"Safe Reading" and Subversion
Image found at Second Story Books website
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. We use the world “evangelical” in the twenty-first century differently than we use it to to religious beliefs in the 1800s.
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. 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. It was more nuanced than we tend to think. (Maggie is tee-total, so I think I’ll take that up in a future post).
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 that 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 were taught the value of temperance, thrift, and proper social connections.
One final and very important thing shows up in children’s reading materials: the closeness of serious illness and death. It was, after all, a time 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.
Fairy tales already had been in existence and were used to teach moral values. But a new model emerged, exemplified by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What made it so different? Alice was “written without any trace of a moral, because it was designed purely and simply to amuse the child.”
Amuse the child? Who would have thought? What a concept!
Welcome to what is known as The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. It was 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 were finally celebrated, rather than repressed.
Except if you were an evangelical, that is. In that camp, adults still believed novels and fairy tales would negatively stir a child’s emotions. In addition, children were told that reading these things was an idle, useless past-time, not to mention the work of the devil. That is the sort of attitude Maggie encountered as a child. And, so she staged a bit of a rebellion by reading “banned” materials when she could.
But I don’t think Maggie was alone in this. I believe that, even when forced to read “safe” materials it was possible for children to subvert the system and let their imaginations soar. And it is possible that publishers and authors knew this.
I say this because earlier in the centuries evangelical authors and publishing houses tried to bridge the growing cultural gap between themselves and “pleasure reading” by creating “safe reading” sources. Novels were out, but magazines and tracts were acceptable. So, these types of materials used excitement as a hook for child readers.
I was surprised to find that evangelical magazines were loaded with “true stories” bearing an uncanny resemblance to the articles one can find in today’s supermarket and online tabloids. 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.”
While these titles today give us a laugh or a face palm or both, they were intended to emphasize a desperate and immediate need for the so-called “civilizing” effects of the Gospel worldwide. At the same time, I’m certain such stories also 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. Many stories in the Wesleyan magazines contained an air of adventure, too, especially those about the work and lives of missionaries. After all, missionaries went away 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 stories involved men and women who served in mission.
In addition, some of the magazines told of the trials and tribulations caused by illness, natural disaster, or hostility from the native people. They obviously meant emphasize the great sacrifices made by the missionaries who spread the Gospel, as well as the superiority of British culture and values. However, I think they also must have provided excitement and novelty for a child reader. Takes this example form 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 that you are a child sitting in the nursery under the strict eye of your governess or living away from home in a boarding school with constrictive rules. You just might find subversive and vicarious enjoyment reading about tales of strange places, people whose customs are wildly different, and adults who ventured out into a big, dangerous world to preach the Gospel.
While evangelical publications were much the same as the more secular materials, the one thing they did not offer was fiction and fantasy. To make up for this lack of fictional story-telling, many of the evangelical magazines’ articles wrote in a story-telling style that grew more polished and less restrained as the century moved on.
However, outright fiction does not appear in evangelical materials until the 1880s. Our Maggie would be a lady in her 60s at that time, and her oldest daughters in their 40s. It’s probable that even her grandchildren would have missed the children’s fiction boat, at least in their religious publications.
However, if those kids are anything like Maggie, you just know they’re going to be sneaking off with a copy of Little Women or the Leatherstocking tales, or even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
 Jonathan Merritt, “Defining ‘Evangelicalism,” The Atlantic, 7 December 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/evangelical-christian/418236/
 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.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder