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

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

14
Keeping Things Straight
STYLE AND THE CHILD

Throughout the history of children's literature, boys and girls have been taught style. From the Roman and late antique instructions in social behavior with the family and the slave; through medieval and Renaissance handbooks of dress, speech, and table manners; to the Puritans' concerns with proper conduct and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concerns with proper “cutting up,” or the anxiousness about theatricality and play—throughout all these periods and genres, children have learned ways of being in the world. Style marks the child as male or female, rich or poor, educated or illiterate. “Le style,” said the Comte de Buffon famously, “c'est l'homme même”—the style is the man himself.1 But it is also the child.

The word style comes from the Latin stylus, originally meaning the pointed object poets and schoolchildren used to mark their letters on wax tablets. To write in a certain style, for antique authors, was to compose in a language or an idiom befitting certain subject matters. There were levels of style, according to the gravity of the subject. And when a writer wrote in a particular and individual style, it was a way of adapting the words to personal expression. “Style” yoked together hand and thought, expression and imagination. Early on in the history of English, the word came to connote any manner of public behavior, but it was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that style could mean a valued form of that behavior in the social sense. Having not just a style but style itself seems to emerge as a category of identity keyed to fashion and education, wit and bearing—valued qualities emerging in the age of Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, and Benjamin Disraeli, that is, the age

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