‘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.

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