Fairy Fever in the aftermath of the First World War

In this post, Alice Sage takes us on an intriguing, sumptuously illustrated journey through the outbreaks of fairy fever in Britain after the First World War. Discover how and why fairies created their own pandemic through the astonishing spread of books, art, photographs, and artefacts in this period. Unless otherwise noted, all images of books are taken from items in the collection of the Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh.

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Our current predicament has drawn attention to the Spanish Flu pandemic that engulfed the world from 1918—1920, but there was another contagion which spread unchecked through Britain in the wake of the First World War: fairy fever.

Fairies were everywhere: in children’s books and plays of course, but also in grown-up poetry, and even newspapers. One stricken theatre reviewer wrote, ‘Now that we no longer believe in fairies, we are vastly interested in what they are like’ (‘Blue Fairies, A Midsummer Nights Dream,’ The Era, 14 November 1923).

The symptoms of fairy fever included fascination, obsession, and a suspension of disbelief. Passion overcame rationality. Sufferers might be seized with inspiration to write fairy poetry and drama, choreograph fairy ballets, or craft elaborate costumes from tulle, tinsel and spangles. These eruptions inevitably spread the contagion.

Some sources identify Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle as ‘patient zero’ for the postwar outbreak, and Carol Silver has blamed his publication of the Cottingley Fairy Photographs in December 1920 for the spread of ‘temporary fairy fever’ (Silver 56). However, Doyle was far from an isolated case. This article offers a brief epidemiology of fairy fever during and after the First World War, using evidence found in the book collection of Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood and elsewhere.

 

Population at risk

The long history of fairy fever falls outside this case study, suffice it to say that belief in fairies, trouble with fairies, and real physical harm caused by their enchantments, were an everyday part of life prior to the 19th century.

The Victorians seemed determined to stamp fairies out, through their typical methods of colonisation and confinement. The middle class nursery acted as an isolation ward for fairies — restraining them within children’s stories and poems. Fairies shrank in size, becoming almost as tiny as germs, which had started to appear under the microscope around this same time. Like chicken pox, most people got fairy fever out of their system in childhood.

Victorian fairies

The silliness of late-Victorian fairies. Detail from Fairies Elves and Flower-Babies, illustrated by Marion Wallace-Dunlop (1899).  Unless otherwise noted, all images of books are from items in the collection of the Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh.

 

In adults, though, a preoccupation with fairies could be a serious affliction, especially when combined with other mental and physical illnesses — as in the cases of fairy painters Richard Dadd and Charles Altamont Doyle. In both these cases the obsessions with, and visions of, fairies were presenting symptoms of underlying issues. Dadd’s delusions led him to kill his father, and he spent most of his life painting in secure hospitals; Doyle’s deterioration, usually attributed to alcoholism, saw him resident in a number of Scottish asylums. Both these men left unique records of fairy fever in their artwork.

In less serious cases, if middle-class men could sublimate their fairy fever into their work, they might be hailed as geniuses — see the work of sometime collaborators J. M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and illustrator Arthur Rackham. Importantly though, these fairy works were framed as children’s books – even if their darkness appealed to adults too.

Fairies for 'adults'

St Giles His Bells by Charles Altamont Doyle (1880s). This painting shows fairies swirling around the distinctive crown steeple of Edinburgh’s St Giles’s Cathedral, which is just over the road from the book collection at City Chambers. Image: Wikicommons

 

Detail from Imagina by Julia Ellsworth Ford, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1914). Image: Art of Narrative.

 

Wartime outbreak

A new mutation of fairy fever emerged in wartime London around 1916 — and soldiers were particularly susceptible. Looking back, it seems that the stress of wartime had lowered the population’s defenses. Early signs included stockpiling of fairy images. Estella Canziani’s painting of fairies in a forest glade, Piper of Dreams or Where the Little Things of the Woodland Live Unseen, sold 250,000 reproductions in 1916 — the year that conscription was introduced for British men aged 18-41 (Atkinson, 42).

Piper of Dreams, by Estella Canziani (1915). Author’s collection.

 

In May 1916, a charity which sent food parcels to prisoners of war styled themselves as ‘Good Fairies for Unfortunate Fighters’, and described how:

soldiers who have fought and suffered for their country, turn to us, like children, for the one small pleasure they are allowed. Beneath the unromantic string and brown paper covering Parcels for Prisoners lies a whole world of dreams and memories.

                                                       (‘Parcels for Prisoners’, The Graphic, 13 May 1916)

Men perceived as childlike, and hope taking the form of an administering fairy? Fairy fever had clearly jumped into the adult population.

Fairy fever spread among packed theatre audiences. Bluebell in Fairyland, a spectacularly frivolous Edwardian pantomime, was revived to great acclaim in the West End. The Old Vic, whose charter was to provide ‘recreation for the working classes’, drew large crowds to fairy-filled productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream throughout 1916. 

Peter Pan (first performed in 1904) was a perennial staple of pantomime season. Soldiers on leave sold out the play’s London performances, and seats were booked months in advance (Purkiss 280). J. M. Barrie’s play promised that children might not die like adults, but instead pass into a fairy-filled Neverland or limbo, from where they might occasionally visit the living. In Peter Pan, death is not final; Peter shouts that ‘to die would be an awfully big adventure’, and several times, characters in the play die and return to life, including the fairy Tinkerbell. During the First World War, this hopefulness resonated with Britain’s conscripted young men and their worried parents.

In a more serious mode — and certainly not intended for children — poet Robert Graves’  Fairies and Fusiliers (1917) promised young men in the ‘soul deadening trenches’, ‘you’ll be fairies soon’. Nicola Bown suggested that fairies could have a cathartic effect for soldiers ‘marooned in the present’, who ‘took to dreaming of, and weeping for, the lost world of fairies’. Was the wartime fairy fever an escapist and nostalgic side-effect of the horrors of conflict?

The Magic Kiss by Christine Chaundler (1916)

The Magic Kiss included fairies in fashionable Pierrot costumes.

Fairies continued to thrive in children’s books during the war years, sometimes in escapist forms — for example, The Magic Kiss by Christine Chaunder — but often with a new belligerence. The rather unlikely Navy Book of Fairy Tales (1916) had a foreword by Admiral Jellicoe and included autographs of the Admirals of the Battle of Jutland alongside fairy pictures (The Globe, 11 Dec 1916, p. 3).

The War Fairies by Eleanor Gray (1917) told the tale of two fairy creatures so small they struggle to be seen, yet they’re determined to help in the war effort. In Rose Patry’s Britain’s Defenders, Or Peggy’s Peep into Fairy Land (also 1917), the fairy Queen is named Britannia and she marshals personified elements of wind, sun and rain to defeat the Germans. These publications did not evade the question of the war, but confronted it directly. Fairy fever-dreams were patriotic fantasies in which even the elfin realm pledged allegiance to the British forces.

The Navy Book of Fairy Tales, Hilda Pearce. Image: Ebay

New local variants developed — such as Donald Mackenzie’s Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (1917) — and arrived from overseas.

Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie, illustration by John Duncan (1917)

Illustration by John Duncan from Wonder Tales

For Christmas 1916, children were likely to receive Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book, illustrating ‘fairytales of the allied nations’, including Russia, Italy, Belgium and Serbia. Or perhaps Mabel Lucie Attwell’s Children’s Stories from French Fairy Tales which promised ‘stories of fairyland which are most loved by their French friends and allies’. Attwell had her own particular style of fairy — minute, kewpie-like creatures with antennae, these little bugs crawled over all her illustrations. In the Fairyland compendium (1917), Attwell’s little fairies swarm around Little Red Riding Hood and get under Cinderella’s feet, with little regard for the content of the story.

