Tag Archives: children’s literature

Guest post: Exploring historical gender inequality in prize and gift books

This guest post comes from Lauren O’Hagan, PhD candidate in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, who is researching early 20th century book inscriptions and reading practices in Great Britain.


The World’s Your Oyster… Unless You’re a Girl:
Exploring Historical Gender Inequality in Prize and Gift Books

From the #metoo campaign to the gender pay gap, in recent months, the topic of gender inequality has seldom been out of the headlines. Since the early twentieth century, bolstered by the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union, women in Britain have been fighting for equal rights and opportunities. While images of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike or members of the Women’s Liberation Movement burning bras are ingrained in our minds as early examples of the struggle against gender inequality, there is one form of historical discrimination that remains largely forgotten, despite the fact that it is still prevalent in our society today: the giving of books as gifts and prizes. The full extent of this highly gendered practice only became apparent to me through a delve into the Janet Powney Collection at Special Collections and Archives.

The Janet Powney Collection is made up of some eight-hundred children’s books, largely dating from the late-Victorian and Edwardian era. These books were predominantly given as gifts or awarded as prizes to children and, as such, most bear an inscription on their front endpaper.

The years 1880 to 1915 are generally considered to mark a key period in the development of a distinctive girls’ and boys’ culture in Britain. Nothing illustrated this distinction more obviously than books. As book production grew and new designs and modes of distribution developed, publishers began to recognise the commercial potential of identifying specialist readerships, particularly girls and boys. Taking advantage of the emerging ‘vanity trade’ in which buyers were strongly influenced by a book’s outer appearance over its internal content, publishers produced books whose images, typography and colours were heavily influenced by gender.

More than one hundred years later, these same marketing strategies can be observed in children’s books today, as seen in the photo below from Waterstones taken by the #LetToysBeToys campaign group.

Books are, of course, not the only objects to have become genderised. From a young age, advertisements (and indeed many parents) are still largely responsible for teaching children that dolls are for girls and cars are for boys. The breadth of this issue and the various debates it provokes have most recently been demonstrated by John Lewis’s decision to introduce gender neutral clothing lines for children. While many people praised the progressive move of John Lewis, arguing that “you don’t look at food and say it’s going to be eaten by a man or a woman, so why should it be any different for clothes?” others criticised the retailer for “bowing down to political correctness.” The mixed responses that this topic has generated indicates that, now more than ever, it is necessary to return to the past in a bid to improve the future.

Books as Gifts

What it meant to be a girl and a boy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain can be clearly seen through the inscriptions made in gift books within the Janet Powney Collection.

For girls, religious fiction was most frequently gifted, primarily by their mothers, grandparents and friends. Religious fiction emphasised traditional female qualities of sacrifice and obedience and encouraged girls to uphold the conventional role that had been pre-established for them in society: that of being a wife and a mother. In contrast, boys were chiefly given adventure fiction by their mothers, grandparents and friends. Adventure fiction promoted cultural expectations of masculinity, and focused heavily on the notions of imperialism, heroism and comradeship. For both boys and girls, it was the mother who inscribed the book; the father’s name was conspicuously absent. The Victorian scholar, Kate Flint, claims that the mother was generally considered the most appropriate person to choose a book for her children – a belief that still prevails today (please click through to request access to the article from the author).

The fact that the same split into religious fiction for girls and adventure fiction for boys can also be observed when friends gave each other books as presents indicates that the purchaser of the gift was typically an adult, i.e. the child’s parent, and so, it was their views on gender appropriacy that were given overriding priority. The book historian, Jonathan Rose, claims that girls’ books only sold well because they were chosen as presents by adults, and, in fact, many Victorian and Edwardian girls preferred adventure fiction and often read their brothers’ copies surreptitiously. Adventure fiction was discouraged for girls, as it was deemed harmful to their ‘fragile’ minds and risked diminishing their value as females.

