When Mary celebrated her 11th birthday, she wrote a thank you letter to her 16-year-old sister, Agnes, who had given Mary a very precious gift: a book. Today, over a hundred and fifty years later, we don’t realize just how special such a present was. Certainly, we value giving our children gorgeously illustrated books with tongue-tripping rhythms and rhymes. But we probably don’t realize how lucky we are to have so many options, or how relatively recent is this lavishness of choice.
A near contemporary of Mary’s, Frances Hodgson Burnett, expressed that she was motivated to write magical children’s books like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy because she felt in constant need of a good book while growing up in rainy Manchester. In 1850s Britain, books ‘were absolutely disregarded as a necessary factor in the existence of young human beings’, Burnett remembered seventy years later. ‘Acridly or sentimentally moral or pious tales and unconvincing adventures were in rare cases bestowed, at long intervals as prizes or birthday presents, to be covered with paper, read and reread and occasionally “lent” as an enormous favor.’
Luckily, the Gladstonian world was different. Moral tales were prized as sincerely opening up a better world. And on inclement days, fantasy was conjured up through indoor make-believe. This was a family who fostered active minds and physical fitness, as we see in these letters, written in November 1858:
Mary wrote her thank you on the back of her 9-year-old sister Helen’s letter. This saved postage and was a timely plan, too, since Helen had written to Agnes the day before Mary’s birthday. Here is Helen’s letter:
I love imagining the Hawarden Castle children, from Mary down to five-year-old Herbert, putting on their outdoor cloaks to run around the Georgian library, as if it had changed into the gardens. Thus the magician bookshelves, fostering the imaginations of the young family, transform a dreary day into enchanted play. Helen’s letter equally shows the lively impressionability of young children. Mixed in with the details of Victorian life (the big carriage, governesses, watching a coal pit being dug) are the funny, uninhibited observations of a child: an ugly baby, ‘rather yellow’!
The recipient, Agnes must have felt herself to be living in an unreal world of a different sort, for she had accompanied her parents to Corfu earlier that month. The far-flung family kept each other abreast of their news through regular letters that took a week to arrive. The Gladstones in Wales were so well informed of the travelers’ progress that Helen did not vaguely desire her family’s safe arrival in Corfu; she expressed her hopes on the day that they sailed for the Greek island.
I would imagine that Agnes found news from home steadying, just as hiring a pianoforte for the anchored ship on which they lived allowed her to continue her usual pursuits. She was otherwise in the midst of an exotic world of Greek Orthodoxy and an almost living classical history. With her mother, Agnes even passed a night in a harem! She and her parents longed for letters from home.
Equally, don’t you think that the children at home held their breaths as they read about the exciting adventures in Corfu? In these instances, real life must surely have seemed as magical as their treasured books. Both were infused with a strong Christian identity; Mary's books often had moral purpose, just as Agnes's sense of exoticism came from the strangeness that she, a High Church Anglican, felt in encountering the orthodox world.
Weliver, Phyllis. “Victorian Children's Books: Gifting Moral Imagination.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. April 16, 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/3/17/ltjvgjt374xmm7i2wss2uqheykuaor ).
Weliver, P. (2015, Apr 16). Victorian Children's Books: Gifting Moral Imagination. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/3/17/ltjvgjt374xmm7i2wss2uqheykuaor