Fairyland illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1917)

Illustration from Attwell’s Fairyland

 

A photograph in The Sphere in January 1918 showed fairies among soldiers at a London hospital.

The Sphere, January 1918. Author’s Collection.

Two fairy-children stand among a big group of adults, including many uniformed soldiers. The fairies are being shown a doll’s house: the ultimate fantasy of tiny, fragile domesticity. The military man’s pointing finger is significant; as the war reached its final months, fairies did indeed return to domestic settings. Rose Fyleman’s bestselling poetry collection Fairies and Chimneys (1918) described fairies in chimney smoke, in motor cars and on Oxford Street buses. Fairy fever had settled on the Home Front.

Fairies and Chimneys, Rose Fyleman. 28th Edition (1928)

 

Post-War Years and the Cottingley Fairies

Anyone skeptical about fairy fever could not deny it after December 1920, when the Strand magazine published some now infamous photographs which claimed to prove — for the first time — the existence of fairies. The photos had been taken by two cousins in Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who claimed that they ‘continually saw fairies in the wood and had come to be on familiar and friendly terms with them’.

Fairies Photographed: An Epoch-Making Event, Arthur Conan Doyle, Strand Magazine, December 1920. Image: Science Museum Group

 

The accompanying article was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, and an evangelist for Spiritualism. Doyle believed that life existed on different planes of vibration, and that fairies (and spirits) lived at a different frequency to humans, which made them invisible. Sometimes, though, fairies might manifest at the margins of perception and become visible to certain gifted humans.

Fairy fever ran in Doyle’s family. I have already mentioned his father, Charles Altamont Doyle, who saw fairies and spirits all around him, first at Blairerno House ‘intemperance’ hospital, and from 1885 at Montrose Asylum.

Charles’s brother, Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle, also made fairy paintings and books, including his masterpiece of illustration, In Fairyland (1870). When Dicky Doyle died in 1883, his nephew Arthur wrote the poem ‘In Memorium’ (1883), considering the tragedy from the point of view of his beloved fairies:

 

The little elves upon the walls

Cried, “What is this before us?

“Why should the Master lie so still,

“And why should he ignore us?

“Oh what is this, and why is this?”

They whispered in a chorus.

Details from In Fairyland, written by William Allingham, illustrated by Richard Doyle (1870)

Details from In Fairyland, written by William Allingham, illustrated by Richard Doyle (1870)

Details from In Fairyland, written by William Allingham, illustrated by Richard Doyle (1870)

 

When Arthur Conan Doyle encountered the fairy photographs, he was predisposed to believe them. His long-standing commitment to Spiritualism had redoubled after the death of his son Kingsley in 1918, and any hint of supernatural or post-mortal life gained extra, personal significance. He hoped that the Cottingley Fairy Photographs, would ‘jolt the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and a mystery to life’.

Although the Strand article in December 1920 did not start the fairy fever, it might be considered a superspreader event. Doyle’s worldwide fame and reputation attracted huge attention to the Cottingley Fairy Photographs, and he was able to transmit his optimistic fairy fever to many people in the aftermath of the war who shared his hope for glamour and mystery. More fairy sightings were reported. The Shipley Times and Express revealed that a Manningham girl had seen a troop of gnomes pass through a wood where she was, and a Mrs Rose reported that ‘Fairies … constantly congregate in a certain shrubbery at Southend’. The Globe newspaper acceded, ‘we must believe, whether we like it or not’ (‘A Bevy of Fairies’, The Globe, 25 November 1920; the editor had a preview copy of the original Strand article).

There were also many who didn’t share Doyle’s certainty, who were perhaps, immune to fairy fever. ‘Which is the harder of belief, the faking of a photograph or the objective existence of winged being being eighteen inches high?’, wrote Maurice Hewlett in John O’London’s Weekly. Truth magazine labelled the episode ‘an exposition of human credulity in the twentieth century’ — though they happily filled pages of several issues denouncing the believers (Truth Magazine, 9 March 1921 and 12 September 1922).  Indeed, the true winners in the debate were the newspapers, who offered analysis of every new detail and printed all the angry letters they could get hold of.

Again, in circumstances which might seem familiar today, believers and sceptics both claimed to have the objective support of ‘science’. Doyle’s Spiritualist language of vibrations, ether and light waves referred to cutting-edge physics, as practiced by his friend, the radio pioneer Oliver Lodge. Scientific seances were carried out at Cottingley Glen by the Society for Psychical Research, and the scientific method was followed in attempts to replicate the photographs.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1921

 

Decades later, Elsie revealed that the fairies were paper cut-outs, inspired by an illustration in Princess Mary’s Gift Book (1915). Throughout the war, Gift Books had been sold to raise money for a host of charities, and this particular book was a collection of short stories, poems and illustrations by prestigious names — including Arthur Conan Doyle himself — in aid of the Queen’s ‘Work for Women’ Fund. More evidence, if it were needed, that books were a powerful mode of fairy-transmission.

Detail from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, illustrated by Claude Shepperson (1915)

The Queen’s Gift Book (1915)

Princess Marie-José’s Children’s Book (1916).

 

Fairy Fever in Numbers

One way of measuring the growth and spread of post-war fairy fever is through book publishing, using the British Library catalogue. Since the BL is a legal deposit library, collecting every book published in the UK, this data can be used to build a picture of publishing trends.

This graph shows the number of fairy books published per year between 1901 and 1939 (this is number of different titles, not the total number of copies. Therefore, this measures diversity of the fairy output, not popularity). There is significant variation year on year, but the overall pattern is clear: fairy books were on an upward trajectory in the lead-up to 1914, when numbers slumped sharply. Numbers were low during the war years, and then shot up in 1920 to the highest level on record. The numbers of titles only seriously decreased after 1926, and steadily fell until 1939.[1]

The wartime slump affected all forms of publishing, and we must not forget that many fairy books were repackaged as ‘gift books’ during those years. Over 350 fairy books were published during that peak of 1920—25, demonstrating how publishers responded to the post-war appetite for fairy poems and stories, old and new. A large proportion of these books were intended for children, but we must remember that it is adults who write, illustrate and publish books — and adults, therefore, who transmitted fairy fever.

It was certainly adults who bought other fairy-related products, for example Wedgwood’s indulgent fairy lustreware, designed by Daisy Maekig-Jones. The series had launched in 1915 but reached peak popularity in the early-1920s.

Fairy Lustreware, produced by Wedgewood. Image: wikicommons

The books published in those feverish years included Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies (1922), in which he wrote that fairies, ‘may have their shadows and trials as we have, but at least there is a great gladness manifest in this demonstration of their life’. New authors included Enid Blyton, whose book of poems, Real Fairies came out in 1923, followed by The Enid Blyton Book of Fairies in 1924. Cicely Mary Barker’s first book, Flower Fairies of the Spring (1923), captured the mournful optimism of the time:

The World is very old,

And sometimes sad;

But when the daisies come

The World is glad.

 

The World is very old;

But every Spring

It grows young again,

And fairies sing.

