Anyone who re-reads British publications for children in the first half of the twentieth century can’t fail to be struck by the relentlessly upper middle class milieu of its settings. Boarding schools, servants, and ponies appear, not as exotica, but as an assumed norm in the lives of ordinary children. ”It was early September, and John and Susan had come to spend the last fortnight of their summer holiday at their old nurse’s home in Scatterbrook. . . “ begins Barbara Euphan Todd’s Worzel Gummidge Again, first published in 1937.
A fairly typical opening, evoking a world of nannies and nursery teas. In children’s publishing in the 1930s working class children were either absent or presented as quaintly “other” and near-curiosities, as in Eve Garnett’s Family From One End Street in which the Ruggles family and their dustman father are the fictional emanations of Garnett’s experience as an illustrator for The London Child (1927). The Ruggles family’s poverty and the limitations of their lives are seen as either poignant or comically intriguing. Even so, a succession of publishers rejected the manuscript as “unsuitable for children” before it was accepted by Frederich Mueller.
It might have been expected that the massive social upheaval of the 1939-45 war, combined with the leveling effects of the 1944 Education Act and the Beveridge Report, would have radically disrupted the assumptions that British children’s authors and publishers nursed about their readers. Some publishers seem to have recognized that their readers’ worlds were more like Garnett’s Ruggles family than John and Susan’s summer holidays at Scatterbrook Farm.
From 1940 till her retirement in 1961 Eleanor Graham was the editor of Puffin Books. She’d arrived there by way of a first job at Bumpus Bookshop, followed by positions as children’s book editor for Heinemann and Methuen.Graham seems to have undertaken a missionary role towards young readers.Puffins were lower-priced than most other children’s books and Graham evidently saw reading as an important element in the social aspirations of their audience. For example, in 1952 Puffin republished 3 books intended to educate the unitiated in the pleasures of art galleries, concerts and ballet. Graham wrote to a colleague:
“None of these three volumes are likely to appeal to the general run of Secondary Modern children–who, I suppose, make up the greater part of the up to 15 age group. There has to be some consciousness, some upward yearning before they will bother with them, but this quality certainly lies in the make-up of the rather better educated–say Grammar and High School level–from even 13 up . . .”
Worth noting here is the tangle of assumptions about education and social class. The “general run of Secondary Modern children” of course refers to the now-notorious eleven plus exam which sorted children into schools, supposedly on academic aptitude, but, in reality, heavily skewed to social class. So, in general, middle class children proceeded to grammar schools and working class children to secondary modern schools which emphasized vocational training. Graham seems to envision something like two separate species where a taste for art and music is part of the innate ”make-up” of middle class children but to which only the working class child possessed of “some upward yearning” can aspire.
Under Graham’s editorship the main approach was to republish “classics” like Treasure Island or Black Beauty, to produce British editions of American and European children’s books, and to publish Puffin editions of British children’s authors who’d begun their careers in the 30s like Noel Streatfeild and Alison Uttley, as well as to commission short biographies of figures such as Elizabeth Fry, Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur.
Another post-war publishing development interlocks closely with Puffins.In 1949 Collins began a magazine titled Collins Magazine For Boys and Girls, which quickly morphed into Collins Magazine, becoming Collins Young Elizabethan in 1953 and simply Young Elizabethan in 1955. Edited initially by Pamela Whitlock, who had herself become a published author at aged 15, Collins Magazine from the outset invited and published submissions by young readers. This approach of actively engaging readers as contributors, initially under such headings as “All Your Own Work” eventually extended to contests inviting children to submit full-length fiction, at least one of which, Black Marigolds, was published in the magazine. When Kaye Webb took over the editorship from Whitlock in 1955 she extended the approach still further with the “Young Elizabethan Club” with all the trappings of membership, badges and so on, an approach she was to replicate when she replaced Eleanor Graham as editor of Puffins in 1961. Throughout its life the magazine published a broad range of both fiction and non-fiction by many of the same authors who were being published by Puffin and by Collins. Non-fiction subjects included a range of hobbies, nature study, sports and so on. That it was considered to be “improving reading” is indicated by the fact that schools sometimes took collective subscriptions. Like Eleanor Graham at Puffin Books, Whitlock and her group at Collins had difficulty imagining an audience beyond their own social caste.
The magazine’s content implied a middle or upper-class readership with articles on such elite sports as fencing, rowing and golf. This ambiance seems not have been lost on readers. One of my contemporaries, while reflecting quite fondly on reading the Collins Magazines provided by her school commented,
“It was sort of a snob thing.”
This reader, like me, belonged to the lower middle class living in the post-war social environment that signaled that we could expect educational and cultural opportunities would be richer than those of our parents or grandparents. Reading itself was closely identified with those richer opportunities.
When I’ve asked members of this post-war generation about their reading it seems that rather than producing a sense of alienation, the world of boarding schools and pony clubs was often regarded by these child readers as so remote as to invite no comparison with their own lives “I didn’t read anything about anyone that was exactly like me,” commented one. “ I had no idea what boarding school was like so it sounded like an adventure really.”
Some seem to have bridged the same gap with fantasy: “I loved anything that made me pretend I was a better class than I was . . . girls called things like ‘Bunty’—they all wore such fancy uniforms and I used to draw pictures of those uniforms.” For others still the boarding schools like the Chalet School series represented a more orderly world than the chaos of post-war reconstruction:
“My school was really overcrowded. It still had bomb holes in it. So the idea of going to a boarding school with nice people and friends really appealed to me” remarked one. Fiction that seemed to invite closer comparison with ones own circumstances seems for some to have been more disquieting. The same friend who drew pictures of fantasy school uniforms recalled, “There was a schoolbook—. . . – with the characters Janet and John—I was so jealous of them that it made me cry—they had bedside tables and neat little divan beds—I remember those bedside tables and I was so ashamed because I had a painted orange crate. The other thing was any books where the children had garden gates, a path and a garden gate and Mummy waving goodbye—because my mother went to work—just that world—they’re a different species and I felt ashamed because I wasn’t that species.”
Talking to various contemporaries with similar backgrounds I was struck how frequently people recalled individual reading acts– the first encounter with irony, the first experience of being moved to tears by events in the lives of imaginary characters. One person recalls shedding tears reading Anne of Green Gables:
“I remember exactly where I was—on my parents’ bed, in the daytime, all by myself. It was sunny. And I read the part where Matthew died, and then I started to cry and I was so shocked because I had never read anything where I cried before . . . and I remember having this horrible feeling– why am I crying about some old man called Matthew? . . .I can remember feeling very strange to cry about something that didn’t affect me.”
Perhaps even more striking was the way in which people could recall minute details of book illustrations or bindings. The vividness and fixity of these memories may be partly as result of endless re-readings in childhood, but also of the near trance-like state achieved by some child-readers, what Francis Spufford seems to pathologize by naming it “catatonic reading.” Elizabeth Bishop captures this total recall of childhood reading in the opening of her poem “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance:”
Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
–the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame.
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family of pets,
–and looked and looked our infant sight away.
What Bishop recalls so intensely is partly the material sense of her grandparents’ 1870 New Devotional and Practical Pictorial Family Bible and its illustrations. But the power behind the memory is the hypnotic intensity of the child’s focus, the meditative absorption that commits a picture to memory for a lifetime–the same hypnotic process by which another generation could absorb such complex messages of class and culture.