Horrid Henry’s Predecessors

May 4th, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections began the Big Move, where miles of rare materials were shifted into its cavernous new vault in Firestone Library.  (We celebrated its early and successful conclusion in the previous post, “Moving Day in Feather Town.”)  During any collections move, books with problems crop up and  sometimes combinations of them turn out to be unexpectedly interesting.  When resizing books the other week, three nineteenth-century books featuring boys who are no angels passed over my desk.

These days characters whose halos have slipped down to their shoulders are not underrepresented in children’s books.  Think of Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry, whose antics have given rise to a multi-media empire.  My trio of old books offer some pretty compelling evidence that the way bad boys are punished for their evil deeds has changed dramatically as attitudes towards authority, curiosity, mischief, and mistakes have become more tolerant–or overly lenient, depending upon your point of view.

Contrast the implicit acceptance in Horrid Henry of children disrespecting adults with the Old Testament’s zero tolerance. In Kings 2:22-3, when the prophet Elisha passes a pack of young louts on the road to Bethel.  Because the word for the boys was mistranslated in the King James Bible, they are usually understood to be little boys,not teenagers. These ancestors of the Purple Gang yell at Elisha, “Go up, you old baldy.”  He curses them and two female bears come out of the woods and maul forty-two of the no-goods.  If the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime, Biblical scholars are inclined to think that for centuries readers really haven’t understood the text between the lines that explains what was really going between the young men and the prophet.

 

The story of Elisha and the bears must have inspired many cautionary tales about bad boys who mess with the wrong person  and get more than they bargained for.  Another familiar type in cautionary tales is the no-good who disobeys his loving parents and comes to a spectacularly gruesome end.  The history of the brothers Tommy and Harry in Daniel Fenning’s The Universal Spelling Book (1756) was in wide circulation from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries and was even mentioned in  Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Harry the elder is a rotter and Tommy the younger is a Peter Perfect.  Guess which brother goes to the dogs and is eaten by lions?

Woodcut, page 43, Cotsen 118 (19th edition, 1773)

Woodcut, page 43, Cotsen 118 (19th edition, 1773)

Nineteenth-century picture books are full of bad boys, but often they are shown making mischief in a series of detailed illustrations rather than starring in a continuous narrative.  All three of the books I found during the Big Move–one French, one British, and one German–all fall into this category.  In Les Proverbes de Pierre (1890), illustrator Jean Geoffrey dresses up his sturdy little devils in Pierrot costumes and sets them loose in the classroom and in the street.  Notice that it is a young peep show operator (the one with what looks like a little tower strapped on his back), not an adult, who breaks up the squabble in the first illustration.  In the second picture all hell seems to have broken loose when the teacher steps out of the classroom.  Is the boy in the upper left sending up his teacher?  Where are the wild beasts?

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Page 21, Cotsen 10743

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Page 1, Cotsen 10743

In Young Troublesome (ca. 1850), John Leech gleefully shows just how much mischief a public school boy could make at home during the Christmas holidays.  In this plate the adults stand by helplessly as the young pickle shows his little brothers and sisters how easy and delightful it is to slide down a bannister.

Plate [2], Cotsen 3141

Plate 2, Cotsen 3141

There are also illustrations showing boys playing practical jokes that are anything but fun and games.   In Ludwig Kies’ Der Kinder Art und Unart (ca. 1855′), the boys in the boat dump an elaborately dressed tailor overboard.  The tailor’s terrified expression suggests he fears he will drown once his heavy clothes become waterlogged.  The boys, who may be working class, show no remorse for their act of gratuitous cruelty, for which they deserve to be severely punished.  Likewise Leech’s Young Troublesome seems to think nothing of interfering with the servants while they are on duty, even if his prank ruins their clothes.  The hapless servant may have no other recourse than complaining to his comrades below the stairs.

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Plate [53], Cotsen 24963

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Plate 10, Cotsen 3141

Of all activities forbidden to children, playing with fire may have been one of the most satisfying because so risky.  From the late eighteenth century onward, it is not that difficult to find illustrations of children whose clothes have caught fire, a very real possibility in homes where there were multiple fireplaces with open grates.  William Darton senior liked such subjects, but no engraving in his firm’s juvenile books can compare with this one from Der Kinder Art und Unart of a boy running out of the hen house, which he accidentally set aflame.  Unlike many of the plates in this book, no adult appears to reprimand him (or mourn his passing as the kitties did Hoffmann’s Paulinchen).

Plate [30], Cotsen 24963

Plate [30], Cotsen 24963

In sharp contrast, Young Troublesome and his assistant look as if they have deployed every bit of firepower behind the scenes to bring the juvenile theater production of The Miller and His Men to a triumphant conclusion. The size of the explosion seems to have given his papa pause.  Or perhaps his ears were ringing from all the racket from the special effects.