Flower Fairies of the Spring, Cicely Mary Barker (1923)

 

Ruth Fyleman’s Fairies and Chimneys reached twenty editions by the end of 1925, including a school edition every year from 1920 to 1925 — ensuring that every child was exposed to fairy fever. The Edinburgh publishing house Nelson brought out new illustrated of old stories, the Andrew Lang coloured fairy books came in new editions, and the Grimms’ and Hans Christian Andersen were ‘retold’, ‘adapted’ and ‘selected’.

But as reflected in the graph, eventually the fever broke, and many adults awoke from their fairy fever-dreams. No more fairies could be seen in Cottingley, or anywhere else. The reason for their disappearance was as mysterious as their emergence. Some blamed modern education. Other more scientific minds regretted that ‘a seam of coal had been found in the fairy glen, and it had been greatly polluted by human magnetism’.

By the end of the 1920s, fairy fever had ceased to be such a concern. It lingered, of course, in the tiny creations of Mabel Lucie Atwell, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, and the succession of women illustrators who produced children’s books between the wars.

In 1944, the Yorkshire Post looked back on the Cottingley Fairy episode, and sighed, ‘it was fun while it lasted’.

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[1] Data from searches of the BL catalogue for titles including the words fairies or fairy* (which would include fairyland, fairytale etc).

References

Maggie Atkinson, ‘Visions of “Blighty”: Fairies, War and Fragile Spaces,’ Libri & Liberi 6, no. 1 (2017)

Nicola Bown, Fairies in Nineteenth Century-Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (Penguin, 2001)

Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Alice Sage

Alice Sage is a cultural historian, interested in fantasy and feminism. She has made exhibitions about dolls’ houses, bedtime stories, quilts and the Clangers, and has a small press, Wide Open Sea, publishing art and writing from interesting, wild women. She’s just finishing her PhD investigating children’s performance in the 1920s and is open to new collaborations. alice.emma.sage@gmail.com 

Alice has curated an exhibition about the Cottingley Fairies, which can be seen online:
Photographing Fairies at Stills, 19 February – 19 August 2021. 

 

 

‘Scottish Women Writers and the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, c. 1865-1930’

In this blog post, Dr Lois Burke – longstanding SELCIE researcher and writer – introduces us to her exciting new postdoctoral project, undertaken at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. ‘Scottish Women Writers and the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, c. 1865-1930’ emerges from working as part of SELCIE in the book stores of the Museum of Childhood, where an estimated 20,000 books are stored.

While working in the book store, I was struck by the number of works authored by women writers who I hadn’t heard of, and I was also surprised by the sheer range of these works. Fairy tales, histories and biographies, school stories, New Woman novels and pages in magazines like The Girls Own Paper were attributed to (often Scottish) women writers.

Some of these names were familiar to me, as a great deal of excellent research has already been conducted into women writers of the children’s periodical press. For example in her 2016 monograph Beth Rodgers uncovered the reach of the Irish author and girls’ magazine editor L. T. Meade and various contemporary writers.[1] Other scholars have published on the female-dominated periodical press of the late 19th century (Moruzi and Smith, 2014; Beetham, 1996).

Yet Scottish women authors of this era have not been fully incorporated into this body of work. Sarah Dunnigan’s and Shu Fang Lai’s edited The Land of Story Books: Scottish Children’s Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century (2019) outlined the importance of uncovering these writers, especially when certain Scottish children’s authors (like J. M. Barrie and R. L. Stevenson) are deservingly celebrated. In Scottish periodical studies, these prolific turn-of-the-century women writers are starting to adopt a more prominent position.[2] Yet, the absence of recent full-length book studies of Scottish women writers attests to the need for revived critical attention. For example, the only book on the Findlater sisters was published in 1964.[3] Not only are these writers out of print; scholarship on them is too!

I started my recovery project by simply locating biographical and bibliographical information of these women. Although this doesn’t sound like the most exciting part of the research, finding basic information about some of these writers is an important foundation for more in-depth analysis.

Given the limited access to libraries, archives and the museum of Childhood’s book collection due to the pandemic, my search for information began online. Websites and online catalogues including At the Circulating Library, Trinity College Dublin’s National Centre for Children’s Books, the Oxford Dictionary for National Biography, the British Newspaper Archive, and the Scottish Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women Writers were resources which I regularly drew upon.[4]

I added this information to a GraphCommons simple network map, based initially on Annie S. Swan’s connections through the periodical press. This helped to store my research and also start to visualise the connections between these women and the publications they were associated with.

I then put together a database including all Scottish women writers who published children’s literature between 1865 and 1930 (my roomy interpretation of the first ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature). I decided to include all of their works published between these dates, whether they were ostensibly aimed at a youth audience or not.

I will create some data visualisations of this database and contextualise these writers and their works in broader debates in late-Victorian culture. I will also examine these women writers’ explicit engagement with young readers and writers. Most of them wrote for children’s magazines, some even acted as ‘agony aunts’, responding to children’s written enquiries. Plus, my database shows that many of these women writers wrote and even published during their girlhood. Youthful creativity and culture was important to these writers in more ways than one.

I will share the progression of this work in another blog post soon. If anyone is interested in this project I can be contacted by email at v1lburke@ed.ac.uk or on Twitter at @LoisMBurke.


[1] Beth Rodgers: Adolescent Girlhood and Literary Culture at the Fin de Siecle: Daughters of Today. London: Palgrave, 2016.

[2] Charlotte Lauder, a Strathclyde University PhD student, is considering some of these women writers in the context of Scottish national culture at the turn of the 20th century. I thank her for her helpful advice and collaboration on this research project.

[3] Eileen Mackenzie, The Findlater Sisters: Literature and Friendship. London: John Murray, 1964.

[4] I thank IASH for funding my subscription to the British Newspaper Archive.

Christine Orr’s ‘Talks and Tales’: children’s magazine writing in early 20th century Edinburgh

Christine Orr (1899-1963) was a prolific novelist, poet, playwright and theatre-activist whose influence on Scottish cultural life in the first half of the 20th century is finally gaining recognition. Here, Susan Gardner, curator at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, introduces the creative and collaborative work of the young Christine through the magazine, Talks and Tales, produced from her Edinburgh home, and now the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Writers’ Museum.

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Few children today would choose to spend their spare time producing a magazine. But this is what Christine Orr did between the ages of eleven and sixteen (1911-1916). Her magazine, Talks and Tales (now part of the Museum of Childhood’s collection), was produced in monthly or quarterly editions with contributions from friends and family in the form of short stories, poems, pictures, factual articles, jokes and puzzles. Christine edited and compiled the magazine, as well as writing a great deal of the content, before sending it through the post to readers both in Edinburgh and further afield.

Talks and Tales has taken on a particular significance since the discovery that Christine Orr went on to write professionally, publishing 18 novels as well as poems and plays. We can see the embryonic talent of a future author and trace her early interests which were to feature in later published works. However, the magazines are, in themselves, a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who produced them and just one example of a popular pastime for children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Museum of Childhood has several sets of magazines made by children, such as The Evergreen Chain (1892-99), The St. Bernard’s Budget (1892), Chuckles (1905) and The Pierrot (1911-15). Perhaps this creativity was inspired by school magazines or encouraged by competitions in publications such as Little Folks and Arthur Mee’s My Magazine? We know that the young Enid Blyton (born 1897) produced a magazine with two school friends —  she wrote the stories and they contributed poems and illustrations. She became a famously prolific writer, and it seems that Christine Orr had a similar compulsion to tell stories.

