Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

12
Pan in the Garden
THE EDWARDIAN TURN
IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

Readers of the lushly produced Children s Literature: An Illustrated History, published by Oxford University Press in 1995, will come across a wonderfully illuminating photograph in Julia Briggs's chapter, “Transitions (1890–1914).” Three little girls sit at their tea party under an arbor. Perhaps sisters, perhaps models, the girls range in age from probably two to ten. As the middle girl carefully pours cream into a teacup, the oldest and youngest stare into the camera. The caption to the photograph calls attention to the ways in which “imaginative games,” such as playing at tea parties, took hold at the end of the nineteenth century, and how the imitation of “adult behavior” provided the larger social context for the fictions of such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Richard Jefferies, E. Nesbit, and Kenneth Grahame.1

What we have here, however, is not simply a case of imaginative or imitative play. What we have is the emblem of the Edwardian age, the great tea party that, for the first decade of the twentieth century, exemplified what the literary historian Samuel Hynes has called the “turn of mind” of that age. His description of many of the official “garden party” portraits of the royals resonates strikingly with this picture of the three children. He writes of “a present, dominated by King and Queen, symbols of the established order—rich, punctilious, and unoccupied—and behind them the past, a corridor of peace, sunlit and pastoral.”2 In the Children's Literature photograph, too, we see an ordered, ritualized world; a corridor of peace, sunlit and pastoral.

In many ways, modern children's literature remains an Edwardian phenomenon. This period defined the ways in which we still think of

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