and princesses instead of on her own loneliness. She worked as a teacher on Prince Edward Island, all the while publishing short fiction and poetry. It was not until 1908, however, that she published Anne of Green Gables, the first of the Avonlea books. Montgomery initially resisted pressure from her publisher to produce a sequel to the immensely popular book but ultimately relented. What followed between 1909 and 1939 was a series of five more books about the orphan named Anne who was sent with only her imagination to live with an elderly couple: Anne of Avonlea; Anne of the Island; Anne of Windy Poplars; Anne's House of Dreams; and Anne of Ingleside. In addition to great popular acclaim, Montgomery also received a number of international honors for her writing, being made a Fellow of the British Royal Society of Arts in 1923, and a Companion of the Order of the British Empire and a member of the Literary and Artistic Institute of France, in 1935. The Avonlea books have a long history in film and television. In 1919, Frances Marion, the greatest female screenwriter of early Hollywood, scripted a silent Anne of Green Gables, and a film version of one of the books has been made nearly every decade since. In the 1990s, Canadian television produced a series, called Avonlea, that aired for five years.

back to top

A.A. Milne | 1882-1956

The man whose fame now rests on a "Bear of Very Little Brain" was actually something of a literary man-about-town in postwar London. In 1919 A.A. Milne's play, Mr. Pim Passes By, was staged to great acclaim, redeeming the disastrous publication of his first novel 14 years earlier and solidifying his contemporary reputation. A pacifist who fought in France during World War I (and who published Peace with Honour, a denunciation of war, in 1934), Milne was characterized by contradiction in his literary output as well. His worldly plays and novels, which were encouraged by his teacher and friend H.G. Wells, met with success in their day, but their names register now not at all in relation to the name of the stout golden bear with the "hunny" pot who was inspired not by a great thinker like Wells but rather by a collection of stuffed animals in the nursery of Milne's son. Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared publicly in 1924, with Milne's publication of When We Were Very Young, a collection of children's verse that had already appeared in Punch, where Milne had been an assistant editor until the war. Following this volume were Winnie-the-Pooh (1926); Now We Are Six, another verse collection (1927); and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Moving away from Pooh but still firmly in the realm of children's literature, Milne adapted Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows for the stage in 1930, calling it Toad of Toad Hall. There is some question among Pooh aficionados as to whether the stories about Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo and their adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood actually originated as bedtime stories for Christopher Robin, Milne's young son. What is not in dispute is the fact that in adulthood, the real Christopher Milne, a writer himself, distanced himself from his father and his creation. In some ways, this sad fact is irrelevant to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems, all of which are a fantasy of a childhood idyll, in which imagination and "hunny" are the best sustainers of life.

back to top

American Authors

Louisa May Alcott | 1832-1888

Louisa May Alcott published literature for children under her own name, but she used pseudonyms for her numerous Gothic thrillers. Such a distinction suggests the constraints imposed on women in 19th-century America -- even on a woman such as Alcott, who came from a tradition of abolitionists, temperance activists, and education reformers. Alcott herself was the first woman in Concord, Massachusetts, to register to vote when the state granted women school, tax, and bond suffrage; one of her many biographers has her going door to door to urge other women to do the same. Jo March, the heroine of the best-selling Little Women, was beloved for her spirit of rebellion and individuality (in fact, the adult Jo herself was the author of a number of thrillers). In Alcott's early diaries, she appeared to be very much like Jo: determined to make her own way (and in Alcott's case, to ease her family's perpetually strained circumstances) and to have other people know that.

While Alcott owed her fortune primarily to the success of Little Women, the many melodramatic thrillers she wrote also contributed to her income. Yet to "own" those sensation novels, with their dark themes of sexuality and betrayal, by attaching her name to them would be an act of defiance that would very likely endanger the lucrative career and proper reputation of the equally prolific author of stories for girls. This lucrative career began quietly, with the publication in 1854 of Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she originally wrote for her neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter. In 1863 Hospital Sketches, Alcott's account of her service as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C., brought her name to a larger audience. Throughout the 1860s, she continued to write for adults (Gothic thrillers) and for children (poems and stories), and in 1867, she became the editor of a children's magazine, Merry's Museum. It was the publisher of this magazine who asked her to write a story for girls, and that story for girls turned into Little Women. All of Alcott's writing for children, and especially Little Women, presented girls with a new kind of heroine, not a cardboard moral example but a lively and engaged personality. Schooled as she was by her father, whose radical theories of education stressed the child's emotional and physical well-being and a dialogue between teachers and students, it is no wonder that Alcott created characters who were intellectually curious and intensely individualistic. But dependent as she was for her income on the society for whom these theories came as a shock, it is also no wonder that Alcott could not entirely shake off 19th-century America's bonds of propriety.

back to top

Mark Twain | 1835-1910

The book which Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner would describe as the beginning of modern American fiction almost never saw the light of day. Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri) nearly burned the manuscript of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out of frustration with it. Twain labored for seven years over this fundamental American story of "lighting out." Many critics have identified in Huck Finn the same boys' adventure themes that drive the work of British writers including Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard. But in Huck Finn, these stories for boys coexist with an adult recognition of both American failings and American nobility. Of Twain's major works, only one -- The Prince and the Pauper (1882) -- was intended for children. Even The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), with its celebration of summer life along the Mississippi, was originally meant for adults. Twain's intentions, of course, do not count for much: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court found favor with younger readers, and Tom Sawyer, with its pranks, low diction, and resistance to authority, was embraced by American children enthusiastically, much to the consternation of the adults who found in Tom and Huck poor role models for their young charges. In Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi (expanded in 1883 from "Old Times on the Mississippi," which had appeared in installments in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875), Twain lays out the mythic images of America -- the frontier, independence, and, most importantly, boyhood -- that still resonate today in the national consciousness. Twain's voice is distinctive in the canon of great American literature, combining as it did a Western sensibility and a sophisticated wit, but these three works can be seen as representative, also, of an important trend in American fiction after the Civil War. Literature after the Civil War turned to "local color" accounts of the many and varied regions of the United States, perhaps a perverse assertion of individualism after the war's cementing of a single national identity. Twain's sharp ear for regional speech patterns and his journalistic eye for (literally) local color resulted in narratives that were, on the one hand, specific to life on the Mississippi but were, on the other, very much about the growing pains of a young nation.