Despite these gender stereotypes that were largely influenced by the giver’s concept of what was suitable for the receiver, the collection has one notable exception: in all examples of Aunts giving books to Nieces, the books belong to the adventure fiction genre. While this suggests that the modern-day concept of the ‘cool aunt’, in fact, has its origins in the late-nineteenth century, this theory falls apart slightly when noting that nephews continued to receive adventure fiction, with no examples of religious fiction given. This gives weight to the widely asserted claim by the scholar, Barry Thorne, that it is more acceptable for girls to associate with masculinity than boys with the lesser valued and ‘contaminating’ femininity.

Many of the above points are still relevant in today’s society. While religious fiction has largely disappeared from bookshops with the increase in secularisation, it has come to be replaced by the romance genre – perhaps a reflection of the growing acceptance of girls’ sexuality, yet still stereotypical in its own way. Boys’ fiction, on the other hand, continues to be dominated by adventure and fantasy novels. Despite the fact that a recent survey demonstrates that comedy is now the favourite genre of most boys and girls in the UK, with David Walliams and Jeff Kinney being cited as the favourite authors of both genders, when it comes to gift-giving, many family members and friends still resort to stereotypical genres and authors. Equally, while it is now widely acceptable for girls to receive Harry Potter or Hunger Games books as gifts, for example, very few boys are the recipients of books by Jacqueline Wilson or Jill Murphy. Although the Representation Project is attempting to challenge and overcome gender stereotypes by encouraging parents to buy books for children based on their individual personalities and interests instead of defaulting to gender-specific gift options, these findings show that there is still clearly a long way to go.

Books as Prizes

Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian era, awarding books as prizes was standard practice for most schools, Sunday schools and other institutions across Britain and its Empire. While these books were typically awarded in recognition of an outstanding achievement or contribution, they also served a secondary function of moral education and they were often used by educational and religious institutions as tools to disseminate approved fiction. Writing in 1888 in favour of prize books, the literary critic, Edward Salmon, argued:

“The young mind is a virgin soil, and whether weeds or rare flowers and beautiful trees are to spring up in it will, of course, depend upon the character of the seeds sown. You cannot scatter literary tares and reap mental corn. A good book is the consecrated essence of a holy genius, bringing new light to the brain and cultivating the heart for the inception of noble motives.”

The prize books in the Janet Powney collection generally reflect similar trends to the gift books, although there is some variation according to awarding institution. For example, within Sunday schools and faith schools, both boys and girls were most likely to receive religious fiction. As the prize book movement was largely aimed at bringing respectability to working-class children, religious fiction was considered the most suitable type of book to provide appropriate models of behaviour to boys and girls. More importantly, however, educators saw religious fiction as a ‘safe’ and ‘reliable’ book genre that advocated conventional masculine and feminine roles. These gender differences are explicitly reflected in the titles of prize books: ‘sacrifice’, ‘obedience’ and ‘barriers’ most frequently occur in girls’ titles, while ‘winning’, ‘voyage’ and ‘victory’ feature most regularly in boys’ titles. These words demonstrate that girls were expected to live a contained life with limited opportunities and within local boundaries, but boys had the freedom to explore the global picture and the choice to do as they wish.

Despite supposedly having no religious affiliation, board schools also favoured religious fiction as prizes for girls; in contrast, boys were awarded adventure fiction. In some cases, boys were also given history and biography books, which tended to emphasise the view that to be British was to be a conqueror, an imperialist and a civilising force. This fits with the argument of historian, Stephen Heathorn, that the Victorian and Edwardian elementary classroom served as a workshop of reformulated English nationalism.

Although most prize books awarded by clubs were directly liked to their ethos (i.e. Bible classes distributed Bibles, Choirs presented music books etc.), many clubs still showed gender bias in their choices. For example, both religious and secular clubs awarded books to boys that focused on temperance and the criticism of other vices, such smoking, gambling and pleasure-seeking. These books also placed great attention on the importance of chastity and the concept of chivalry as a means of self-control. These issues were highlighted, as educators feared a supposedly causal link between boys’ crimes and reading matter that influenced them. Boys’ books also focused on the importance of saving money and owning a house, which fit with the traditional view of ‘man as economic provider’.

The girls’ book given by both religious and secular clubs, on the other hand, focused heavily on the notion that moving out of one’s social station was against God’s will and often warned girls of the dangers of switching religious allegiances. As the ‘weaker’ sex, girls were considered more likely to become ‘corrupted’, particularly by Catholicism, which was believed to be strongly linked to the forces of social and political reaction, moral decadence and foreign treachery at this time.

While such stark gender inequalities may not be as apparent today in prize-giving practices, they still prevail in some institutions, albeit covertly. Sunday schools throughout Britain still promote the awarding of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ books. Seemingly innocent titles, such as ’10 Boys Who Changed the World’ or ’10 Girls Who Changed the World’, in fact, reveal that the boys are all involved in dynamic actions as sailors, smugglers or gangsters, while the girls are confined to lowly positions as slumdogs and orphans, or have physical and mental impairments.

Even within non-religious institutions, such as state schools, prize books remain gendered with neutral stories, such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, creeping into volumes labelled as Favourite Fairy Tales for Girls and Favourite Stories for Boys respectively. Although book titles no longer appear to use stereotypical adjectives to define boys and girls, just like in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, they remain ladened with gendered words: witches, fairies and unicorns dominate girls’ books, while dinosaurs, castles and football are exclusive to boys’ books. Recently, the National Union of Teachers carried out a Breaking the Mould Project to encourage nursery and primary classrooms to challenge traditional gender stereotypes through books. They recommended awarding books, such as Anne Fine’s Bill’s New Frock or Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess to engage with the range of ways in which children can be stereotyped. Given the complexity of this topic, it is unsurprising that many schools have now opted to award book tokens instead of books to avoid the difficult act of choosing.

A child’s home and educative experience has a direct effect on his or her short-term and long-term achievements and is responsible for shaping his or her pathway in life. For this reason, it is important to engage with historical artefacts, such as the books in the Janet Powney collection, to learn from negative representations of gender. By using the gift and prize books to map particular attitudes to and constructions of gender, we can correct any potentially harmful behaviours that still remain in our society and strive towards living in a country with gender equality for all.

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Guest post: CUROP Research Project – Early Welsh language children’s literature

ChildLitThis guest post comes from Bethan Morgan, undergraduate in the School of Welsh, on her CUROP (Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme) project. Bethan has been working with Dr Siwan Rosser to create a bibliographic database of Welsh-language children’s books published before 1900.

Building on last year’s successful CUROP project to create a database of 19th-century periodicals for children, this project seeks to create a new resource for enhanced research on the history of children’s publishing in Wales. At present, no bibliography exists for pre-1900 publications, and library catalogue descriptions are often incomplete and inconsistent, impeding investigations into this important aspect of cultural history.

The project involved searching the University Library’s extensive Special Collections, as well as information from the on-line catalogue of the National Library of Wales, and amassing (through EndNote) relevant bibliographic material. The books were sorted into different categories within EndNote according to their genres, e.g. poetry, music, stories, textbooks, prayer books, and sermons. The resulting database, incorporating the previous CUROP periodical database, will be published online after the project, to be used in research and teaching here and to advance the study of this topic in general.

Bethan notes: “It was fascinating reading the pre-1900 collection of children’s books, because they are so different in comparison with contemporary children’s books. It was hard to believe at times that I was reading children’s literature, because of the serious / dark themes found in many of them, such as sin, death and disasters. The project is very worthwhile, and of value in developing knowledge of Cardiff University’s collection of children’s literature.”

It will also be an invaluable resource for Siwan Rosser during her 2015-16 Research Leave to produce a monograph on Welsh children’s literature. Furthermore, this database will lead to a joint project with Special Collections and Archives to create an online collection of early children’s books, as part of our programme to digitise library and archives to support research and teaching.

View Bethan’s post in full on Siwan Rosser’s Llenyddiaeth Plant blog.

