Today the popularity of children’s literature obfuscates the fact that concepts of childhood and literature for children are relatively recent. Throughout Western Europe, the beginning of the seventeenth century brought a new understanding of the notion of childhood, thereby creating new cultural institutions (for example, the school system) and new classes of readers (children and young adults). Until then children had been considered as adults in miniature, having few special needs and interests. Toys and dress, previously shared by both adults and children, became the child’s after they had been simplified and altered. In England literature specifically directed toward children
and young adults was hardly written until the end of the eighteenth century. Its advent was occasioned by the Evangelicals’ concern to purify and pacify the youth of an urban and industrialized society through religious teachings. Moralists and pedagogues within the church began to nurture the idea that not only were children different from adults, but also innocent; they should be isolated from the corrupt and corrupting circle of adults. Thus children were to be safeguarded, protected, and educated through books deemed appropriate to their special pedagogic requirements. This new perception of the child provided the framework for children’s literature1 which began to flourish at breathtaking speed, coinciding with the period of British notions of empire-building during the second half of the nineteenth century. This rapid growth was magnified by advances made in printing technology and the spread of educational opportunities (Shavit 3-7). By the end of the nineteenth century, literature for the young had taken on new dimensions and directions. While not confined to empire-building, juvenile literature became one of the vehicles for the dissemination and inculcation of imperialist concepts and ideologies-a far cry from its original purpose. John Mackenzie’s argument in Imperialism and Juvenile Literature-that juvenile literature is reflective of the adult society that produces it-establishes a connection between the content of juvenile literature and the practice of empire-building. Juvenile literature offered a site for the “dissemination of particular clusters of ideas, assumptions, and ambitions” of the Victorian people, for example, the extension of the British empire at the expense of Africa and other nonindustrialized nations. Jeffrey Richards argues in his introduction to Imperialism and Juvenile Literature that between 1850 and 1950 imperialism became the “dominant ideology,” transcending class and party divisions:
Britain was saturated in the ethos and attitudes of empire. They infused plays and books and, later, films. They informed school textbooks. They inspired paintings, prints and engravings. They filled newspapers and magazines. They figured in advertisements and packaging. The impact was arguably greater than that of any previous dominant ideology because its preeminence coincided with the rise of the mass market and mass media. (Richards 2)
Consciously or unconsciously, this ideology was inescapable in that it permeated Victorian society in all walks of life. But how did this come about? This chapter sets out to explore the various connections among literature for young readers in Victorian England, the public school system, and British imperialism. In other words, I shall examine the role of nineteenth-century juvenile literature and public institutions in perpetuating racial myths and ideologies which advanced the British imperialist cause. Our specific frame of reference will be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Frederick Marryat’s Masterman Ready, W.H.G.Kingston’s In the Wilds of Africa, and R.M.Ballantyne’s Black Ivory.