Christmas Books for Children
The Speaker, December 8, 1900
Time should be turned tail foremost as we approach Christmas and all of us grow younger every day: even the educational reviewer like ourselves may suddenly become possessed of a sense of humour and perceive in his position as "mother's adviser" an unsuspected source of mental delight. We may at least throw off that burden of incomparable conscientiousness which is the curse of all educationalists, since it prevents them from sympathising with those whom they have to educate. It is manifestly impossible to criticise children's books, as we hope to prove in the course of doing so; it is bringing a dingy and artificial fastidiousness to bear on a point of view which is perfectly capable of taking care of itself, which has a power of extracting a certain nameless excitement from one material almost as much as another. There are, we can fully believe, educationalists who are capable of investigating sandcastles with a view to the strict principles of architecture and mud-pies with a view to the strict principles of cookery. But to us, we must confess, the two questions about a book for a child which would seem important would always be "Does it obviously give him imaginative pleasure?" and "Will it poison him when he licks the binding?"
Of all such books the easiest to criticise are the more or less frankly instructive, such as Mr. George Gomme's The Princess's Story Book (Constable). The idea is a bold and by no means a bad one: that of making a mosaic history of England, not from the chapters of historians (as it was done in the Greene series), but from the chapters of writers of fiction. The portrait of James I, for example, is from The Fortunes of Nigel, and assuredly there is no better portrait in the whole of Scott: the fight with the Armada is told in the words of Kingsley, and the defeat of Wallace in those of Miss Jane Porter. Modern historians are far too craven to adopt the manner of Herodotus, and report long fictitious conversations embodying the general spirit of what passed between two historical figures. But from the point of view of childhood they probably lose enormously by clinging to the oratio obliqua. We are not concerned to quarrel with the amount of error in such a narrative, for the lies of fiction convey truth and the lies of history convey nothing. But there is obviously a distinction between romances in this matter: all good romances convey truth, but not always about the period they describe. Esmond, which the compiler regrets he had to exclude, is a true romance: it is written by a man steeped in the literature and spirit of Queen Anne's time. Miss Porter's Scottish Chiefs does depict a period; but it is not the period of Wallace, but the period of Miss Porter: the period of sentimental sympathy with the heroes of liberty.
Mr. Thomas Cobb's little book, The Bountiful Lady; or, How Mary was Changed from a Very Miserable Little Girl to a Very Happy One (Grant Richards) is amusing in its way and the morality is not obscenely prominent. Still, we are a little tired of the enormous number of books directed by grown people against sulky and unhappy children. Considering that two-thirds of the children of the world are courageously happy in the filthiest slums and corners and that quite one-third of the grown-up people are offensively discontented in first-class hotels, the claim of the adult to preach contentment to infancy appears to us a piece of indecent hypocritical impudence. Mr. Cobb, however, can put in the sound dramatic claim that he is only describing an individual, and the little fairy-tale of the boy who never liked anything when he got it is both humorous and profitable, if we remember always that it is vastly more applicable to men than to boys. If the adults are useful in their way (as we may generously admit) in order to teach children to work, children are quite as much specialists in teaching the adult to play.
Mr. John Ingold has a very genuine poetic instinct and one that should fit him to write fairy-tales (perhaps the highest form of art), but he has not quite sufficiently realised the nature of the literary form in question. His imagery and allegory are confused and unreliable, sometimes daring and sometimes trivial. The whole essence of the true fairy-tale is that it happens not at night, like a ghost story, but in broad daylight: that the most preposterous figures and incidents stand out clear, defiant and unconscious, the lawful denizens of a lawless planet. This clean-cutting workmanship, this simple grouping is absolutely essential to a good fairytale, and sometimes Mr. Ingold in his Glimpses from Wonderland (John Long) really achieves it. The following sentence is a piece of literary plain carpentry which hits the right nail on the head almost with the hammer of Stevenson:-
"On a throne, formed of twisted men turned to stone and in which thousands of sinister eyes gleamed like emeralds, rubies and sapphires, reclined the Necromancer." This is a clear picture; but elsewhere we can form no picture of what occurs, creatures with Lewis Carroll names carrying widows' tears, a man's soul taken from his body as mere afterthought, these are futile misshapen incidents which prove there is a law in Elfland by breaking it. The story of The Necromancer seems one that might stop at any point; it lacks the simple architecture of the old stories with their chorus, little recurrences and triads of brothers. Mr. Ingold should remember that true miracles are most inscrutable standing in the glare of the sun. Some other stories in this book, which are not fairy-tales, show ability, but we advise Mr. Ingold strongly to go on writing about magicians. He has unquestionable imagination.
When we read the title of Mr. Chapman's little book, Proverbs Improved (John Lane), we had a momentary hope that the proverbs really were improved, for there is ample room for improvement in what seems to be, with few exceptions, the crystallised wisdom of cowards. "Waste not, want not," "A fool and his money are soon parted," these and the majority of their like seem always texts from the Bible of Laodicaea, the maxims of the comfortable who never know either the joy of danger or the joy of joy. Mr. Chapman does indeed rebel, by a verse in praise of wandering against the maxim "A rolling stone gathers no moss," and we fully agree with him. A stone which had the unwonted pleasure of a good roll would know better than to settle down as a botanical "collector." It would leave that to gravestones. "All is not gold that glitters," he accepts, however, in all its infamy- as if, to the healthy soul of youth, glittering were not infinitely better than being common gold. Mr. Chapman has, unfortunately, no really revolutionary design. Both his verses and Miss Grace May's designs are graceful and appropriate and neither pretend to be anything more. A good specimen of both is on the page illustrating the proverb "Faint heart never won fair lady." The existence of this saying, again, is a singular proof of the power of masculine concealment, for certainly if it had been true no fair lady would ever have been won in this world.