‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Realism and Children's Literature

Here's a bit from Elizabeth Segel's ‘Realism and Children's Literature: Notes from a Historical Perspective’ [Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 5:3 (1980), 15-18]:
Realism in the sense of verisimilitude, or a faithful mirroring of actual experience, has been present in works of many periods and genres. In the Illiad's scene of Hector's leavetaking from his wife and infant son (Book VI), for instance, the image of the child clinging to his nurse, fearful of his father's plumed helmet, stands out from the poem's supernatural events and heroic texture in its close fidelity to observed experience. Realism in a narrower sense refers, however, to a literary movement that began to take shape with Defoe's fictions in the early eighteenth century and came into full flower in the English and French novels of the 1850's. This movement consisted of (1) a set of attitudes concerning the proper subject-matter and aims of the novel and (2) particular methods for achieving these aims.

The practitioners of realism rejected the conventional plots and stereotyped characters of romance in favor of a form that would reflect more accurately the random and inconclusive nature of actual events and the complex individuality of actual people. In place of the romantic-idealist philosophy that art should limit itself to depicting the beautiful, realism adopted the premise that the novel should be "a full and authentic report of human experience," in Ian Watt's phrase.

This conception of the novel determined its characteristic subject-matter: everyday events, particularized settings, and characters from all ranks of life. The distinctive techniques of realism included a predominantly plain narrative style and the use of detail to particularize time, place and character.

In assessing the impact of the realistic movement on children's literature one is first struck by the absolute incompatibility between the aims of most writers for children and the aims of the realistic school. Juvenile authors saw their mission as shaping the young reader's character and believed in the efficacy of presenting ideal types of vice and virtue to that end; the result was a far cry from "a full and authentic report of human experience." Yet, adult purposes notwithstanding, realism has been a shaping force in children's literature ever since young readers appropriated for themselves that ground-breaking realistic fiction, Robinson Crusoe. This is no doubt because certain of the distinctive qualities of formal realism are very much in tune with the child's perception of the world and therefore with his/her aesthetic preferences.

The dismissal of fantasy as frivolous and immoral by educators of all persuasions prior to the mid-nineteenth century meant that in those years most books written specifically for children took as their subject everyday events in contemporary settings. Yet they are certainly not examples of realism. Speaking of U. S. children's books, Anne Scott MacLeod writes: "According to its creators, the fiction written for children before 1860 was realistic ... In fact, of course, the realism in juvenile books was always subordinated to didacticism. Both consciously and unconsciously, the authors edited reality in order to teach morality ... " MacLeod uses the term "nonfantasy fiction" to describe this literature rather than the misleading "realistic fiction."

This view that children's books were instruments for shaping child character dictated that instead of the realists' psychological complexity in characterization, one had schematized simplicity: lazy vs. industrious apprentices, Sanford vs. Merton. Since obedience to authority was the chief virtue juvenile authors sought to drum into little heads, adult characters in authority tended to be drawn as paragons of wisdom and virtue.

Consequently, few if any children's books before the twentieth century stand as thorough-going instances of formal realism. Yet many outstanding children's books of the past 150 years benefited from the example of the realists, and the character of children's books today owes a great deal to the realistic movement.
Pondering this. I don't as it happens think that 'the fiction written for children before 1860 was realistic' is a correct statement -- I'd say that the fiction written for children before 1860 was Romantic in the fullest sense, and indeed (via the success of the folk-art-y, and thoroughly Fantastical, Grimms' Tales) actually informed the shaping of Romanticism as a movement. There certainly was 'realist' children's fiction written in the nineteenth-century, much of it explicitly didactic in purpose; but it just didn't enjoy the success or cultural longevity of fantasy like The Water Babies, Wind in the Willows Peter Pan or Five Children and It. Compare the relative success of Lewis Carroll's Fantasy Alice books and the more serious social-didactic actual-world strands in his feeble Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). The later are bad books, in part because they are dull books (a fairyland strand runs alongside the social realist strand, but gets stifled by it).

On the other hand, I've been going through Jacqueline Wilson novels all week, prior to lecturing on them tomorrow; and her success is clearly grounded in the textual strategies of the Realist tradition (although simplified and cartoonified, in a good sense). I'm struck that Wilson, though undeniably hugely popular and important, stands outside the main current of 21st-C YA writing. What's going on here, I wonder? (In particular: 'certain of the distinctive qualities of formal realism are very much in tune with the child's perception of the world and therefore with his/her aesthetic preferences' feels wrong to me. Am I fooling myself?)


  1. Growing up as a churchgoer, I asked my father once why we had Creeds, these great laundry-lists of things 'we' believe. He said that the way to read a Creed was (or would originally have been) by what it excludes: they all say "we believe A, B and C", but what they really mean is "we're not like those bastards who believe X, Y and Z". Similarly, I think the idea that C19 realism "rejected the conventional plots and stereotyped characters of romance", as an analytical statement, wouldn't survive very much exposure to actual examples C19 realism. As a programmatic statement - "we're doing something different from those guys, with their [what we consider to be] conventional plots and [what we recognise as] stereotyped characters" - it works much better.

    That said, I think the idea of making authorial intention a marker for realism or its absence needs to be handled with care. If Eric, or, Little by Little wasn't 'realism' because it was selective and didactic, what do we make of Michael Armstrong the Factory Boy - or Mary Barton? Or for that matter Middlemarch, whose narrator quite openly has lessons she wants the reader to benefit from. And saying that Farrar wrote didactically by editing out the details, whereas Mrs Gaskell wrote didactically by including them, would have got you a very hard stare from my Director of Studies - certainly that's what she thought she was doing, but it's what Farrar thought he was doing too (for different values of 'details'). Every writer selects (if only from the infinite Borgesian wilds where all possible things to write are waiting to be selected).

    I've been going through Jacqueline Wilson novels all week, prior to lecturing on them tomorrow

    I envy your job sometimes!

    When somebody says they've finished a book in our house, the automatic response is "Happy ending?" (Or does everyone do this?) In the case of Jacqueline Wilson this can be quite an interesting question - when my daughter was in her peak JW phase (aet. 11-13) we used to have quite long discussions of just how 'happy' a particular ending was. The touchstone was Cookie, which starts skin-crawlingly grim but seems about to end happily (and fairly realistically) when she pulls out a strange wish-fulfilment ending, which is so fantastically happy it nearly capsizes the book; we'd locate happy endings on a scale running from Cookie to The Illustrated Mum ("my mother's been sectioned again, but perhaps this time she'll take her tablets").

  2. Phil: you're absolutely right about 'realism'. I was taught by a lecturer who grew incandescent if we referred to a novel as 'realist', since for him 'Realism' meant a clutch of novels by Tolstoy, Zola, Gissing and that was it. Not Dickens, not Balzac, not even Eliot qualified, where the shaping force of (at root: Romance) plotting bent the arbitrariness of actual life out of shape. But children's literature is almost never like this, and certainly wasn't in the 19th-C.

    Jacqueline Wilson post to follow later today! Her endings are fascinating, I agree. Only occasionally do you get a sense of her caving in to the need to let her characters off suffering, or providing the sort of idealised artificial happy ending (Vicky Angel is an exception, but then it starts unusually grim, and goes on that way for a while; so the It's A Wonderful Life ending feels like it's balancing things out).