Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Children's Susceptible Minds: Alicia Lefanu and the "Reasoned Imagination" in Georgian Children's Literature

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Children's Susceptible Minds: Alicia Lefanu and the "Reasoned Imagination" in Georgian Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Introduction

IN HIS ENQUIRY CONCERNING POLITICAL JUSTICE (1793), WILLIAM GODWIN argued that "the characters of men are determined in all their most essential circumstances by education." (1) This centrality of education to man's fundamental political and ethical character went largely uncontested in the era in which Godwin was writing, but the practical and moral application of children's education was arguably one of the most fervently disputed issues of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Janet Bottoms highlights the unprecedented nature of this debate in terms of the public ramifications it had on national educational policies, as well as the concerns it raised over the population's reading habits: "The importance of reading in the formation of character had taken on a national as well as an individual importance it had never been accorded before." (2) The role of literature as a didactic tool for the ethical tuition of children, both at home and at school, thus became a thorny topic within this public context and fuelled what has been traditionally perceived as a dichotomous argument between adherents of fairy tale and fantasy as educative media, and those that championed a much more rationalist approach. These two divided camps have been generally categorized as the "romantics" and the "educationists," the former adhering to a modern correlation between the active exercise of the imagination and mental and spiritual health, and the latter remaining loyal to an eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy that favored rational thought and heavily didactic instructional practices. Current scholarship, however, has suggested that the rigidity of this conflict is a critical fallacy, an erroneous "bipolar model" that Tess Cosslett insists has been unfairly imposed (by critics from the nineteenth century onwards) on the history of early children's books. (3)

Cosslett's thinking reinforces and significantly builds upon current critical attempts to initiate a much more subtle and balanced approach to the fairy tale and fantasy genre in the early nineteenth century, as well as to expose the extent to which such hardened critical rhetoric is in need of revision. Drawing on the seminal work of Mitzi Myers, one of the first scholars to significantly challenge the critical binaries of children's literature historiography, William McCarthy argues that the binary model is "almost Manichean in its need to dichotomize." (4) Alan Richardson has further argued that the "opposition between moral didacticism and the imaginative fairy tale is hardly absolute," and Caroline Sumpter demonstrates that "a more complicated history" of the fairy tale in the Romantic period is ever more warranted. (5) This essay takes this body of criticism as its starting point and additionally takes heed of Richardson's suggestion that in order to challenge successfully the dualistic critical framework that has largely presided over literary history's understanding of the educational debates of the Romantic period, a more concentrated focus on the children's literature of that period (as opposed to the "polemic in reviews and prefaces") is necessary. (6)

It further takes as its central focus the poetic works for children by Irish novelist, poet, and biographer, Alicia Lefanu (1791-1867), which were published with John Harris and William and Mary Jane Godwin's Juvenile Library respectively: The Flowers; Or, the Sylphid Queen: A Fairy Tale in Verse (1809), and Rosara's Chain: or, the Choice of Life. A Poem, etc. (1812). These two long narrative verse works for children were Lefanu's debut publications in the literary world of the early nineteenth century, and her overall publishing career spanned a short but fruitful period between 1809 and 1826. Alongside her poetic narratives for children, Lefanu published an array of multi-volume novels encompassing a broad range of genres, including historical fiction and romance, several of which ran into multiple editions. …

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