Childhood and children's literature

How was childhood depicted in the literature of the 18th and 19th century, and how were perceptions of childhood different from those of today? Was children’s literature intended to entertain or instruct?
Anthropomorphism in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Anthropomorphism in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Article by:
Martin Dubois

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is crammed with animals: a grinning cat, a talking rabbit, an enormous caterpillar and countless others. Dr Martin Dubois explores anthropomorphism and nonsense in Lewis Carroll’s novel, revealing the literary traditions that underpin it – and those it inspired.

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Fantasy and fairytale in children's literature

Fantasy and fairytale in children's literature

Article by:
M O Grenby

Professor M O Grenby explores the relationship between fantasy and morality in 18th- and 19th-century children’s literature.

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Moral and instructive children’s literature

Moral and instructive children’s literature

Article by:
M O Grenby

Professor M O Grenby looks at the ways in which children’s literature of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to improve its young readers, combining social and moral instruction with entertainment.

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Orphans in fiction

Orphans in fiction

Article by:
John Mullan

Why do orphans appear so frequently in 19th-century fiction? Professor John Mullan reflects on the opportunities they provide for authors, considering some of the most famous examples of the period.

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The origins of children’s literature

The origins of children’s literature

Article by:
M O Grenby

Professor M O Grenby charts the rise of children’s literature throughout the 18th century, explaining how books for children increasingly blended entertainment with instruction.

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Jane Eyre and the rebellious child

Jane Eyre and the rebellious child

Article by:
Sally Shuttleworth

Drawing on children’s literature, educational texts and Charlotte Brontë’s own childhood experience, Professor Sally Shuttleworth looks at the passionate and defiant child of Jane Eyre.

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Juvenile crime in the 19th century

Juvenile crime in the 19th century

Article by:
Matthew White

Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction.

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Jane Austen’s juvenilia

Jane Austen’s juvenilia

Article by:
Kathryn Sutherland

Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores how Jane Austen’s education and upbringing shaped her childhood writing, and considers the relationship between these early works and her adult novels.

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The title page of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789)

The title page of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789)

Article by:
Michael Philips

Michael Phillips compares the title page of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence to an earlier children’s book, in order to reveal Blake's progressive views on the importance and power of childhood.

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Eating and drinking in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Eating and drinking in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Article by:
Philip Ardagh

Children's author Philip Ardagh looks at how Lewis Carroll transforms the highly-ritualised, rule-bound nature of 19th-century mealtimes into the madcap hilarity of the Hatter's tea party.

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Understanding Alice

Understanding Alice

Article by:
Kimberley Reynolds

Professor Kimberley Reynolds explores how Lewis Carroll transformed logic, literary traditions and ideas about childhood into the superbly inventive and irreverent Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

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Perceptions of childhood

Perceptions of childhood

Article by:
Kimberley Reynolds

In the mid-18th century, childhood began to be viewed in a positive light, as a state of freedom and innocence. Professor Kimberley Reynolds explores how this new approach influenced 18th and 19th-century writers, some of whom wished they could preserve childhood indefinitely.

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Child labour

Child labour

Article by:
Emma Griffin

Industrialisation led to a dramatic increase in child labour. Professor Emma Griffin explores the dangerous, exhausting work undertaken by children in factories and mines, and the literary responses of writers including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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William Blake and 18th-century children’s literature

William Blake and 18th-century children’s literature

Article by:
Julian Walker

Julian Walker looks at William Blake’s poetry in the context of 18th-century children’s literature, considering how the poems’ attitudes towards childhood challenge traditional ideas about moral education during that period.

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Ragged Schools

Ragged Schools

Article by:
Imogen Lee

Ragged Schools provided free education for children too poor to receive it elsewhere. Imogen Lee explains the origins and aims of the movement that established such schools, focusing on the London’s Field Lane Ragged School, which Charles Dickens visited.

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Further themes

Romanticism

What inspired the iconic poetry of the Romantic period?

The Gothic

What characterises Gothic literature and what does it reveal about the periods in which it was written?

Crime and crime fiction

Why was crime such a popular subject in 19th-century fiction?

The novel 1780-1832

From Georgian gentry to Gothic horror, what characterised the literature of this period?

The novel 1832 - 1880

How did the iconic writers of this period experiment with fantasy, sensationalism, realism and social commentary?

Fin de siècle

How did the literature of this period reflect attitudes to gender, sexuality, immigration, class and scientific discovery?

Victorian poetry

How did the Victorian poets approach composition, form and language, and what inspired their subjects?

Popular culture

From music hall to pleasure gardens, explore the extraordinary range of entertainments on offer in Georgian and Victorian Britain.

Poverty and the working classes

How did Victorian writers respond to the shocking inequalities of Victorian society?

Power and politics

How did writers respond to the tumultuous political events of this period?

Reading and print culture

How did rising literacy rates, libraries and new technologies influence the literature people read?

Technology and science

How did 19th century authors respond to the new possibilities afforded by technology and science?

The middle classes

How were the tensions surrounding social mobility explored in the literature of the period?

Visions of the future

How did the 19th-century literature reflect contemporary fears of social, political and technological change?

Gender and sexuality

How were gender roles embedded in the literature of the period and were they ever subverted?