Class Consciousness


One of the most significant didactic purposes of children's literature was to reinforce the social structure of the time period and particular, reinforcing class boundaries. This manifested itself in numerous ways.

Both the primary audience and authors of children's literature were from the upper classes of society, and the books reflect it. Only wealthy children from the aristocracy or middle classes had money to purchase books (a book might have cost a sixpence), so the reading catered to that group of people. The numbers of upper class characters was large and disproportionate compared to the number of poor characters, and in general the upper class was portrayed in a positive light. And while wealthy characters had all sorts of personalities, in general their good points were emphasized.33 The painting on the left, "The Wood Children" by Joseph Wright, depicts such well behaved wealthy children.




This is not to say that poor characters made no appearances. When they did, however, they were often recipients of the charity of wealthy characters. Mary Ann Kilner, in her story Memoirs of A Peg-Top, tells of the rich Mr. Jackson who assists a poor old woman who has been the victim of vandalism by some boys. In The Life and Perambulation of A Mouse, a tale by Dorothy Kilner, a wealthy boy brings a poor little girl a piece of cake. Stories such as these encouraged the wealthy to take pity on hard-working poor people, who were supposed to be content with their lot. Lazy or begging members of the working class, however, were painted in a very negative light. Such a portrayal might have looked something like "Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting", by Thomas Gainsborough.

In addition, many characters in such literature commented on the class structure and concluded that it was a good one. In The Canary Bird, by Alicia Catharine Mant, the canary remarks that he has heard a "sensible looking man" say that the distinctions between the classes "must be kept up.... If mankind do not wish to see a chaotic confusion in society." Other wealthy characters vehemently oppose any connection to the lower classes. Mrs. Fry, an upper class mother of the story The Adventures of a Doll, is offended by two lower class girls because they have the same name as her wealthy daughter. 32