Llenyddiaeth Plant / Children’s Literature: SCOLAR and CUROP (Re-Blog)

Mae Dr Siwan Rosser, a’i myfyriwr Catrin, o Ysgol y Gymraeg, yn trafod manylion prosiect CUROP dros yr haf, a oedd yn seiliedig ar gasgliadau SCOLAR o lenyddiaeth plant dros y ddau gan mlynedd diwethaf…
“Diben y prosiect cylchgronau oedd creu cofnod manwl o sampl o gylchgronau plant cynnar a gwella’n gwybodaeth o gynnwys ac ansawdd y cylchgronau hyn”.

Dwy Ganrif o Lenyddiaeth Plant

Dr Siwan Rosser and her student, Catrin, from the School of Welsh, discuss the details of their CUROP project over the summer, which was based on the SCOLAR collections of children’s literature over the last two centuries…
“The aim of the project was to create a detailed record of a sample early journals for children, and improve our knowledge of the contents and quality of these journals”.

Athraw i Blentyn,  1837

Athraw i Blentyn, 1837

Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival

1SwissFrom the 19th to the 24th March the Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival will be taking place in the city, at a variety of locations, and featuring authors and illustrators.  A whole variety of events will be happening, for children, schools, and even adults! You can keep up with their activities by following @CDFKidsLitFest on Twitter.  Cardiff University is contributing to the festival, and hosting some of the events, and in SCOLAR we are putting on an exhibition celebrating the history of children’s literature, from the 17th century up to the 20th century.  We are looking at the chronological development of children’s literature by highlighting several themes.

3GreenawayBooks for children were initially for educational purposes, which then developed into moral instructions too.  Children were taught how to behave, and were given frightening examples of what might happen to them if they didn’t.  The prevailing religiosity of the 18th and 19th centuries gradually waned until by the end of the 19th C. children were being regarded with a more sentimental outlook.  More illustrative works began to emerge, some portraying idealised images of children, whilst others were aiming to capture their attention.  Reading was no longer just for instruction, but for entertainment too, as fairy tales became popular.  With an increase in fiction, the gender divide became markably apparent, as works were specifically aimed at either boys or girls.

Dawntreader1Children’s fiction became more adventurous, and elements of fantasy were increasingly included, much of it owing a debt to British myths and legends that were popular at the time.  In the twentieth century fantasy literature took on a life of its own, and is now one of the most popular genres in children’s fiction.

Charlotte Guest’s English translation of the Mabinogion in 1838 contributed to the fascination with Arthurian myths, as she brought the tales to a new readership.  Translations of works into Welsh or English also provide a interesting look at what we want children to be reading.

We have gathered items from SCOLAR’s collections, including the Children’s Literature Collection which can be seen in part in the glass cases at the entrance to SCOLAR, and from the modern children’s literature collection held in the main part of the library.  Items from the modern collection are also being utilised in a display on level 1 of the library (ASSL), where readers can vote for their favourite children’s novel.

The exhibition is available for viewing March-May 2013, and details of the items displayed are available on our webpages.

Resource guide for women’s history launched for International Women’s Day

brazilSpecial Collections and Archives is marking International Women’s Day 2013 with the launch of its latest resource guide on women’s history and gender studies. The guide covers sources from the 16th-21st centuries, including:

