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Children’s Literature: Didactic Fiction vs. Fantasy

The Comic Adventures of Mother Hubbard and Her Dog
Sarah Catherine Martin’s The Comic Adventures of Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (1805) was extremely popular with both children and adults when it was first published. In only a few months it sold 10,000 copies and 20 editions of it were published over the course of a year.
While some Romantic fiction and poetry written for adult readers features children, the period also contains literature specifically for children. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a niche market for children’s literature grew. This trend continued into the nineteenth century as more writers created fiction for children. For middle-class adolescent readers, appropriate literature was thought to act as a civilizing force. Many thought that if parents monitored what their children read, literature could reinforce middle-class values to help children understand the role their parents wanted them to play in society as they matured. Some fiction was overtly didactic and transparently conveyed the values that parents and authors wished to transmit, such as developing a conscience, learning morality, fostering compassion for others, and generally improving social relations. Some popular examples of children’s literature were Dorothy Kilner’s epistolary novel, First Going to School, or the Story of Tom Brown and His Sisters (1804), Sarah Catherine Martin’s The Comic Adventures of Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (1805), and Maria Edgeworth’s works for children including Early Lessons (1801) and Moral Tales (1801). More fantasy fiction also began to be popular, paving the way for the Golden Age of children’s literature during the Victorian period. During the Romantic period, Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate, created the fairy tale “The Three Little Bears,” combining the fantasy of fairy tales with a morality approved of by parents. Fantastical children’s literature still had the potential to convey middle-class morals, as exemplified by many fairy tales. Fantasy opened up the more imaginative aspects of children’s literature, while retaining the moral teachings of earlier tales for children.

Stephanie Metz

Select Bibliography

Knoepflmacher, U.C. Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, Femininity. Chicago: The U of Chicago P,
     1998. Print.

O’Malley, Andrew. The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth
New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Trumpener, Kate. “Tales for Child Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Fiction in the Romantic Period. Ed.
     Richard Maxwell and Katie Trumpener. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.