Plate 7, 3141

Plate 7, 3141

Last but not least, is this illustration of a boy on his way to school pausing to get a light from a street urchin, while a gaping classmate watches them indulging in a forbidden vice.  A casual depiction of underage smoking like this one in a picture book would be enough to get Les proverbes de Pierre a PG-13 rating these days.  But did boys have more fun back then?  I wonder…

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Page 33, Cotsen 10743

 

 

 

Quotable Quotes from Kingsley’s Water-Babies

Front board, Cotsen 15234

Front board of Cotsen 15234, with design of Tom the water baby enjoying aquatic sports.

 

A revered professor in the UCLA English Department used to say that when a person could rattle on confidently about a book (preferably some uncontested masterpiece like Hamlet or Ulysses) without having ever cracked it open, only then could the degree of  Ph.d be conferred.

Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863) is one of those books I thought I could fake with impunity.   In fact, when asked to serve on the advisory board of the Grolier 100 Books Famous in Children’s Literature project I did not confess my ignorance, knowing that Brian Alderson would wrangle The Water-Babies entry as editor of the Oxford World Classics edition.   This month  I was finally obliged to fetch the book from the basement, where it had been languishing for some time, and read from cover to cover–without benefit of any pictures, either.

Page 17, Cotsen 39124

Page 17, Cotsen 39124. Tom was a chimney sweep before being transformed into a water baby. Here he stumbles into a village school, where he sees for the first time children working at their lessons.

I’m happy to say that The Water-Babies lived up to its reputation as one of the most peculiar children’s books ever written and some of the passages about the rearing and educating of children are worth sharing.  All quotations from the 1995 Oxford University Press paperback edited by Brian Alderson, of course.  If you have a tender stomach, Kingsley’s indelicate sense of humor may not be your cup of tea.

Here is the hideous and not entirely benign fairy Mrs. Be-Done-By-As-You-Did, who visits the water-babies on Fridays. When pleased with them, she gives “them all sorts of nice sea-things–sea-cakes, sea-apples, sea-oranges, sea-bullseyes, sea-toffee; and to the very best of all she gave sea-ices, made out of sea-cows’ cream, which never melt under water.”

[161] Tipped-in plate, Cotsen 15234

[161] Tipped-in plate of Mrs. Be-Done-By-As-You-Did by Jessie Willcox Smith, Cotsen 15234

The real business of the day is to “call up all who have ill-used little children, and serve them as they served the children….And first she called up all the doctors who give little children so much physic (they were most of them old ones; for all the young ones have learnt better, all but a few army surgeons, who still fancy that a baby’s inside is much like a Scotch grenadier’s), and she set them in a row; and very rueful they looked, for they knew what was coming.

And first she pulled all their teeth out; and then she bled them all round; and then she dosed them with calomel, and jalap, and salts and senna, and brimstone and treacle; and horrible faces they made; and then she gave them a great emetic of mustard and water, and no basons; and began all over again; and that was the way she spent the morning” (Chapter V, p. 109).

This second excerpt is less savage, unless you happen to be in the children’s book publishing business.  During his journey to the Other-end-of-Nowhere, the hero Tom visits a number of remarkable places.

“And first he went through Waste-paper-land, where all the stupid books lie in heaps, up hill and down dale, like leaves in a winter wood; and there he saw people digging and grubbing among them, to make worse books out of bad ones, and thrashing chaff to save the dust of it; and a very good trade they drove thereby, especially among children” (Chapter VIII, p. 157).

Last but not least is an excerpt from Tom’s sojourn in the Isle of the Tomtoddies:

“And when Tom came near it, he heard such a grumbling and grunting and growling and waiting and weeping and whining that he thought people must be wringing little pigs, or cropping puppies’ ears, or drowning kittens: but when he came nearer still, he began to hear words among the noise, which was the Tomtoddies’ song which they sing morning and evening, and all night too, to their great idol Examination–“I can’t learn my lesson: the examiner’s coming!”  And that was the only song they knew….

Then he looked round for the people of the island: but instead of men, women, and children, he found nothing but turnips and radishes, beet and mangold wurzel, without a single green leaf among them, and half of them burst and decayed with toadstools growing out of them.  Those which were left began crying to Tom, in half a dozen different languages at once, and all of them badly spoken, “I can’t learn my lesson,; do come help me!”  And one cried, “Can you show me how to extract this square-root?”  And another, “Can you tell me the distance between Lyra and Cmelopardalis?”  And another, “What is the latitude and longitutde of Snooksville, in Noman’s County, Oregon, US?” (Chapter VIII, p. 165)

Page 202, Tomtoddies vignette, Cotsen 34543

Harold Jones’s illustration of the Tomtoddies imploring Tom to stop and help them. Page 202, Cotsen 34543

This post may squelch most people’s desire to read Kingsley, but perhaps a few will be curious to dip into a story dubbed by its author as “all a fairy tale and only fun and pretense,” that was one of the great children’s best-sellers of all time.  It’s never too late for a Kingsley revival???

Page 15 vignette, Cotsen 15234

Tom talking to his friend the lobster as imagined by Jessie Willcox Smith. Page 15 vignette, Cotsen 15234