During the Big Move–shifting miles of rare materials into RBSC’s cavernous new vault whose completion was celebrated in the previous post, “Moving Day in Feather Town“–I discovered three really awful nineteenth-century books about bad boys. In contemporary children’s books, characters whose halos have slipped down around their shoulders are not exactly underrepresented… Think of Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry, whose antics have given rise to a multi-media empire. Bad boys are by no means non-existent in older children’s books, but the way boyish misbehavior was punished has changed dramatically as attitudes towards authority, curiosity, mischief, and mistakes have become more lenient.
Two well-known stories about bad boys display zero tolerance for boys like Horrid Henry who disrespected authority. In Kings 2:22-3 of the Old Testament, the prophet Elisha passes a pack of young louts on the road to Bethel. These ancestors of the Purple Gang yell at Elisha, “Go up, you old baldy” and Elisha retaliates by cursing them. Two female bears come out of the woods and maul forty-two of the no-goods.
Undoubtedly this gruesome story was the inspiration for many cautionary tales about bad boys. Daniel Fenning’s best-selling school book, The Universal Spelling Book (1756) was the source of this famous one about the brothers Tommy and Harry, which Charles Dickens alluded to in David Copperfield. Harry the elder brother was a rotter and Tommy the younger was a Peter Perfect. Guess which brother was eaten by lions?
By the nineteenth century bad boys are all over picture books, but they usually make mischief in a series of 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–fall into the second category. In Les Proverbes de Pierre (1890), illustrator Jean Geoffrey dresses up his little devils in Pierrot costumes and sets them loose in the classroom and in the street. Notice that it takes a young peep show operator (the one with what looks like a little tower strapped on his back) and the boy-gendarme to break up the squabble below. The second picture shows what can happen 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 the British picture book 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 thinks that once his heavy clothes become waterlogged, he will drown. The boys, who may be working class, show no remorse for what they have done and it looks as if no one will step forward and punish them. . Likewise Leech’s Young Troublesome seems to think nothing of interfering with the servants while they are working, or apologizing when his prank ruins their clothing. 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 it was so risky. From the late eighteenth century onward, it is not especially 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 the little arsonist (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 and possibly launch a heated discussion on childlit-listserv…