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Children and their Books

By Nicholas Tucker | Published in History Today 1990 
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Edited by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs

  • Children and their Books. A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie
    Edited by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (Oxford University Press, 1989, 424 pp.)

This collection of twenty essays both marks the achievement of Iona and Peter Opie in assembling their magnificent collection of historic children's books and celebrates its final purchase by Oxford University's Bodleian Library in 1988. It also acts as a memorial to Peter Opie, who died in 1982 but whose work as Britain's foremost archivist of childhood continues under the direction of Iona Opie, his wife and co-partner. The photograph facing the front page showing Peter skipping in a school playground with Iona and small children beaming in the background is in itself a special memorial to this most unstuffy pair, perhaps the last of the great amateur scholars to survive and publish in such abundance without help from university or government grant.

So what might Peter have made of this particular volume? Contributions by A. O. J. Cockshut on children's diaries and by Olivia and Alan Bell on children's manuscript magazines would obviously have delighted him for their mixture of antiquarian interest and period charm. Essays by Humphrey Carpenter and Neil Philip on Beatrix Potter's stories and The Wind in the Willows respectively could also not fail to please for their intelligence and fertility when it comes to reinterpreting these old masterpieces. The contribution of Sir Keith Thomas on 'Children in early modern England' makes essential reading for anyone interested in the history of childhood, a topic covered in an explosion of books during the last two decades but which now shows signs of returning to its previously dormant state. Sir Keith concludes that the 'affection and concern for their children' shown by early modern parents is essentially no different from the type of love expressed by parents today. If this provocative claim succeeds in re-stoking historical argument, then Peter Opie would surely have been well content.

As for the other essays, while individual contributions on Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit and Tolkien are interesting enough, there is in general an overall lack of cohesion throughout, making it unlikely that this book will form the core for any vital new thinking about past or present children's literature. Pursuing individual hunches is all very well, especially when such research is then written up in the elegant prose expected from Oxford University senior common-rooms, from which most of the book's contributors are drawn. But more fire in the scholastic belly is needed if the study of past children's literature is ever going to transcend mere historical disquisitions with little relevance to anything else going on between children and adults at the time.

One exception here is the challenging essay by the hook's co-editor Julia Briggs. Choosing the theme 'Women writers and writing for children, from Sarah Fielding to E. Nesbit', Dr Briggs discusses the eighteenth-century alliance of some female children's authors with the cause of rationalism in children's literature. Subsequently attacked either by romantics or evangelicals, such women have since had a generally bad press. But at their best they deserve more respect for their championing of the reasonable as opposed to the impulsive, over-imaginative child so commonly a feature of later children's literature. Mrs Inchhald in particular created one such rational child hero in Nature and Art. This short book, not mentioned by Dr Briggs, is a particularly interesting example of the way children's literature could be used to criticise the adult world. By refusing to accept as inevitable those limitations on childhood thought and understanding insisted upon in the children's literature to come over the next two hundred years, such female authors were often playing a dangerous game. How their particular vision of childhood compares with the tough, outspoken and critical world of children's literature today is another story.

  • Nicholas Tucker is the author of The Child and the book: a literary and psychological exploration (CUP, 1981).


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