Christine was certainly the driving force behind Talks and Tales. I’ve yet to identify all the other contributors but some were friends that she met at St. George’s School in Edinburgh — certainly Patricia Greig, Cicely Steven and Isabel Thomson – and some were relatives, such as Helen Orr, Hugh Millar and Grant Millar. Christine’s parents also contributed occasionally, taking an active interest in the hobby of their only child. Inevitably, the magazines reflect the lives of all these people and that’s what fascinates me most — this window into middle class Edinburgh in the early 20th century.

In 1911 Christine’s mother wrote an account of a reception at Holyrood Palace hosted by the newly crowned King George V and Queen Mary. She describes how earlier in the day “decorations were hastily completed, banners, flags and flowery wreaths hung out, and citizens rich and poor, old and young, hastened to don their best and rally in their hundreds to the streets through which the Royal couple, with the Prince of Wales and Princess Mary, should drive on their arrival in the evening.” Having set off for Holyrood at 7pm (and started getting dressed at 4pm!), there is a great deal of queuing and waiting until the ladies finally arrive at the ante room to the Throne Room two hours later, “a brilliantly lit apartment full of a dazzling, laughing throng representing the cream of Scottish nobility”. Mrs Orr’s presentation to the King and Queen takes on a dreamlike quality and she is overawed by “feelings of profound reverence and loyalty”.

In 1913 Christine contributed an account of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, describing in detail the United Free meeting on the Mound.

            “It was an impressive sight – the huge sea of faces on every side, the stately moderator in his gown and fine lace ruffles; and then the grand music as a thousand voices rose on the old Scottish psalm, ‘When lion’s bondage God turned back’, unaccompanied but led by the venerable precentor, Mr Fraser. Then followed many stimulating addresses and the dedication of the young missionaries when all sang to its most beautiful tune, ‘The Lord bless thee and keep thee’.”

       During the production of Talks and Tales lives everywhere were overshadowed by World War One and this is reflected in the children’s writing and drawing. There are poems and pictures on the theme of war interspersed with other stories and articles, all patriotic and positive in spirit, no doubt the prevailing attitude in their homes and schools. In May 1915 there is mention of a Soldiers’ Refreshment Lounge being provided in Edinburgh while Christine and some of the magazine contributors performed scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry V to raise funds for hospitals in Serbia.

In 1916 Christine begins the year with a stirring editorial message:

“A Happy New Year to all our readers, and may 1916 bring with it Peace! I think that is the uppermost wish in all our hearts this January, especially with those who have fathers, brothers or friends fighting in our Army and Navy. We at home can do our part best by working steadily & keeping cheery. It is to be hoped that ‘Talks & Tales’ may be a means, however small, to the latter end!”

Most of the content of Talks and Tales consists of short stories, serial stories and poems. The stories are a mixture of adventure and romance, often featuring children as the main characters. For short stories some of them are very long indeed! Presumably, the children were inspired by the books and magazines they were reading and this is a subject which is ripe for further investigation. In a feature called ‘Bedroom Book-Shelf’, Christine mentions her copies of Tennyson, Browning and Shakespeare, Miss Proctor’s Poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses and an anthology called English Poetry for the Young as well as George MacDonald’s fairy tales.

We know from an article written in 1915 that Christine was very familiar with Edinburgh’s literary heritage. She talks about Allan Ramsay, Sir Walter Scott, Dr. John Brown and Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Were there space and time we could go on indefinitely, recalling Edinburgh’s men of letters – ay, and women too, who lived and wrote long ago. The old streets are grey and dull now but what must it have been like to see and speak with these wonderful folk! Imagine a chat with Sir Walter or a ramble out by the Pentlands with RLS! They are gone alas! But they have left us a rich and goodly heritage.”

Christine Orr also left us with a rich heritage of novels, plays and poems, and I hope that many more people will be able to discover and enjoy her work in future.

                                                                            This post by Susan Gardner

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Susan Gardner has worked as a curator at the Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh since 1993. During that time she has built up an in-depth knowledge of the museum’s collections which chart the experiences of British children from the early 19th century to the present day. She has produced exhibitions on gender stereotyping in girls’ toys, children’s diet, developmental toys for babies and toddlers, outdoor play, fairy tales, school stories and needlework samplers among many others. She is very excited to have discovered material in the museum’s collection recently relating to Edinburgh author, Christine Orr, and is delighted that SELCIE are helping to share this new information.

Talks and Tales: the childhood writing of Christine Orr is showing at the Writers’ Museum until 22 March 2020. The exhibition features two volumes of Talks and Tales as well as some of Christine’s personal possessions and examples of her published works.

‘time changes’: Visitor Responses to the ‘Growing Up with Books’ exhibition

SELCIE’s first exhibition ‘Growing up with Books’ ran from June until December 2018 at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. It celebrated the culmination of SELCIE researchers’ cataloguing and research work in the Museum of Childhood’s book collection.

We had been exploring the collection since 2016; reading everything from 17th century Latin grammar books to 20th century ‘classics.’ The collection is uniquely special in its representation of Scottish writers, publishers, and readers (evident in marginalia and book plates). In the exhibition we had the task of showcasing these strengths in the collection, and also communicating an engaging potted history of children’s books in Scotland to a diverse museum audience. The exhibition was also accompanied by a range of interactive events for children and adults alike.

Visitors were invited to give feedback on the exhibition via postcards. This blog post collates some of the visitor feedback; hopefully you find the responses as enlightening, touching, and funny as we do!

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Naturally many of the feedback cards were populated with scribbles, doodles, and drawings. These can still provide insight into exhibition interpretation, such as this drawing of a school girl with the caption ‘time changes’.

 

It is clear that particular display cases had an effect on visitors – the fairy tale section was particularly popular. One postcard read: ‘I like reading and writing and I love all sorts of fairy tales. This exhibition inspired me to take my old fairy tales books and read.’ Another gestured to the display of scrapbooks and other examples of children’s marginalia and manuscript culture: ‘I love the scrapbooks thank you so much!’

The historical books on display were favoured by some young visitors. Sienna Lamont, age 8, from Glasgow, wrote: ‘I have lerned [sic] lots of history and I am only 8 years old and it [sic] so amazing.’

 

One visitor wrote that they learned ‘how small books were in olden days’ and another observed that ‘the old books are in such a good condition.’ Ella commented that ‘it was more fun then [sic] I thought it would be’, which is a positive result!

Some young visitors expressed that they had learned something from the exhibition. Constance commented that it was ‘very intresting [sic] very educational.’

Isabella, age 7, from Stranraer, wrote: ‘This inspired me because I dident [sic] know the reading books where [sic] like that.’ We think that in this drawing Isabella is recreating the colourful early nineteenth-century alphabet books which were on display.

Several postcards from older visitors suggested that the exhibition stirred up childhood memories for them. One visitor wrote: ‘It was such a lovely time remembering about long forgotten times, I leave hear [sic] today remembering who I am, thank you.’ We’d love to hear more stories of childhood reading. You can share your memories with SELCIE via this link: https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/selcie/your-memories/

Finally, we received the one critique which we had all feared:

 

This post written by Lois

 

 

Behind the Scenes at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood: A Look at the Technical Side of Accessing Collections

What secrets can the skills of a cataloguer unlock about a book collection? In this blog, Kathryn Downing, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh, shares some fascinating insights from her experience working with some of the oldest books in the Museum of Childhood’s archive in the ongoing process of making its treasures more accessible.

