Reviews 2017

Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950

Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950. Hazel Sheeky Bird. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 208 pages. £85.59 (hardback).

One of the distinguishing factors of the 19th-century "first golden age" in literature for children was its sweep away from the didactic texts that preceded it, and the greater degree of freedom allowed to children in the pages of fiction. Hazel Sheeky Bird’s Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950 starts its discussion at a time when this golden age had ended and before the advent of the next "golden age" in the later 20th-century. The period 1918 to 1950, as Bird notices, was not generally deemed to be remarkable in terms of the production of books for younger readers. The interwar years and the years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath were, not just for Britain, but for Europe and much of the world, years of depression, and retraction too in some respects, and this affected publishing for young people. Yet, as Bird points out, more children’s books were produced in Britain than is sometimes acknowledged, and while the quality is, overall, not outstanding, many of these books are significant because they reflect, and possibly encourage, societal attitudes and changes.

One of the difficulties Bird addresses at the outset of her study is the difficulty in separating "England" and "Britain" as defining factors in terms of location and national culture. For Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish readers – all living in constituent parts of Britain – England can be a familiar yet very foreign country indeed. Bird recognises this difficulty although it is frequently reinforced by the interchangeability of nomenclature. Throughout her study, she points out how some authors tend to emphasise characters’ national or regional characteristics, sometimes subtly, or frequently more overtly. This is characterised by depictions of Gypsies in much mid- 20th-century fiction, which is decidedly problematic by present-day standards. They are stereotyped as dishonest, magical or romantic figures cast as outsiders, because their way of life is outside the English norm, and therefore they are seen as a challenge to prevailing notions of nationhood, and to the class-system. Yet, the freedom of the "open road" claimed by travelling people is advocated and celebrated in many of the books discussed by Bird.

Most of Bird’s study focuses on children who live in or visit the countryside. Four chapters discuss "camping and tramping" fiction, the valorisation of the countryside and rural pursuits over the urban, the effects of tourism on the rural landscape, and the importance of maps and mapping in many children’s books of this era. Her two final chapters consider the importance of "the Nelson Tradition" in British fiction and how it helped to define the nation, and the family sailing stories in which sailing is presented as something modern children could do. She offers close and considered readings of primary text whose authors include Arthur Ransome, Malcolm Saville, Gilbert Hackforth-Jones, Elinor Lyon, Aubrey de Sélincourt, John Irving and Marjorie Lloyd, and she employs an impressive range of critical approaches in her analysis of these.

Inevitably Arthur Ransome looms large throughout the study. Bird acknowledges and admires his skill as a writer who could provide his readers with believable characters engaged with what were at least for some children, recognisably realistic activities. However, she also points out that his characters were mainly middle-class and privileged, challenging some other commentators’ suggestions that Ransome’s books were somehow without the evident class and gender bias of much of what was published at the time. Certainly the Lake District, home of the Swallows and Amazons series, was largely a middle-class reservation. One of the most interesting sections of Bird’s study is her discussion of the freedom, financial and time, working class or lower-middle class characters had to visit the countryside in the mid-20th century. Better pay and the fall in the price of cars in the 1930s made rural visits possible, but an underlying concern in some of the texts she discusses is that these characters were somehow unworthy or would desecrate the rural tranquillity. This, she suggests, originated in a "deeply controlling impulse that lay behind the desire to shape children’s notions of what was and was not fitting or tasteful" (73). Bird describes comments made in a letter written by Arthur Ransome belittling "'bank-holiday visitors'" to the Lakes as "'mean-spirited'" (79) and suggests that Ransome’s remarks, and similar views expressed in a number of other children’s novels, reflect writing for adults by various social commentators and rural enthusiasts of the time.

Bird, especially in her earlier chapters, offers a rich study of a social system that on the surface seems straightforward, but was in fact undercut by all sorts of complications. Many of the novels she discusses lean to a nostalgic view of a country – and a countryside – bathed in an eternal spring and inhabited by children who were self-sufficient and self-confident. Equally, children who took to the water were generally proficient sailors, or learned to be, and the connection between sailing families and the Royal Navy is noted. Reading Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950 at a time when questions around nation, national identity and nationalism are to the forefront in Britain and elsewhere, it is interesting to speculate if the books discussed by Bird, or other books of a similar type, played any role in shaping attitudes. In her conclusion, Bird suggests that writing for children between 1900 and 1950 is in need of further reappraisal and study (152), and reading Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950, one must agree with her.

Valerie Coghlan