Reviews 2014

Revaluing British Boys Story Papers 1918-1939

Revaluing British Boys Story Papers 1918-1939. Helen A. Fairlie. London: Palgrave Macmillan, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, 2014. 210 pages. $85.00 (hardback).

In this study, developed from a Ph.D. thesis, Helen Fairlie seeks to rescue inter-war British story papers from the condescending attitudes of some previous historians of children’s literature. Although the book’s title refers to boys’ story papers in general, Fairlie concentrates on two in particular: The Magnet, published by Amalgamated Press 1908-1940, and its major competitor in the 1930s, The Hotspur, published by D. C. Thomson 1933-1959. Within these, it is their school stories, especially Frank Richards’ Greyfriars stories in The Magnet, that are discussed in greatest detail.

Fairlie takes issue with George Orwell’s classic essay Boys Weeklies (1940) because of what she regards as its implicit assumption that young readers would uncritically imbibe the story papers’ conservative social messages. However, her study is essentially an elaboration and revision of his argument. She takes a more detailed look at the ideological implications of the school story as it appears in the papers. She examines the role that story papers played in the lives of their predominantly working and middle class readers. Finally, she offers a version of the relationship between story paper producers and consumers in which readers take an active role and derive their own personal and social benefits.

Fairlie’s three central chapters explore the moral code of the stories; how readers could read the school world of the stories back into their own lives; and the changing face of the hero in the stories. Her examination reveals that Orwell’s criticism was not too wide of the mark. The stories, although not overtly didactic in the Victorian manner, consistently advocate a code of proper conduct, present the fictional public school and its upper middle class values as the natural representation of British boyhood, and embody imperialist views of heroism and patriotism as effectively as boys’ adventure stories. Partly in response to what its market researchers discovered children wanted, The Hotspur introduced more socially democratic themes in the late 1930s and treated relationships between masters and pupils rather more subversively than The Magnet. But, like its main market rival, it always resolved the stories in favour of the values and authority of the school and, implicitly, Fairlie argues, the established social order.

Fairlie’s major departure from Orwell is her discussion of how the story paper readers would have received these messages. Her main sources are published autobiography and Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (2001). She follows Rose in asserting that children were capable of taking what they wanted from the stories, screening out behaviours and values that did not fit with their own experience, and applying the stories’ basic ethos of decency and comradeship in the circumstances of their own lives. Her emphasis on readers’ agency continues in her last two chapters which deal with the rise of children’s cinema and the story papers as cultural artefacts.

Fairlie argues that the huge popularity of cinema among children had a direct influence on the story papers. It led not only to stories that were initially critical of the new medium but also to stories, particularly in The Hotspur, that borrowed themes and narrative techniques from film. Fairlie even speculates that children’s enthusiasm for visual narratives may have been a factor in the eventual demise of the text based story paper in favour of the comic. In her last chapter, she looks at the story papers’ paratextual elements (advertisements, illustrations, editorials and so on) and considers the power relationship between the producers and consumers of the story papers, making extensive use of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of social capital. She argues that the story papers, along with children’s cinema, marked an important step in the emergence of children as independent consumers, spending their own money on something which might be disapproved of by parents and teachers, and forming a nascent market which was taken seriously by the story paper publishers and cinema chains.

While the story papers have drawn academic attention before in studies of popular literature for children, many of which are cited by Fairlie, this is the first study to take an in-depth theoretical approach and to consider them as an important social and cultural influence on children’s lives. As might be expected from a book in a series entitled Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, Fairlie draws on a wide range of theorists, most of whom are concerned either with the connections between literary texts, ideology and society or with the nature of the reading experience. She relies particularly on the work of Bourdieu, which I have not seen applied so thoroughly to children’s texts before. Discussions of theory are interspersed with textual analysis of the stories themselves and empirical evidence drawn from a range of what might broadly be called cultural histories. This makes, by the way, for an impressive bibliography.

There is much that is new here in content and approach. However, there is a limited amount of evidence to bear the weight of theory applied to it. Conclusions about story papers in general are drawn from just two papers and, within them, predominantly one type of story. The number of recorded responses to the story papers, either from children or parents, is small enough to make any assertions about the role of the papers in children’s lives tentative at best. It also leaves the question of the influence of their conservative values still very much open.

Finally, there is the question of Billy Bunter, pictured prominently on the front page of The Magnet reproduced on the cover of this study. Bunter is the antithesis of the social order that the stories wish to uphold and yet is the most memorable character the story papers produced, having a TV career long after The Magnet itself had ceased publication. While Fairlie cites others on Bunter’s fascination, she does not seem to get to grips with him herself. Humour gets short shrift here but surely that was one of the great sources of the story papers’ appeal and would merit greater consideration.

Clive Barnes
Independent scholar

Works Cited

Orwell, George. "Boys Weeklies." Inside the Whale and other Essays. London: Penguin, 1962.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.