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One of the biggest barriers to conducting research can be an un-catalogued collection. It is not often – if ever – that libraries and museums let you peruse their stacks or stores to your heart’s desire. Researchers, then, often become experts at navigating catalogues and databases in an effort to locate the right resources. In many cases, the strength of someone’s research is dependent on the strength of the records they can access.

If you’ve been following SELCIE’s work at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, then you’ve witnessed one of those rare times when a museum does let researchers into a store to peruse its contents. During the SELCIE team’s time collaborating with the museum, they have produced a publication and an exhibition in addition to pursuing individual research topics. More valuable than even these tangible outcomes, however, is the process they began of sorting and organising the thousands of books residing in the City Chambers. Simply knowing the extent of the collection is the first step towards facilitating public access to it.

Although SELCIE has made great strides in uncovering the treasures of the City Chambers book store, much still remains hidden. The sheer extent of the Museum of Childhood’s book collection (an estimated 15,000 items) has means that many important details associated with the books remain unrecorded. While publications and exhibitions are a fantastic way to bring collections to the community, knowing what to write or display next can be challenging when there are thousands of items and no way to search through them efficiently.

Enter the cataloguer! Continue reading

The Books of Our Lives: A Reading Memories Project

Introduction

“The way that you start reading as a child is the way that you will read for the rest of your life.” (Emily Howarth, interviewee)

SELCIE worked alongside the city’s Museum of Childhood to curate the Growing Up with Books. A History of Children’s Literature exhibition. This ran from the 1st of June to the 9th of December 2018 at the Museum, and displayed material from the Museum’s vast archive, with material ranging from the 18th century to the early 20th century. Growing Up with Books was designed to display snapshots of the reading interests and experiences of children across these centuries, but the SELCIE team also hoped that these books would stir the memories of those who saw the exhibition, recalling their own experiences as readers in childhood. Lois Burke, Sarah Dunnigan, Danielle Howarth, and Joanna Witkowska spoke to some of those who came along to the exhibition, and recorded these rich memories and reflections in the following series of interviews.

From a wide range of ages, countries, and backgrounds, the interviewees who agreed to share their experiences as young readers reveal the wide-ranging influence and appeal of children’s literature. Indeed, the interviews comprise an important record of the reading phenomenon which have shaped the reading experiences of children not only in Scotland but all over the world, from the Unites States and Australia to China, in living memory. From those whose libraries at home were filled with the explosion of Enid Blyton novels for children which came out in the 60’s and 70’s, to the millennial generation whose early reading was incontrovertibly shaped by the Harry Potter phenomenon, these reflections reveal the influence of children’s fiction on a broad, even global, scale. However, the interviews also reveal the significance of less well-known, perhaps more culturally specific, stories, as many of our speakers include fairy tales and annuals amongst their childhood favourites.

Time and again, the interviews emphasise reading in childhood as a shared experience, one which brings together siblings, friends, and parents and grandparents with children. We hear of, and from, mothers who have read aloud to their children, grandparents who have shared their childhood favourites with their grandchildren, siblings who fought over who got to read the next Harry Potter book first, and friends who joined together in writing their own stories. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of those who contributed their testimonies here went on to have careers in education, and speak of how they share their love of reading with the children they teach.

Each interviewee reflects upon these memories with fondness, telling of the happiness which reading brought to their childhood, and indeed their adult years. Growing up with books, they explain, inspires a life-long love for the written word and storytelling, and, in many cases, imparts values integral to survival in the adult world. As one of our interviewees, Emily Howarth, so eloquently puts it, “The way that you start reading as a child is the way that you will read for the rest of your life.”
Anna McKay

Interview 1 – Emily Howarth

Emily discusses her early experiences as a reader, recalling her earliest encounter with reading in Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham and her teenage years growing up with Harry Potter. She draws attention to the ways in which her experiences as a young reader have shaped and structured her life as an adult, inspiring creativity and teaching her how to live in and engage with the world.

Interview 2 – Sze-Man Chan

Sze-Man tells us about her reaction to the Growing Up with Books exhibition, and of her favourite book as a young reader, Alice in Wonderland. She recalls the ways in which her love of the book led her to watch the film adaptations and collect toy memorabilia, and reflects upon the ways in which it shaped her understanding of British culture.

Interview 3 – Maureen Whiteman

Maureen Whiteman tells us about her reaction to the Growing Up with Books exhibition, and shares with us her love of reading as a child. She tells us of her earliest memories reading the children’s pages of The People’s Friend and enjoying her mother’s childhood books at her grandmother’s house, and lists her favourite books to read at home, including Eleanor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five series, the Emma books, written by Honor Arundel and set in Edinburgh, and her personal favourite, the Jill’s Gymkhana books. Maureen reflects upon the profound influence that these books have had on her adult life as a teacher now, and speaks of the solace that returning to them bring in moments of sadness and upset.

Interview 4 – Min-Hsuan Chiang

Min Chen tells us of her early fascination with book illustrations as a young child, and her favourite childhood book, Peter Pan. She speaks of her love of adventure in the novel, and its ongoing influence in her current work as an art teacher in a nursery.

Interview 5 – Yun Sheng (Serene)

In this interview, Yun speaks a little about her early experiences as a reader growing up in Taiwan. She tells us about the novelty which she found in English nursery rhymes at pre-school, and in particular the charm and enjoyment which she found in singing these rhymes to her sister, and making up her own songs. Reading, Yun explains, gave her a freedom of imagination which she couldn’t find in television as a child, and she tells us about some of the stories which she most enjoyed.

Interview 6 – Anne Brodie

Anne Brodie speaks to us about how the Growing up with Books exhibition reminds her of the books that she read as a child growing up on the Isle of Lewis. She tells us some of her childhood favourites, in particular Enid Blyton’s much-loved Secret Seven, Famous Five, Malory Towers, and St. Clair’s series, and the immense joy which she found in getting lost in these stories, and indeed writing her own short stories. Anne speaks a little about the challenges and pleasures she has found in sharing this love for books with her own children.

Interview 7 – Clara Fidelis

Clara tells Danielle about her interest in the gendered nature of the books written for boys and girls in the Growing Up with Books exhibition, and speaks about her earliest memories of reading as she grew up in Austin, Texas. She recalls reading Dr Seuss when she was practicing English with her father, and enjoying the rhymes in her particular favourite Green Eggs and Ham. She reminisces over her enjoyment of action-driven novels such as Percy Jackson and Cherub as she grew into adolescence, and speaks about how she admired and aspired to the courage of the protagonists.

Interview 8 – Katie Couba

Katie tells Danielle and Sarah about her love for reading as a child, and her fascination as a History graduate with the older books in the Growing Up with Books exhibition. She tells SELCIE about how her particular love for Harry Potter is bound up with her memories of her family, as her mother used to read the books to her and her brother, and speaks of how her fascination with Rowling’s books has stayed with her as an adult, leading her to research the films and inspiring her to travel and see their locations first-hand. She speaks of how this has shaped her reading as an adult, as reading has continued to inspire her to travel, for example the Outlander books brought her to Scotland.

Interview 9 – Elaine Murphy

Elaine speaks to SELCIE of her great love for reading as a child, and reminisces over reading raffles at school. She tells Danielle and Sarah of her particular love for the books of Enid Blyton, and comics including the Bunty, explaining the joy which she found in anticipating and escaping in each new adventure in the books. As a mother now, she tells of how her experience of reading has changed and adapted.

