Culture > Books

Books: Be good or get eaten

Books | Does the new vogue of Victorian children's books reflect a desire for morality without God?

Issue: "The death of discipline?," June 26, 1999

The rhymes are wonderfully silly and the rhythm is addictive:
F was once a little fish,
In a dishy
Little fish. A new edition of An Edward Lear Alphabet, first published in 1871, is a surprise summer bestseller on the children's lists. Lear, who penned "The Owl and the Pussycat" along with scores of other poems for children, represents the best in a genre that's getting some renewed interest these days-Victorian literature for children. Libraries across the country this summer are holding formal tea parties for their young female fans of The American Girls series, and Lewis Carroll is selling better than ever (last month was the 125th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland). The forte of the Victorians was nonsense verse, and this is represented well both in the new edition of An Edward Lear Alphabet and Nonsense & Common Sense. The standouts range from story-poems, such as Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat" and Eugene Field's "The Duel" (between the gingham dog and the calico cat), to concise and unimpeachable ditties, such as Gelett Burgess's "The Purple Cow." The problem of the Victorians was that many of them thought that people could be good without God. They claimed that those who followed the rules of their society would be happy ever after, and others would automatically lose out. Hilaire Belloc's "The Bad Child's Book of Beasts," collected in his Complete Verse, published by Pimlico, cleverly critiques that Victorian sentiment. Belloc was an English author, journalist, satirist, and politician, a contemporary of and companion to Chesterton, Shaw, and Wells. A conservative Catholic, he believed in the Christian view that we need God's grace. Belloc made his most palpable hits on insipid Victorian sensibilities and poems like "Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion." The title tells the story, but for good measure, Belloc reemphasizes the poem's timeless moral: ... All the children round, attend
To James' miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse,
For fear of finding something worse. Belloc also lampooned Victorian moralism and sentimentality in "Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death," and "Henry King, Who Chewed Bits of String and Was Early Cut Off in Dreadful Agonies," not to mention "Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably." Belloc gave sardonic encouragement in "Charles Augustus Fortescue, Who Always Did What Was Right, and So Accumulated an Immense Fortune." So why the current interest in Victoriana? Parents, teachers, and librarians may be reacting to the bleak books children are offered now (see WORLD, May 29) and the culture's denial and destruction of childhood. The Victorians were right, and parents today are right, in rejecting the notion that children are miniature adults (theirs, to be seen and not heard, ours, to be sexualized as early as possible). But we need to avoid their mistake-the mistake of trying to be good without God, of imparting morals without a foundation.

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