Childrens literature - it is clear that some material from nonsense books such as Alice In Wonderland and Lears Book Of Nonsense is merely that, nonsense, and to pull meaning from it would kill it as some theorists suggests. However, there is arguably

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200703824        Classics of British Children’s Literature        Valerie Sanders


Sameness and difference is the essence of children’s books; they have many recurrent ideas’ (Peter Hunt in Maybin and Watson 2009:71). Discuss some of the ‘recurrent ideas’ you have noticed in any TWO children’s texts from this module, and explain why you think they are so important to children’s writers.

Nonsense writing for children advanced through the seventeenth century and became most evidentin the nineteenth century with the work of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.  Before the early modern era ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’ (Aries 1962: 125). Before this time children were regarded as miniature adults, they drank alcohol like adults, gambled for money at cards and enjoyed similar amusements. Ivian Illich stated that childhood was a socially created phenomenon which was an ongoing process from the thirteenth century and was not fully achieved until the 17th century. Earliest examples of children’s literature was defined as ‘the pedagogy of fear: socialisation’ (Morrison & Bell 1996: 126). Didactism was throughout a lot of children’s literature in the early 17th century until the rise of Lear and Carroll’s nonsense writing. Nonsense writing was characterised by limericks, tales, poems and tongue twisters, often supplemented with outrageous illustrations to explain the prose. Most people at the time and indeed the vast majority today consider this writing as merely nonsense, meaningless prose and illustration designed solely to entertain children and insight their imagination but their work can also be seen as a chance to state how they feel about society in their nonsense writing, both authors including many similar attributes of escapism, food, and time to show their views.

This opinion is indeed favoured by many critics who regard nonsense writing as an excellent way to excite children, away from the didactic and moral stories expressed in most books for children at the time. Examples of such nonsense is featured in Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and Lear’s Book of Nonsense and Nonsense Songs.  Both books use the familiar theme of food and people used and featured in imaginative situations.  Food is perhaps the primary desire of young children to whom sex is inaccessible; therefore using food in this way would grab their attention.  It is also suggested that animals are frequently used in these books because of their innocence that takes them away from complications and teachings of adult life.  Dilworth agrees with this point, suggesting some of Lear’s limericks ‘resist any temptation because their meaning is minimal, or […] pure nonsense (Dilworth 1994: 44).  Examples of these include the nonsense alphabet and many of Lear’s limericks from The Book of Nonsense, including the old man who sees a bird in a bush; ‘when they said-‘is it small?’ He replied-‘Not at all! Its four times as big as the bush!’ (42). This extract is quite meaningless and would resist social and cultural interpretation from all but the most zealous readers.  Alice in Wonderland has also been represented as meaningless by some critiques; indeed Gillian Avery describes this book as ‘the beginning of undidactic entertainment, the supreme example of nonsense’ (Avery 1987: 299).  This interpretation has perhaps been drawn from the fantasized world of animal characters and the pre-occupation with the pointless games with no winners and riddles with no answers.

However, there are many critics who argue against this and suggest that there are meanings behind nonsense writing, especially in the work of Lear and Carroll.  It is argued their work is laden with social interpretation and to pull meaning from it does not ‘kill it’ but in fact, explores and develops it, putting it in context with society and time.  These critics would initially suggest that the obsession with food in both Alice in Wonderland and The Book Of Nonsense is a representation of the greed in society at a time of starvation and hardship in the Victorian period.  Alice’s greed leads her into some awkward positions and changes in size for instance.  Lear’s work is perhaps more explicit on this subject, evident with the Old man of Calcutta who gorged on bread and butter until ‘a great bit of muffin, on which he was stuffing, Choked that horrid old man of Calcutta’ (37).  This man’s greed has led to his ultimate downfall in society, both on his destruction by choking and his label of ‘horrid’ by the other members of society.   It has been argued that this is the main underlying theme of Lear’s work, that of the relationship between the self and society.  Prickett suggests Lear’s limericks are ‘the most highly organised and, in many ways, the most rigidly controlled of all forms of fantasy’ (Prikett 1979: 126).  The individual is sometimes aided by society such as the Man of Prague who is cured of the plague (25) and The Old Man of Nepaul who is glued back together (27).  However, Dilworth notes that ‘such harmony is rare […] (and) usually society is at odds with the individual, who is often an artist, and usually disastrous for the individual’ (Dilworth 1994: 42).  An example of this and perhaps one of Lear’s most discussed and criticized limerick is the Old Man of Whitehaven:

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There was an Old man of Whitehaven

Who Danced a Quadrille with a Raven;

But they said-‘It’s absurd, to encourage this bird!’

So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.     (39)

This is intriguing as it displays social disapproval and outcry to eccentric figures such as the individual dancing with the bird.  The ‘quadrille’ is a traditional dance of eight and therefore, to reduce this small community to two is going against social norms, which ‘is why the objection of society to this dance begins’ (Dilworth 1994: 45).  Racial and sexual elements have also been analysed ...

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