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?
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?
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.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.
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).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.
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…