Interview 10 – Linda Abela

Linda speaks of her early childhood memories of reading books such as Janet and John, and winning book prizes at school for her good attendance. She tells Danielle and Sarah of her later love for Enid Blyton as she matured, and how she has shared these books and her love for reading with her grandchildren, and reflects upon the ways in which her childhood reading has shaped her career as a teacher.

Interview 11 – Anne MacDonald

Danielle and Sarah interview Anne about her reaction to the Growing Up with Books exhibition, and love of reading as a child. Anne recalls her favourite childhood books and genres, including fairy tales, the novels of Enid Blyton, and annuals, and speaks about sharing this love for reading with her children and grandchildren.

‘myn yonge barne’, or the Child on the Shore: Growing Up in Medieval Scots Literature

Initial C: The Massacre of the Innocents; Unknown; Paris, France; about 1320 – 1325; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 16.7 x 11.1 cm (6 9/16 x 4 3/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig IX 2, fol. 142

 

Certain things stay with you. I have always been touched by this description which I came across a long time ago. It’s from a narrative of the life of Mary Magdalene — found in a late 14th century Scots collection of saints’ lives — and portrays a moment of child’s play.

& as thai yed one the sand,

A child thai saw hym playand,

As yonge childir ar wont to do

And as they went onto the sand/they saw a child playing/just as young children are inclined to do…

This is no ordinary little boy — he’s the offspring of a king and queen, a longed-for child miraculously granted by the Magdalene in return for their conversion to Christianity. This vision is a key moment for the story’s medieval listeners and readers, expressive of a specific spiritual framework – confirmation of the saint’s intercession and of divine grace. But it is also a humanly beautiful one, for the father had believed that his child was dead. Instead, the little boy is very much alive, playing in an unselfconscious, instinctively child-like way, as the storyteller notes. This is a religious marvel; but also a little wonder of love resurrected.

Coming across this image again made me think about where else, if at all, we find children in medieval Scottish literature. Where do we see states of infancy, childhood and youth, and the bonds between parents and children, portrayed? Much work has been done in the past two decades to recover the material and social lives of children and adolescents in a range of medieval cultures, and thereby to begin the vital work of restoring visibility to a group traditionally so underrepresented in historical and cultural scholarship.

Yet it was only in 2015 that a volume solely devoted to Scotland’s medieval and early modern young was published; this is Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent’s groundbreaking collection, Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland. As they write in their introduction ‘young people were everywhere, and their experience and lives have much to reveal about medieval and early modern society’. Amongst many things young lives, as Ewan and Nugent point out, recalibrate our understanding of ‘urban economic development, consumption patterns, clan politics, personal piety, medieval kingship, court life, slavery, constructions of gender, the history of emotions, and the dynastic concerns of noble houses’ (p. 3).

As the volume’s essays illustrate, imprints and traces can be mined from records, archives, and other material sources, though it is harder to hear directly hear the voices of children and young people themselves. The image of the boy on the shore seemed to crystallise that sense of how the child-figure in medieval writing is somehow remains elusive, vivid yet just out of reach. Perhaps in literary texts above all, this sense of near absence, or distant intimacy, is heightened.

Literature, of course, isn’t straightforwardly mimetic of historical experience. So a poem composed in the voice of a father to his son, as we shall see later, can only suggest how representations of the young are mediated through a series of aesthetic conventions and ideological viewpoints, frequently shot through with uncertainties about authorship and transmission. In that respect, any portrait of the young in medieval Scots writing is a partial and cracked mirror. But for that very reason even the most fragmentary surviving text can tell us much about the imaginative matrix of desires — emotional, social, cultural — which cluster around children and young people. And, at the end, I’ll return to the ‘yonge barne’, the little boy, on the shore.

For this short post, I have chosen a small handful of texts for illustration from imaginative literature composed in Scots from the 14th to the early c16th centuries. ‘Medieval Scottish literature’, of course, encompasses much more linguistically and culturally than this. The rich and diverse body of Gaelic material in this period needs a post of its own so is not, for the moment, discussed here. For simplicity’s sake, I have modernised Scots orthography and provided English translations; all references to primary sources are given at the end. My thanks to Jane Bonsall who provided the illustrative images for this post.

The allegorical child

We needn’t look far before we find the figure of the child portrayed in emblematic and allegorical ways. William Dunbar’s well-known and bleak poetic litany of death’s powers, familiarly known as ‘Lament for the Makaris’ [Lament for the Poets], shows us ‘the bab full of benignite’ [the baby full of goodness] lying at his ‘moderis breast sowkand’ [sucking at his mother’s breast] — a fragile symbol of mortal innocence.

Dance of Death: Image of child dying of the plague. Hans Holbein (1497-1543) Woodcut, before 1538. Facsimile, London, 1892. Annotated by Shona Kelly Wray.

In one of Robert Henryson’s lyric poems, ‘The Thre Deid Pollis’ [The Three Death Skulls] , the young are darkly exhorted to remember their mortality by gazing on the ‘gaistly sicht’ [horrible sight] of their ‘holkit ene, oure peilit pollis bare’ [our hollowed-out eyes, our skinned, bare heads] which, once upon a time, were much more alive and lovely. Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid famously gives us one of the most potent and horrifying visions of death and the maiden.

Now is deformit the figour of my face;
To luik on it na leid now lyking hes.
Sowpit in syte, I say with sair siching,
Ludgeit amang the lipper leid, `Allace!’

[Now the outline of my face is disfigured/Noone is now inclined to gaze upon it/Absorbed in sorrow, I say with a heavy heart, ‘Alas!’, resident amidst the leper folk]

 If the child/youth-figure in these moralistic poems is a haunting reminder of the ruthless potentiality of death, we find a counterpoint in vernacular religious literature. There is a strong Marian lyric tradition in late medieval Scots poetry which ornately evokes adoration both of the Christ-child, and the maternal love of the Virgin Mary: liturgy, prayer, and nurture can be tenderly combined, as in this example:

Blist be thi haire hed eyne face & neise

Blist be ye halss breast bane bak & rib

Blist be thi palpis yat couth this one appleiss

Blist be thi handis that wande him in the crib […]

Blessed be the hair, head, eyes, face, and nose/Blessed be the neck breast bone back and rib/Blessed be the breasts that could satisfy the son/Blessed be the hands that embraced him in the crib […]

Nativity of Mary:
A midwife presents St Anne, naked except for a white cap, with the baby Mary. Ranworth Antiphoner, (1400s) fol 257.

 The temptations of youth

Looking beyond these allegorical and emblematic representations brings us to an imaginative world where the focus is fixed on the very human and earthly dimensions of the bond between the young and adults – parents, caregivers, teachers in loco parentis. We find boys and young men being instructed, implored, and besieged in all kinds of ways in medieval Scots writing. In The Spectakle of Luf, for example, ascribed to one ‘M.G. Myll’, in St Andrews on the 10th day of July in the year 1492 (the epilogue is very specific!). The text is presented as an example of ‘wisdom’ literature based on an unnamed Latin source which, for ‘gud and proffitable’ [good and instructive] purpose, needed to be translated ‘in to our wulgar and matarnall toung’ [vernacular mother tongue] — and, he adds, if any ‘ladyes and gentillwemen’ [ladies and gentlewomen] in particular want to complain, they can do so to the Latin author, not himself. The reason why they might soon becomes clear.

The young male reader of the treatise is subject to a fierce litany of advice, all of which largely pivots on the central core frailty of susceptibility to desire — explicitly defined as the ‘delectatioun of luf of wemen’ [salacious pleasure in the love of women]. In that sense, the Spectacle reads as an angry echo-chamber of the standard warnings, caveats, and expedient advice encased in the traditions of medieval antifeminist writings. Conceived as a conversation between a father and son, ‘a gud old knycht’ and a ‘yong squyer’ [a good old knight and a young squire], it’s divided into seven discreet sections. These neatly reflect the successive ‘categories’ of womanhood — increasingly stratified by age, social class, and religious status — who are bound to set about the son’s corruption.

Artfully, the father summons the toppling weight of scriptural, philosophical, and literary exempla to convince his son how reasonable he is. So he implores that ‘for in this warld Is na maire evillis na thar Is in young wemen quhen thai be set thereto as I sall mak ye till understand and thar be ressoun in thi brest’ [for in this world there are no greater evils than those in young women when they are so inclined, as I shall make you understand, and thereby implant reason in your breast]. Then he reaches first for his book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here, he tells his son how he can read of Stella, the ‘dochter of young age’ [the young daughter] of King Nysus who beheaded her father whilst he slept because she desired the love of King Mynos who, at the time, happened to be besieging her father’s city.

The son remains wonderfully obtuse throughout his seven stages of learning — he thinks it’s best to ‘luf in sic a place quhar It may be kepit secreit that akk be it childer be gootyn’  [love in such a way that it can be kept secret in case children are conceived]; his patient father suggests otherwise. At the end the latter presents himself as a model of how not to live a fully ‘masculine’ life: a man exiled from the ‘hushald’ [household] which he didn’t govern with enough ‘maistrye’ [power], now left with three gifts from his wife: ‘ane ald harr and dotand heid, ane emptyff and twme purss, and ane pair of beidis of sabill’ [an old daft weak-minded head, an empty and denuded purse, and a pair of mourning beads ie rosaries]. The Spectakle, then, manifests a great deal of anxiety around the process of growing up. The adolescent male is the site of such projected anxieties and fears but women are entirely to blame for this predicament.

Child’s play

Another, much lengthier ‘father-son’ dialogue exists in medieval Scots literature, entitled Ratis Raving, composed anonymously in the second half of the 15th century. But, at least in its prologue, seems to portray a much more curious and compassionate interest in childhood. Its prologue portrays maturation as a process as natural and organic as the growth of a tree — those figurative branches can grow strong and healthy provided there is the properly nourishing soil in which to take root; or become misshapen and withered if the proper moral and spiritual path isn’t followed. Although a conventional metaphor, the condition and potentiality of each stage in the young life-cycle is fascinatingly laid bare. In particular the poem charts the two defined stages of infancy and early childhood: from birth to 3 years old; and from 3 to 7. In the first we see how:

Than buskis child to spek ore ga,

And to wyt quhat is na & ya,

Sa lang can nocht ellis cheld think

Bot one the met, and one the drink,

On noryss, and on slep, thai thre;

Syk is the formest propyrtee,

Rycht as a best child can no mare,

Bot lauch ore gret for Joy & care,

Then the child attempts to speak / And to know what is no and yes / For so long the child can only think about food and drink / on nourishment and sleep, those three;/Such is the most definitive quality / that a child can do no more / But laugh away / heartily for joy and care

The infant’s basic primal instincts (for nourishment), and the capacity to articulate contentment or unhappiness, are here described, simply but engagingly, I think, in language which is almost gently rhythmic.

Holy Family at Work:
Holy Family at work in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves; Netherlands (Utrecht), c. 1440; Morgan Library MS M.917/945, p. 149.

In the next stage, the child’s developmental capacities are elaborated, and here we find — in a treatise so intent on the fostering of ethical and moral sense — what is a rather beautiful elaboration of child’s play. This is explicitly not the age in which the child’s morally reflective capacity or agency is yet developed; rather

Sa lang havis child wyl alwaye

With fluris for to Jap and playe;

With stikis, and with spalys small

To byge up chalmer, spens and hall;

To mak a wicht horss of a wand;

Of brokin breid a schip saland;

A bunwed tyll a burly spere;

And of a seg a swerd of were;

A cumly lady of a clout;

For a long time a child will always play with flowers / With sticks, and with small twigs / To build a bedroom, pantry, and hall / To make a strong horse out of a slender branch/or a sailing ship out of a piece of broken bread / A ragwort [makes for] a fiercesome spear / And a sedge a sword for war / a lovely lady [ie a doll] out of a cloth

Dolls, ships, swords, and the like ‘grow out of’ of the most ordinary everyday things. Naturally, given such creativity, the child’s day, the poem, acknowledges, is quite filled up; but there is no sense that this is not part of that ‘tree-like’, natural growth; these are activities which do not expressly nurture ‘gud Judgment’ (l. 1143) and make it neither the ‘best’ nor the ‘verst’ [worst] stage of human life. Rather, it simply accepts that the young child has a capacity for curiosity and inventiveness, for making and discovering ‘play’. It is very definitely not, I think, a negative depiction of ‘ignorant childhood’.[i]

But just as this child grows swiftly into the next stage of maturity (7 to 15), and into the period when ‘resone’ firmly implants ‘her’ roots (she is a feminised power in this text) instructing ‘quhat to do, and quhat enschew’ (l. 1227), so too does the text ultimately grow into a work of conventional, exemplary wisdom, akin to the Spectacle’s moral worldview. Still, Ratis Raving is very significant for the attention it pays to a distinct concept of early childhood and its developmental cognitive stages; and for doing so with an imaginative sympathy which brings ‘childlike-ness’ into nearer focus.

Girl with hobby horse and bells; youth with instruments
Bodleian Library MS. Douce 118, Psalter. fol. 034r, 13th century (end), France, Artois, Latin. “Marginalia. Crowned female with hobby horse rings handbells, and youth, in jester’s hood with bell, plays pipe and tabor.”

 

Children and emotion

I’d like to return to where this post began with the genre of the saint’s life. This was, of course, one of the most powerful and popular narrative forms of affective devotion in the Middle Ages. The traditions of insular hagiography in northern Britain have deep roots in the Latin, Irish, and Gaelic languages. Intended to praise, inspire, and teach these are, naturally, didactic texts, describing the miraculous work of saints. And if these lives portray the saint as a child or youth, they do so in ways which usually indicate their potential divinity or grace.

Yet — as shown by the opening example of the boy on the shore reunited with his father — we also witness the portrayal of children in ways which depict them as the locus of love, tied to parents and caregivers by bonds of affection, not just authority or chastisement. In the late 14th century Scots collection of saints’ lives, children are quite often an essential part of the narrative arc within each life. This is partly because of the close generic affinities between saint’s life and romance (and folktale too) for children are the agents of separation and reunion between families; longed for by childless kings and queens; or unwanted and cast off to sea in a casket to be ‘foderit’ [fostered] elsewhere. Here we also see children as ‘affective agents’ — possessed of emotion.

In the legend of ‘Theodera’ [St Theodora], the titular saint says goodbye to the child, whom she has fostered for nine years, when she knows death is near:

for-thi the barne scho tuk hir til,

& kyssit It with gud wil,

& sad: “dere sone, wit thu

That I mon pas of this lyf nou;

Thar-for to god I commend the,

That he thi helpe & fayre be.