  • Bibliographies and reference works on British women’s history and writing;
  • Biographies of the lives of women;
  • Gendered children’s literature and comics;
  • Conduct, etiquette and advice manuals;
  • Broadsides and ballads relating to women as both victims and perpetrators of crime;
  • Memoirs, diaries and autobiographies of women;
  • Sources relating to women teachers, and girl’s eduction;
  • Journals, magazines and ballads on fashion and dress;
  • histmedHistorical works on women’s health and medical treatment, including the history of midwifery, gynaecology and obstetrics; the history of nursing as a profession; and reports of the Medical Officer for Cardiff, including data on maternity and child welfare;
  • A range of material relating to women’s lives around the world, including newspapers from Indian women’s organisations, Spanish Civil War sources related to women, sources relating to women in Australia, European Union and United Nations reports on women, and papers of female slavery abolitionists;
  • A wide range of women’s journals and magazines, from society pages to radical suffragette publications;
  • Literary works by women, including the papers of Ann Griffiths (poet), Joan Reeder (journalist), Maria Edgeworth (novelist), Felicia Hemans (poet), Mary Tighe (poet), and Lady Sidney Morgan (novelist). Information on female applicants to the Royal Literary Fund, and women writers published by Longmans;
  • Musical scores and archives from Morfydd Llwyn Owen (1891-1918), Grace Williams (1906-1977), and Nancy Storace (1765-1817);
  • Press cuttings from late 20th century Welsh newspapers on women’s issues;
  • girlgraduatePolitical papers from the British Labour Party and Newport Labour Party on women’s issues; papers of the Labour MPs Ellen Wilkinson and Marion Phillips; the diary of social reformer Beatrice Webb; archives of the Women’s Labour League, journals by Sylvia Pankhurst, and a range of suffragette magazines;
  • Books by and archives belonging to female travellers;
  • Papers relating to the history of female students at Cardiff University and its predecessors;
  • Sources on witchcraft and those accused of its practice (commonly women), in Europe and America;
  • Sources on women’s societies

Lunchtime workshops: women’s history and gender studies

Special Collections and Archives’ series of lunchtime workshops continues in December with sessions on women’s history and gender studies sources. The workshops are intended to raise awareness of the breadth of material available to support research in this area, and as a general introduction to using Special Collections and Archives.

The second workshop on women’s history sources will be led by Assistant Archivist, Alison Harvey. Topics will include: biography; children’s literature; conduct/advice manuals; crime; diaries and autobiographies; education; fashion; health and medicine; international affairs; journals and magazines; literature and journalism; music; newspapers; politics, suffrage and the labour movement; travel; University history; witchcraft; and women’s societies.

Workshops will be held in Special Collections and Archives, on the lower ground floor of the Arts and Social Studies Library, Corbett Road, Cardiff. The women’s history workshop is scheduled for 12-1pm on Thursday 6 December, and will be repeated at 1-2pm on Friday 7 December.

Workshops are open to all, but places are limited, so if you would like to attend either session, please email HarveyAE@cf.ac.uk, stating your preferred time.

Community Engagement Grant funds Victorian Study Day

Three PhD students from the School of English, Communication and Philosophy have successfully bid for a grant from the Community Engagement Team to organise a Victorian Study Day for local sixth form college students. Laura Foster, Michael Goodman and Helen McKenzie, who are all writing their theses on aspects of Victorian literature and culture, intend to present their specialist research in a format which is relevant, accessible and engaging to a wider audience. Earlier this year, Laura and Helen gained related experience of translating their research visually, when they took part in SCOLAR’s annual Postgraduate Curators programme.

The day will begin with a visit to Special Collections and Archives, where the students will have an opportunity to handle and interact with original 19th century texts. Led by archivist Alison Harvey, the workshop will encourage the students to consider the materiality of print culture and how books were read and produced. The session will focus on texts that have visual impact, such as the Illustrated London News, the collected works of Tennyson, and Victorian children’s literature. This practical session aims to engage and excite students early in the day, and to introduce concepts that will be developed in the afternoon workshops.

Laura, Michael and Helen will each lead a workshop on their subject area, designed to challenge students’ assumptions about reading, texts, and culture, both in the nineteenth century and today. Much of the literature selected for discussion will be informed by the A-level set texts, and students will be encouraged to reinterpret these in light of how they were actually published and read in the 19th century. Workshops will be held in small groups of 10, introducing students to the seminar-style environment of university, and aim to build confidence in discussing ideas with their peers.

Laura, Michael and Helen will be contacting local schools to ask teachers to nominate students to attend the Study Day. To be held in October, sessions will take place in the Council Chambers of Cardiff University’s Main Building, with a visit to Special Collections and Archives.