Four Burning Questions for Matthew Grenby, children’s literature researcher

Posted on Monday, March 18, 2013

Matthew Grenby is a professor of 18th-Century Studies at Newcastle University.

Professor Matthew Grenby is a professor of 18th-Century Studies at Newcastle University. His research interests include children’s literature and culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in particular the overlap of children’s books and political fiction. He is currently moving towards a large study of just how ‘Children’s Literature’ came to establish itself as a separate and successful sector of print culture in the eighteenth century. Grenby is one of eight speakers presenting at the Interacting with Print research group’s two-day conference, “Interpersonal Print”, 21-22 March, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Arts Building, room 160. For more information, including all conference speakers’ abstracts and the conference schedule, please visit Interacting with Print’s website here.

You’ve examined thousands of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s books in archives in Canada, Britain and the USA. What can we learn about how children’s books from the past were read by examining the books themselves?

A lot of the books, and especially children’s books, that end up in the archives are pristine copies, sometimes even entirely unread. The collectors who first bought them, and later gave them to the libraries, tended to value clean copies over used ones. But children’s books from the eighteenth century became so rare that often the collectors didn’t have much choice, and had to acquire copies that children had torn, written on, coloured in, sometimes almost worn out. For the book historian, these are more valuable. They give real insight into the way that children used their books and what they thought of them in the period when children’s literature was being invented.

For instance, sometimes a book’s user pencilled marks into the margins to record their progress though the book. From these we can calculate how long it took a child to read a story, or to complete the tasks in a geography textbook (if indeed they did). Other kinds of ‘marginalia’ give children’s comments on the books they were reading – or record what they were planning to do that afternoon, or what they thought of their teacher or classmates. Overall, what the marks reveal is that children generally had an active relationship with their books, treating them as material objects to be owned and cherished but also interacted with, sometimes violently. Parents and teachers, on the other hand, tended to think of books less as physical objects and more as texts, somehow above and beyond the physical object, from which a child ought to learn. There seems to have been significant conflict over these two views of the book: the material and the textual.

A lot of the books also have inscriptions: the owner asserting (sometime very menacingly) his or her ownership of the book. If these inscriptions give a place and a date alongside the name, we can go to parish records, or late the census, to determine who these children were. What we now know is that, in the first years of children’s literature, more girls owned books than boys, books penetrated all social classes and religions, and that ownership was spread widely in geographical terms. Books published mostly in London reached well beyond the metropolis: to far-flung rural counties, and in many cases across Europe and to the British colonies in South Asia and North America.

What kinds of messages about politics, commercialism, ideology and morality did eighteenth-century children’s books contain, and how did they convey them?

Morality, and piety, was an important element in eighteenth-century British children’s books. They could be surprisingly relaxed about religious conformity though. A book might talk about how important it was, on Sunday, to go to church, but the author could give the alternatives of chapel, or the Quaker meeting house. Sometimes we have evidence of parents who reacted angrily to this ecumenicalism, crossing out ‘chapel’ and ‘meeting house’ to keep their children orthodox.

Most eighteenth-century children’s books asserted the importance of what we might call ‘bourgeois’ values: industry, honesty, thrift, and so on. They often showed how the individual, however humbly born, could rise to economic and social power simply through hard work and unrelenting virtue. Commerce of all kinds was generally celebrated. Unearned privilege was often attacked, along with ‘aristocratic’ vanity and self-importance.

This was radical stuff, but sometimes writers would go further. A few children’s books told of fantastical journeys, like those in Gulliver’s Travels, to strange, utopian lands where, for instance, property was divided entirely equally, or social hierarchies had been done away with. And occasionally children’s books seem to have provided a commentary on current events in eighteenth-century Britain. It’s surprisingly to find this kind of political content in children’s literature. Perhaps the authors thought that nobody would bother checking children’s books for propaganda? Perhaps they thought that communicating a radical agenda to children was the most likely way to engender social reform?

How do children’s books try to shape the relationships between children and the people who read to them?

We now tend to think of reading as quite a private, personal experience. But in the eighteenth century this probably wasn’t always the case, particularly for children. Children’s books were generally supposed to be read aloud and in company. They were supposed to form the basis of conversation. That’s not just chat, but rather ‘conversation’ understood as a distinct and systematic educational practice. It was imagined that parents or teachers would read the book first, then select certain parts for the child to read over him or herself, probably aloud, followed by carefully directed discussion.

Whether this actually happened much in real life is debateable. But it seems to have stemmed from a deep-seated anxiety about children’s literature. It was an age when the importance of personalised education, particularly by mothers, was being asserted. Books were understood as a support for the educating mother. But the idea that they should be a substitute for her seems to have been horrifying (much as we might today be horrified at the idea that the TV, or the computer, should replace the parent). That’s why the authors and publishers of eighteenth-century children’s books were careful to position them as part of a conversation, an interpersonal culture, not something that would allow the child to disappear into his or her own world.

Has your research changed the way you read to your own children?

I have twin boys, a little over a year old. They do love books, but I’d say they get a lot less enjoyment out of looking at them, or hearing them being read, than they do out of chewing them! They also have their clear favourites. They’ll fight over a (really very tedious) four-page board book about a pigeon. Why? Does it taste nicer?

Researching eighteenth-century children’s literature hasn’t changed the way I read to my children, but I do sometimes catch myself falling into the role of the eighteenth-century parent, irritably trying to get the twins to listen to the story, or even just to look at the pictures, rather than destroying the book with their teeth. I think of the book textually; they have a much more physical relationship with it. It’s just the same battle as was being waged in households 250 years ago.

That the twins cherish particular books, insisting on hearing them again and again is another characteristic they share with their eighteenth-century equivalents. The eighteenth century is often supposed to be the period of a ‘reading revolution’, when people stopped having an intensive relationship with just a few books (the bible, say) and developed broad tastes that ranged over an extensive range of texts. That wasn’t true for eighteenth-century children, for whom individual books were often very precious. And it doesn’t seem to be true for children even today, if my twins are anything to go by.

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Category: Four Burning Questions

One Response to Four Burning Questions for Matthew Grenby, children’s literature researcher

  1. Shirley says:

    I imagine all collectors want pristine items to put on display and that’s the same for books. Very interesting read.

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