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The Victorian Fairy Tale Book - Michael Patrick Hearn

The introduction of this book describes the battle over the ancient Celtic fairyland in Britain, from its renaissance in Shakespeare and his contemporaries through various degrees of suppression under changing regimes and varieties of Christian moral anxiety. Fears of corrupting the young were resolved by Victorian times into the moral fairytale, strictly cleansed of the 'savagery and ethical ambiguity' of many traditional stories and recast as "engines for the propulsion of all virtues into the little mind in an agreeable and harmless form" (Edward Salmon, 1888).

If I'm making it sound like the Victorians sucked the spirit out of children's literature (as arguably they tried to out of everything else), then that impression is one I'd agree with, but there are pleasures in this book nonetheless, even if some of them are forbidden.


There is rebellion against some of the hard-headed positivism, rationalism and pragmatism of the day, and much inspiration from the currents of reaction to industrialisation in the Arts and Crafts movement and Romanticism. Literatures of these traditions have inspired much of 
A.S.Byatt's work and I am wary of letting my distaste for the Victorian period slide into contempt and sweeping simplification.

Hearn has made some nice selections. Ruskin contributes a beautifully written moral tale in the style of the brothers Grimm, and Thackeray's 'The Rose and The Ring' is full of contempt for pomp and privilege. The enjoyable Pied Piper is here in full as is Rossetti's classic Goblin Market. Kenneth Grahame's Reluctant Dragon is funny if a bit pedestrian in its stereotype-breaking, and E.Nesbit's The Deliverers of Their Country shows her usual respect for children's ingenuity. Peter Pan, we find, was originally a tragic figure.

Apart from Nesbit and to a lesser extent Grahame, the authors featured in this book don't really attempt to use accessible language appropriate to a young audience. Their stories are often not about children, or they are about completely unrealistic children, who like Melilot do and say things no child ever would. All the expected nasty tropes are in here somewhere: heroes are perfect, beauty=goodness, the poor little lame prince is magically cured, wrongdoers are punished by the righteous and so on. Less useful as bedtime stories for kids than as material for research!