back to top

Howard Pyle | 1853-1911

It is perhaps not surprising that Howard Pyle, the premier artist of the "Golden Age of American Illustration," would have espoused American training for American artists. Pyle resisted the idea of going to Europe literally until the end of his life (he died of a kidney infection while visiting Italy) because he felt that Europe exerted too great a hold on the imagination and even talent of American artists. Yet much of the work that influenced Pyle in his youth was European, and many of the subjects that he pursued so distinctively in his mature work were European as well. As a child growing up in Delaware, Pyle learned the art of storytelling from children's classics such as Grimm's fairy tales, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Robinson Crusoe. From illustrated editions of authors including Dickens and Thackeray, Pyle first began to study the interaction of written text and art. In the Pre-Raphaelites artists Pyle's mother favored, he began to understand the ways in which color, line, and detail combine to tell a visual story. Pyle studied technique in Philadelphia before heading to New York in 1876 to pursue a career in illustration and writing at magazines such as Scribner's Monthly, Harper's, and St. Nicholas, an important children's magazine. In 1883, Pyle illustrated and authored The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a volume which brought him considerable fame. In it, one could see Pyle's theory of pictures and illustrations as drama. He followed Robin Hood with fairy tales, historical fiction, and eventually his four-volume King Arthur, between 1903 and 1910. In the years that Pyle worked as an illustrator and an author, he was a teacher as well, serving on the faculty of Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia and then opening his own school in his native Wilmington, Delaware. Pyle's students, including Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth, were known collectively as the Brandywine School, a group known for its use of color and for its exploration of American subjects.

back to top

L. Frank Baum | 1856-1919

L. Frank Baum's first attempts at finding a publisher for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) were fruitless: The market for British fairy tales was considerably stronger at the time, and the fantasy land he had created -- with its roots in the American Midwest -- was a hard sell. This rejection occurred even after Baum and his illustrator, W.W. Denslow, had produced the best-selling children's book of 1899, a collection of humorous verse entitled Father Goose, His Book. Eventually Baum did find a publisher, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an immediate success, spawning a stage play in 1902, 13 sequels between 1900 and his death in 1919, a series of Sunday comic pages, a young readers' series of Oz books -- and, of course, the classic film of 1939. Success of this magnitude was without precedent in Baum's life: During his adult life, he had relocated from New York to South Dakota to Chicago, working in and starting a number of businesses, each of which fizzled. But with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz he hit upon a winning formula: A child hero leaves home through some accident and finds herself in a fantasy land, where she is guided by a wise parent-surrogate. This formula is not wholly dissimilar from that of the adventure story for boys that was so popular at the turn of the century, so it is perhaps not surprising that in addition to the Oz industry Baum fathered, he also wrote more than 30 adventure stories between 1906 and 1919. Under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne, Baum wrote the Aunt Jane's Nieces series, which proved to be as popular at the time as the Oz books were. Under male pseudonyms, Baum wrote adventures by sea and land for boys; under female pseudonyms, Baum wrote stories for girls that moved them into unfamiliar domestic settings, surely adventures of a sort. But under his own name, Baum transcended gender in the appeal he made to child (and adult) devotées of magical fantasy.

back to top

Edgar Rice Burroughs | 1875-1950

Well before the age of the multimedia corporation, Edgar Rice Burroughs was a multimedia corporation unto himself. Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1912. The next year, Burroughs founded the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., publishing house. In 1934, with Tarzan an established Hollywood franchise, he founded Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises and Burroughs-Tarzan Pictures. Burroughs had not always been such a savvy businessman. Born into a well-off Chicago family, Burroughs was something of a ne'er-do-well, leaving a job in Salt Lake City in 1904 to take another in Chicago from 1906 to 1908, and leaving that to hold a number of managerial and clerical positions through 1912. In that year, Burroughs had his first literary success with the pulp novel Under the Moons of Mars, featuring the hero John Carter, who would go on to do battle with Martians in another 10 books. It was, however, the Tarzan series (35 volumes of it) that fueled the Edgar Rice Burroughs industry. With the Martian books, the Tarzan books, and any of the other series or stand-alone titles in his repertoire, Burroughs specialized in the formulaic boys' adventure: All of his plots follow a courageous and individualistic hero as he battles monstrous villains and rescues the imperiled female. What separated Burroughs from lesser pulp writers was a meticulous attention to detail, whether of real worlds or worlds he imagined. This attention to visual detail also meant that Burroughs's narratives were ready for the burgeoning film industry. Hollywood fell at least as hard for Tarzan as Jane did, and Burroughs's creation has been a staple of film since the silent Tarzan of the Apes debuted in 1917. If the books were for boys, the movies, with their muscle-bound, loincloth-clad heroes and their feisty Janes, were for girls, also.

back to top

Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | The First Golden Age
The Forum | Links and Bibliography

Home | About The Series | The American Collection | The Archive
Schedule & Season | Feature Library | eNewsletter | Book Club
Learning Resources | Forum | Search | Shop | Feedback

WGBH Logo PBS logo


Masterpiece is sponsored by: