Image: John Tenniel's illustration of Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Fairy tales had been in existence for a long time before the nineteenth century. They often were used to teach moral values. But in 1865, a new model emerged, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What made Alice so different? It was “written without any trace of a moral, because it was designed purely and simply to amuse the child.”
Amuse the child? What a concept! Who would have thought?
Welcome to what is known as The Golden Age of Children’s Literature, an explosion of nonsense and fantasy literature, boy’s fiction, school stories, realistic stories for older children, and domestic tales for girls. Yay! Children and their abundant imaginative abilities finally were being celebrated, rather than repressed. Unless, of course, you were an evangelical child. In that case, the adults around you resisted material like Alice because they believed that novels and fairy tales would have a negative effect upon your childish mind and emotions. You would be told that reading such things was an idle, useless past-time, and the work of the devil. The revolution of children's fiction and fantasy - things written purely for the for the joy and amusement found in the story - was resisted by evangelical authors and parents probably until the 1880s.
That is the sort of attitude my character Maggie encountered as a child. Being a stubborn little thing, she dealt with it by rebelling and reading fiction whenever she could. And I don’t believe Maggie was alone in this endeavor. There probably were more than a few real-life children who staged little rebellions of their own. I believe that, even when forced to read approved materials, it still was possible for a nineteenth-century child to subvert the system and enjoy flights of imagination.
It also is possible that publishers and authors knew this. Earlier in the century evangelical authors and publishing houses tried to bridge the growing cultural gap between themselves and “pleasure reading” by creating “safe” reading materials for children. Novels obviously were out, but magazines and tracts were acceptable. And in my research, I discovered that these types of materials used excitement as a hook for child readers.
It surprised me when I learned that evangelical magazines were loaded with “true stories” having titles that bore an uncanny resemblance to the headlines one can find in today’s supermarket tabloids. For instance, the 1848 Wesleyan Juvenile Offering. carried items with attention-getting, hair-raising, and biased titles like “Horrid Murder in Ceylon,” “The Missionary’s Baby and the Cruel Feejeean Nurse,” and “Naked School Children in South Africa.”
Today these titles might give us a laugh or a face palm or maybe both, but they were intended to emphasize what some people thought was a desperate and immediate worldwide need for the so-called “civilizing” effects of the Gospel. At the same time, such stories most likely gave their young readers a thrill and engaged their imaginations.
The expansion of the British Empire brought tales of different customs to English (and American) readers. Yet while Wesleyan magazines may have offered edifying and inspiring stories about the life and work of missionaries, those same stories also contained abundant adventure. Missionaries went to far off lands, saw exciting people and things, and lived on the edge of danger. And – something that might have engaged a tomboy like little Maggie – the tales featured both the men and the women who served in mission.
Evangelical children's magazines told of trials and tribulations caused by illness, natural disaster, or hostility from native people. Such stories obviously were colonial in nature, intending to emphasize both the great sacrifices made by the missionaries who spread the Gospel and the superiority of British culture and values. However, they also might have provided a child reader with excitement and novelty, evidenced by this example from the Wesleyan Juvenile Offering of April 1847 (pg. 122).
We have already told you something about Mr. Cross. In a former Number of the Juvenile Offering, there was an account of his being shipwrecked, when on a voyage from Nukualofa to Vavua, at which time his poor wife was drowned. He continued laboring amongst the Tonguese and Feejeeans; and it would make your heart ache to read of the hardships he had to bear, and the great trials he passed through. Sometimes he was almost starved because his stock of flour was gone, and the natives had no food to give him. He was often obliged to lodge in hovels, and places where he was exposed to wet and cold; and worse than all, he was surrounded by savages who delighted in the most shocking cruelties, and who were daily committing crimes to [sic] horrible even to repeat.
Imagine this: you are a child sitting in the nursery under the strict eye of your governess or perhaps living away from home in a boarding school with constrictive rules. You might find subversive and vicarious enjoyment reading about tales of strange places, people whose customs are wildly different from yours, and the adults who ventured out into a big, dangerous world to preach the Gospel.
While evangelical publications had much in common with more secular materials, the one thing they did not offer was fiction and fantasy, even though this was coming into vogue, thanks to novels like Alice. To make up for this lack, many evangelical children’s magazines adopted a storytelling style that grew more polished and less restrained as the century moved on.
Despite this, outright fiction does not appear in evangelical materials until the 1880s. Our Maggie would be a lady in her 60s by that time. Even though she rebelled by reading fiction on the sly, she also was exposed to ideas present within evangelical reading materials.
On Monday, we’ll take a look at what ideas she could have absorbed from her reading materials.
 Elvira S. Smith, The History of Children’s Literature (Chicago: American Library Association, 1980), 164.
 Smith, 164-165.
 Wesleyan Juvenile Offering, vols IV-VII (1847-1850), 109, 141, 143.
Title Page Showing Children Reading Story. , 1845. Photograph.
I like writing about writing on Wednesdays. But Monday and Tuesday found me wound up in the nutsy-boltsy aspect of writing, as two of my books – one of which has been out since 2013, were flagged as having an issue with their covers. So while I’m wrestling with all that, here is a lightly brushed up repeat from early May of 2018 about reading materials for children in the 1800s.
So, here we go...
Maggie’s childhood interest in novels would have been considered rebellious, or at least mildly naughty by her governess. These days, when children read novels like Harry Potter, we wonder what the big to-do was in the nineteenth century.
Let’s start with Maggie’s background: upper-class. Think propriety and manners and behavior. Furthermore, her family was Methodist, which meant they were evangelical Christians. A religious revival and renewal swept through the United States in the 1700s and early 1800s Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, as well as preachers at early nineteenth-century camp meetings sought to call people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Simply put, “evangelicalism” in that context became synonymous with “revivalism, or a fervent expression of Christianity marked by an emphasis on converting outsiders.”
Evangelicalism, as Maggie would have known it, was about “giving one’s heart to Jesus” followed by working to change hearts and the world. But changing hearts and the world was not comprised solely of making converts to increase the numbers of believers. It also became identified with the efforts of people to make the world a better place as a means of spreading God’s love. In short, you are loved and saved, now go love and save others.
It wasn’t only Christians who were out to make the world a better place. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, Evangelical Christians, other Christians, free-thinkers, people who adhered to other theological and philosophical beliefs, and non-believers worked together in reform movements. Abolition, women’s rights, education, and the labor movement immediately come to mind. And let’s not forget the infamous temperance movement.
The type of materials upper- and middle-class children in England and the United States would have been reading in the early- to mid-1800s were stories, books, and other publications that stressed the importance of a peaceful conscience and submission to authority. They were designed to teach children to be careful, temperate, aware of their position in society, and diligent. With this information came a subtext of intolerance toward religions, societies, and beliefs that deviated from Protestant norms.
In addition, children of evangelical Victorians would read tracts describing the plights of the poor. These reinforced the stereotype that such people were particularly subject to the dangers of drinking, gambling, and bad company. However, in reading about others, well-to-do children also were taught the value of temperance, thrift, and proper social connections.
One final and very important thing shows up in children’s reading materials is the closeness of serious illness and death. It was, after all an era when a cold could turn into pneumonia and pneumonia could lead to death. It was a time when treatment of disease, injury, and physical conditions was limited. If you didn’t know when death or disability was coming, then you had to live a virtuous life, so you could die a “good” death.
Generally, the above subjects in reading materials was true for all segments of the children’s reading public in the first part of the century. And then something happened.
What that something was will be revealed on Friday!
 Jonathan Merritt, “Defining ‘Evangelicalism,” The Atlantic, 7 December 2015.
My photo of my church's interior, taken early one morning.
While the vast majority of my books and stories are historical fiction set in 1860s America, my lone little contemporary romance, Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, is close to my heart. It also is closest to who I am.
My character Lins Mitchell is an assistant pastor serving a church in central New Jersey, something which also describes me. We are not the same age, though. I am way past forty! And I have a 30 years’ vocation in churches, while Lins has only 15 years of experience. And yet, we both have spent about ten years or so in the same church.
Lins loves rock’n’roll. And so do I. When I’m in the car, I listen to WDHA, a rock station based in northern NJ. I listen the collection of music I have on my iPhone when I’m at the gym. The seed that grew into Heart Soul was planted early one morning on my way to the church office. I was stressed out and tired that day. Suddenly Lenny Kravitz’s song “Fly Away” came on and I found myself wondering what would happen if I had a hit novel or sold a script. Would I leave the church? Would I stay? And so Lins’ dilemma was born. In Heart Soul she not only gets the chance to “rock out one more time” but also meets a man with whom she falls in love. To paraphrase the Clash: should she stay, or should she go?
But I love rock. And I don’t mean Christian rock. I’m not trying to discredit the genre. I know many people who enjoy it and find inspiration in it. But that said, I tend to find more meaning and hope in popular music. It also pumps me up. Listening to Lzzy Hale or Dorothy clicks that female empowerment thing while I’m at the gym, making an old broad in her 60s not just able but willing to conquer the treadmill and the weight circuit.
And yet I have never been in a rock band. Never, ever. Okay, as a teen I did teach myself to play chords on the guitar. It was the 60’s after all, and the first song I learned was the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” And I did go through a singer-song writer phase in my early 20s. The best way I can sum up that experience is: Carole King I was not. And so, these days I’m strictly an “in-the-car” singer. Full disclosure: That’s not entirely true. I’m also an alto in the church’s choir, but I don’t do solos. I just like singing.
The church I currently am serving has given me the germs for some great characters found in the fictional Church of the Epiphany: the excitable yet caring secretary Sue DeLuca; the thoughtful and supportive pastor Drew Palmer; the Abbey sisters, a trio of irrepressible yet loveable teenagers; and a congregation of other slightly quirky characters. As far as I’m concerned, the book partially is a love-letter to the place where I still work. There are a couple of scenes that involve confused parishioners trying to set up or clean up a large coffee urn. Those scenes are factually based. I have helped volunteers with that thing more than a few times. And this past Sunday, a church member and I were searching for the coffee that we put in said urn. Gotta love it.
I also include a brief scene in which the high school Sunday school class pays absolutely no attention to Lins. Yep. I’ve been there, done that, too.
Also like Lins, I know what it’s like to be doing one thing and suddenly have to change gears because a problem, a question, or a person needs my attention. This is not an unusual situation. It happens all the time. When you work in a church, which basically involves working with other people, you never know what is going to happen day to day. I always walk into the office expecting to get certain things accomplished, only to have my plans exploded when someone walks in the office door. And yet that is the very thing that keeps me in my vocation. I never know what is going to happen. Do I get frustrated? Sometimes, yes. But I’ve also learned that Someone else is beside me and moving and acting through it all, and that keeps me keeping on.
As for the character Kenny Jameson, the homeless Navy veteran, I have never known a guy like him. But I have known – and still know – people dealing with homelessness and poverty. I know what it’s like to buy a sandwich for a person who needs a meal and to give someone food from our congregation’s pantry. Twice a year our church hosts homeless families through the Somerset County Interfaith Hospitality Network. We offer shelter, food, and friendship for a week. The big thing I’ve learned from this experience is that homeless people just happen to be in a certain situation that we call being “homeless.” But they’re still people. Not surprisingly, so is Kenny in Heart Soul.
In my mind, the Church of the Epiphany looks very much like my own church. It’s an older stone building with stained glass windows. It still has an organ – perhaps a pipe organ – and uses hymnals rather than projected lyrics and a rock band. That’s probably because I don’t really relate to praise music and prefer more traditional hymns. Surprise! I bet you were thinking I would be drawn to band-driven praise music. Nope. I like my rock heavy but prefer my hymns traditional. Go figure.
As for the other characters in the book, they come from other places. For instance, Patti is drawn from a good friend of mine who used to pull the “Auntie Mame” thing on me every now and then. As for the band, I made them up. I don’t know anyone really like Neil, Joey, Yankee, and Ben. But they sort of emerged and developed their personalities as I went along.
One last note: I actually have lived in Point Pleasant. I was there for about a year until the apartment I was renting went condo. Fortunately, a parishioner rescued me by letting me rent her house in Shark River Hills (Neptune). But I have fond memories of living in Point. It’s a quintessential Jersey Shore town. Some of the places there that I mention in Heart Soul actually exist, and I treat them with the same respect and love with which I treat the church. And why not? I love my state. New Jersey is quirky, frustrating, and amazing all at the same time. It takes a bit of grit, determination, and perhaps a bit of masochism to live here, but I love the place.
So that’s my story. That’s how of all the things I have written, Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll has come the closest to who I really am.
I know. Where have I been? I’m on vacation, that’s what. Sometimes even bloggers need to take a break. I’ve had such a crazy April-May that I needed a breather before jumping into summer. At the church I serve that means two busy months of Vacation Bible School, a service project day, preaching at least one Sunday in the pastor’s place, and selling sausage, pepper, and onion sandwiches at the county’s 4-H Fair. My non-author job is busy and definitely not boring. So I need a bit of rest before plunging into summer.
That said, I just finished a book and really wanted to share it with you. There goes my little “no-blogging” while on vacation rule!
A few months ago, Shirley Eng Slonaker, one of my college chums from my undergrad days at Seton Hall University, recommended that I read Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War: Louisa on the Front Lines by Samantha Seiple. Since my historical fiction series is set during the American Civil War, she thought I’d enjoy this particular read. And I did!
I’m not a book blogger by any means. I don’t read voraciously these days, partly due to the fact that I write so much. Along with authoring books and a blog, I also work as Communication Director for my church and, so spend a great deal of time staring at a computer screen. I am an older adult, and predictably all this causes me to suffer from tired eyes.
But while on vacation, I read Seiple’s book and loved it. So here goes my feeble attempt at a book blog.
Seiple proposes that Louisa May Alcott’s skills and voice as an author were shaped by her experiences serving as a nurse at the Union Hotel hospital in Washington, D.C. from December 1862-January 1863. It was a short, but intense time that brought Alcott into contact with wounded soldiers, other women working on the nursing staff, doctors (including one alcoholic with a disregard for the pain he caused his patients), and administrators. During those weeks, her mental/emotional fabric was tested as she struggled to comfort the men in her care while living under austere and disheartening circumstances.
The experience was difficult and sapped her energy, but Alcott refused to give in. After all, the wounded in her care had sacrificed themselves for their country. And so would she. However, an exhausted Alcott soon was laid low by a contagious disease that swept through the 10 women on the nursing staff, sending eight of them to their beds. Alcott stubbornly resisted, but she, like the others, contracted pneumonia and eventually typhoid. And yet, even in her delirium, she was determined to get well and continue nursing her “babies” (as she called the patients).
Fortunately, the hospital administration got in touch with her father, Bronson Alcott, who traveled to Washington and somehow managed to get his weak and ill daughter back home to Concord, Massachusetts. It took Louisa Alcott months to recover enough to function normally, although she had recurring health issues for the rest of her life.
Using material from Alcott’s journals, letters, and works of fiction and non-fiction, as well as sources written by family, friends, and other people of the time, Seiple weaves a readable, fascinating story of a young woman whose decisions, actions, and historical environment shaped her voice as a writer.
If you have an interest in Louisa May Alcott or in Civil War America or just want a captivating read, I highly recommend Seiple’s book.
Samantha Seiple. Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War: Louisa on the Front Lines. New York: Seal Press (Hatchett Book Group), 2019.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder