In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children's Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Victorian Families
  • Children in Society
  • Evangelical and Tractarian Works
  • Fantasy
  • Fairies and Fairy Tales
  • Men, Boys, and Boys’ Reading
  • Women, Girls, and Girls’ Reading
  • Magazines and Popular Reading
  • Postcolonialism and Empire
  • Illustration and Children’s Books
  • Nonsense and Children’s Poetry

Victorian Literature Children's Literature
Roderick McGillis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0088


At the outset of the Victorian period, children’s literature continued the tradition of the moral story as exemplified in the work of Dorothy Kilner, Maria Edgeworth, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and others. However, the conjunction of fantasy and realism is apparent in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839); famously, the chapter “Uncle David’s Nonsensical Story About Giants and Fairies” makes room for fantasy in the field of English children’s fiction. By 1846, Mary Howitt, herself a follower of the “moral” school of children’s writing, had translated Andersen’s fairy tales suggesting the connection between so-called moral tales and fantasy. Ten years later Frances Browne published Granny’s Wonderful Chair. What followed was a wave of fairy tales and fantasy for children by a great number of writers, including the now canonical Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, and George MacDonald. As U. C. Knoepflmacher has pointed out, these male writers had their female counterparts in, among others, Christina Rossetti, Jean Ingelow, and Juliana Horatia Ewing. Writing for children grew in popularity, so much so that most of the major writers of the period wrote at least one children’s book: William Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Augusta Webster, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Hardy. Although fantasy dominated children’s literature (important writers include Mary Molesworth, Diana Mulock Craik, Mary DeMorgan, Margaret Gatty, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Lane Clifford), the realistic writing for the young did not disappear. Domestic fiction by Charlotte Yonge and stories of street children by writers such as Hesba Stretton, and “Brenda” (Georgiana Castle Smith) continued to be popular. Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) proved a catalyst for school stories by the likes of F. W. Farrar, Talbot Baines Reed, and for girls, L. T. Meade and Angela Brazil. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) signals the advent of many animal stories that flowered at the end of the century in work by Charles G. D. Roberts, Beatrix Potter, and others. The Victorian period is also the high point of the British Empire, and children’s books celebrated British imperialism. Works by Frederick Marryat, R. M. Ballantyne, Bessie Marchant, and preeminently G. A. Henty chronicled British activity in the colonies. Readers could also find similar stories in periodicals such as The Boy’s Own Paper and The Boys of England. Children’s magazines proliferated during the period. Finally, poetry for children (especially nonsense) and illustration and the picture book also began their long run of popularity.

General Overviews

The selection of general works about Victorian children’s literature contains surveys such as Green 1965, Ang 2000, Avery 1975, Hunt 1994, and Muir 1954. Ang 2000, Avery 1975, and Hunt 1994 offer critical readings of selected children’s books by the major writers, whereas Green 1965 and Muir 1954 are more appreciative and impressionistic. Muir is the only writer to consider illustration and the picture book. None of these surveys is comprehensive. Dusinberre 1987, Flegel 2009a, and Flegel 2009b are more pointedly driven by a thesis: the former that Victorian children’s books set out the direction to modernism and the latter two that challenge the familiar notion of the Romantic child. The most critically sophisticated of the general works is Gubar 2010. Gubar covers more ground than earlier surveys, and like Flegel, she challenges the familiar notions of the Victorian child and the legacies of Romanticism.

  • Ang, Susan. The Widening World of Children’s Literature. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2000.

    Ang’s argument is that over the course of its development, children’s literature moved from a depiction of childhood as “enclosed” to a depiction of a more “open” world for childhood activity. She spends much of the book in the Victorian period focusing on canonical writers such as Alcott, Carroll, Burnett, Nesbit, and Kipling. Other Victorians appearing in the book include Charlotte Yonge, Francis Paget, Mary Molesworth, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë.

  • Avery, Gillian. Childhood’s Pattern: A Study of the Heroes and Heroines of Children’s Fiction 1770–1950. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

    A study of the social context of children’s literature, it develops themes first set out in Avery’s Nineteenth Century Children (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965). It covers topics from evangelical literature for the young, to depictions of the family, to “manly” boyhood, and innocent children. It contains little sustained analysis, but it is invaluable as a survey.

  • Dusinberre, Juliet. Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art. London: Macmillan, 1987.

    The importance of this book is that it shows how Victorian children’s writers such as Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett laid the groundwork for modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry. Mark Twain’s influence on English modernism is also noted.

  • Flegel, Monica. Conceptualizing Cruelty to Children in Nineteenth-Century England: Literature, Representation, and the NSPCC. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009a.

    A study that ranges from historical reformers such as Henry Mayhew and Mary Carpenter to canonical writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Chapters take up such topics as children and animals, the child performer, commerce and child endangerment, and juvenile delinquency. She gives a thorough account of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

  • Flegel, Monica. “‘Masquerading Work’: Class Transvestism in Victorian Texts for and about Children.” Children’s Literature 37 (2009b): 61–83.

    DOI: 10.1353/chl.0.0809

    A look at children and the class system. Children’s writers in the discussion include Dickens and less well-known writers such as Mary Bolton, Caroline Norton, and Mrs. O. F. Walton. The focus here, as in Flegel’s longer study above, is historical and social rather than strictly literary.

  • Green, Roger Lancelyn. Tellers of Tales: Children’s Books and Their Authors from 1800 to 1964. London: Edmund Ward, 1965.

    Appreciations of late Victorian writers by an author who also wrote biographies of Mary Molesworth, Andrew Lang, J. M. Barrie, and Rudyard Kipling. Green also edited and introduced a volume of George MacDonald’s fairy tales. Green is a graceful writer, but useful now from a historical perspective.

  • Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A major reexamination of Victorian children’s literature that scrutinizes a range of authors including Hesba Stretton, Juliana Ewing, and Mary Molesworth who challenge the Romantic notions of childhood innocence. A chapter on Treasure Island resists the easy colonial reading of this book. Gubar revisits Jacqueline Rose’s influential work and takes the discussion of child/adult “collaboration” into interesting and provocative places.

  • Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    This relatively short history begins with a survey of approaches to children’s literature, followed by a look at the 18th century. The Victorian period is covered from 1860 to 1920. Hunt covers the canonical writers, but he does so in brief and idiosyncratic commentary.

  • Muir, Percy. English Children’s Books 1600 to 1900. New York: Praeger, 1954.

    Although this book spans three centuries, it has chapters on a variety of Victorian stories for children, including a chapter on nonsense, a survey of school stories, poetry, women writers, and the fairy tale. This is a survey and consequently analysis of specific works is sparse.

  • The Victorian Web: Literature, History, and Culture in the Age of Victoria.

    The premier website for Victorian literature. It contains sections on various authors as well as on genres, modes of publication, themes (e.g., death in children’s literature), and conceptions of childhood. It also has a useful bibliography of secondary materials.

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