& thu til hme pray Ithandly

& faste, as thu ma, gudely,

& to this brethyre of this abbay

Thou serwe treuly, I the pray!’

and then she took the child to her/And kissed him with good intention/and said, ‘Dear son, you need to know that I’m going to pass out of this life now/Therefore I commend you to God/that he help and look after you/and you have to pray very diligently to Him/ and intently and excellently/and I pray that you must faithfully serve the brothers of this abbey!

Later, the child is discovered grieving, or ‘gretand’ [weeping] beside her lifeless body. Even though she’s been received into the community of saints, she is still dead to the child. That irreducible knowledge registers poignantly in the child’s instinctive response towards Theodera — new-made saint but in that moment his surrogate-mother and carer.

This is an apt time to return to the little boy who plays on the shore in the life of Mary Magdalene. I suggested that this was significant in portraying a child instinctively at play. As we saw, this was also a celebratory moment for his father: the ‘resurrected’ child is the sign of new life and joy where previously he had been the bearer of death. In this earlier part of the story, the dying child is not portrayed as a static emblem or allegory but rendered in a vividly poignant way. Unable to care for the ‘yonge barne’ [little child], the king lays him to rest in the grave of his mother, at the breast which cannot nurture:

For to make a gannand grawe;

Thar-for thai socht & fand a cawe,

& of It in the maste priwe place

Thai lad that body, that ded was,

In riche atyre & dressit wele,

Wappyt in a furrit mantele;

& layde the chylde til hir breste,

Hed & mouthe the papis neste;

& gretan sar thine passit away, […]

They looked for a suitable grave, and found a cave, and in the most secluded place they laid the dead body; [she was] beautifully attired and dressed, wrapped in a fur mantle; they laid the child to her breast, his head and mouth nearest to her nipples, and then they moved away in tears […]

The loss of the child, as well as his mother, precedes (and, indeed, is the precondition of) the king’s penitential journey to the holy land and the visitation by St Peter. Both journey and vision bolster his wavering faith but the ‘lost child’ hauntingly remains an imagistic and emotional memory throughout this part of the narrative before the final reunion scene. The young boy is therefore a symbolically charged figure, invested with a great deal of the text’s spiritual and emotional energies.

I would suggest, however, that this isn’t a reductive symbolism. Whilst he is the site of affect, he is also an ‘affective agent’, possessed of emotion himself. We watch the little boy withdraw when he sees the father (whom of course he doesn’t recognise), and the boat’s crew, approach the shore:

& quhare his modir lay he socht,

& crape vndir hyre mantil rath,

In hope to hyd hym fra thar [the shipmen and father] skath….

and he sought out where his mother lay/and in distress crept under her cloak/hoping to hide himself from the danger they might bring

The men too are afraid, the story notes, unsure what they are seeing. Following the little boy, they find him seeking intuitive refuge in the body of his mother, laid out as she was when they left her:

Thai lyftyt upe the mantil-lape,

& fand the child at the pape,

lyand rycht as he sukit had,

bot he cane gret, for he was red.

They lifted up the flap/hem of the cloak/and found the child at the breast/lying as if he were sucking [at her breast] but he was crying because he was afraid.

This is another poignant and powerful visual moment, bringing the figures of child and mother into fetishised and distressing focus. But it leads to the further discovery that the Magdalene has assumed the role of foster mother, nourishing the child throughout the king’s two-year absence. He thanks her simply: ‘Thu has me gyffine this litil knafe,/& fed hyme twa yere one this hil.’ [You have given me this little fellow/whom you’ve fed for two years upon this hillside]. And, feeling ‘sa Ioyful’ [so joyful], he kisses ‘his sone, that he na cuth fyn’ [he kisses his son so much that he can hardly stop].

We don’t know for sure for whom these Scots saints’ lives were composed. They are likely to have been popular, being based on the most widely collected and translated collection of Latin saints’ lives in medieval Europe, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. And the fact that they exist in the vernacular already suggests a lay audience given the official position of Latin in the church. We know, too, that vernacular female saints’ lives were often intended, or held a particular appeal, for women; these saintly women were not only ‘aspirational role models’ but in their earthly struggles potential sources of emotional and empathic affinity. (Interestingly, a woman’s name — ‘Katherine Grahame’ — is inscribed in c17th century hand in the manuscript, suggesting one of its post-medieval owners).

I therefore wonder whether the particular narrative care with which these particular lives expound grief for lost children, and the grief of children, might be a consequence of this. This is not intended in a reductively essentialist way; grief is not exclusively gendered. I also recognise the problematic way in which these texts portray ‘mothering’, and the ideally productive female body as the adulatory locus of nurture, both physical and spiritual. Indeed, all the texts briefly touched upon here may only reflect back the prescriptive, authoritarian nature of models of youth and adolescence demanded by society, culture, and religion.

But if we look carefully in the corners or margins of these Scottish texts, we can also find surprisingly attentive configurations of play and creativity. And imaginatively they help us grow closer to understanding those relationships of being and belonging, love and grief, felt reciprocally between children and those who care for them.

This post written by Sarah

[i] As Takami Matsuda suggests in her study, Death and Purgatory in Middle English Didactic Poetry (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997) ,p. 184.

References

Legends of the Saints in the Scottish dialect of the fourteenth century, edited by W.M. Metcalfe, Scottish Text Society (Edinburgh, 1896), 3 vols

Ratis Raving and other early Scots poems on morals, edited by R. Girvan, Scottish Text Society (Edinburgh, 1939)

‘The Spectakle of Luf’ and the Marian poem ascribed to Walter Kennedy can be found in The Asloan Manuscript: a Miscellany of Verse and Prose, Scottish Text Society, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1923-5)

Elizabeth Ewan and Janey Nugent (eds), Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)

Elizabeth Ewan and Janey Nugent (eds), Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland (Martlesham: The Boydell Press, 2015)

Aspects of this work were first presented at the symposium, ‘Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages’, University of Edinburgh 8-9 October 2015. My thanks to Dr Rachel Delman and Dr Phoebe Linton, co-organisers of the event, and all those who attended it for their advice and suggestions.

 

 

 

 

‘Riding the First Wave of Children’s Literature’

Kathryn Downing, a Masters student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh, spent the spring amidst the pre-1850 book collections at the Museum of Childhood. You can read her fascinating reflections on the different trends and impulses in children’s literature which she observed at the Museum’s own blog, Stories of Childhood

 

Book Launch

SELCIE is delighted to announce that a new publication –  The Land of Story-Books: Scottish Children’s Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Sarah Dunnigan and Shu-Fang Lai (Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2019) –  will be launched on Friday 14th June at 5pm at Edinburgh University, kindly hosted in association with the Department of English Literature’s SWINC [Scottish Writing in the Nineteenth Century], alongside the launch of Edinburgh University Press’s Commemorating Peterloo. Please join us for this joint celebration.

Location: 50 George Square, second floor, in the space outside room 2.43.

Please contact Sarah for more information: s.m.dunnigan@ed.ac.uk

For details on the 1819 symposium which precedes the event, see  http://www.swinc.englit.ed.ac.uk/events/scotland-in-1819/  

 

This collection of twenty essays is the first extensive study of the range and diversity of Scottish children’s literature in Gaelic, Scots, and English, encompassing chapbooks, poetry, popular fiction, fairy tales and more by both well-loved and unknown writers. It also includes a chapter by some of our very own SELCIE team on some treasures from the Museum of Childhood’s archive. Beautifully illustrated, it brings to life the materiality of children’s reading lives and culture in the period.