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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Choice of Literature for the Young

by Ronald McNeill
Volume 8, no. 9, 1897, pgs. 561-568; 624-630


The title of this paper suggests a preliminary question, which at the present day divides opinion not a little among those especially interested in the upbringing of children. I mean the question whether the reading of young people should be controlled at all by their elders, or whether they should not rather be encouraged--to quote Mr. Ruskin's analogy--to wander at their own freewill among the bookshelves like a fawn in the woods.

Thirty years ago, I suppose, you could scarcely have found a conscientious parent who would not have strenuously held it a duty to regulate carefully the reading of their children, and more especially of their daughters. Girls were generally forbidden absolutely to open any book that had not previously been read and approved by the parent or some equally discreet authority, and that authority was as a rule by no means a lenient censor. In the domain of fiction most of the great masterpieces of literature were forbidden fruit. Shakespeare himself was only tolerated after passing through Dr. Bowler's filtre, lest some unmannerly phrase should come between the wind and the simplicity of the young person. I myself know a woman, one of the most intellectual and gifted of women moreover, who was actually prohibited from reading Adam Bede till long after womanhood had been reached, and who in consequence has never, I believe, to this day read that beautiful book. That was the recognised system in the last generation. The reading of novels was as a whole discouraged. It was thought to be at the best a harmless frivolity, a waste of time only justifiable as a relaxation in some odd half-hour of leisure. This was the kind of view even of persons who considered fiction of other kinds, such as the Greek dramatists, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, to be subjects worthy of serious study. By many others novel-reading was held reprehensible at all times and under all conditions. It is scarcely a matter for surprise that the recoil from such a state of things should have carried many to a position very far in the opposite direction. The opinion is now often expressed, and that too by the most thoughtful and conscientious of parents, many of whom have vivid recollections of the rigour of the ancient regime, that we should exercise no authoritative control over the reading of young people; that what we might think objectionable will in point of fact prove perfectly harmless; that even if we are competent to exercise such a control wisely, the effect of doing so is on the whole injurious rather than otherwise to the character of those it is intended to benefit. It may be assumed that even those who profess to hold this view in its most extreme form are unable really to put it consistently into practice. The most precocious of children will in the first instance read only what is given them to read. The story-books that reach them at Christmas or on birthdays, and that form their libraries, are chosen for them by parents, or uncles, or aunts. Whatever, therefore, may be the theory of any of us, it is clear that the necessity of choosing literature for the young exists, and that the only real question for discussion is one of degree. Opinions may differ as to the principles which should guide the choice, as to them method and extent of control that should be exerted at different ages of the child after he has gained some power of choosing for himself, and as to the age at which all idea of control should be abandoned; but there can be no question in practice of dispensing with control altogether.

The wise course of action lies, as usual, somewhere between the two opposite extremes. With regard to the old-fashioned doctrine of rigid censorship, it is sufficient to observe that even if we could admit it to be desirable, it is practically impossible to carry it out thoroughly enough under existing conditions. It would be attempting to enforce a blockade without the power of making it effective--a proceeding condemned by common sense quite as much as by international law. To make such an attempt would be exasperating, and at the same time futile. How is it possible when all the great novels of the past can be bought for a few pence at every bookstall; when stories like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, or Esther Waters, appear in the pages of weekly illustrated papers; when elaborate analyses of Ibsen's plays, or The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, lie on our breakfast-tables in the daily papers; when the pulpit stimulates curiousity and makes itself absurd by denouncing Robert Elsmere, or eulogising The Sign of the Cross; when everyone you meet is discussing The Yellow Aster, or Flames, or En Route, or The Woman who Did--how is it possible under such conditions to exclude from the attention of intelligent young people the sort of knowledge which it was the object of the last generation, and presumably is still the object of a rigid parental censorship, to exclude? It is reasonable to expect that when every half-penny newspaper reviews half-a-dozen novels per afternoon your growing up boys or girls should refrain from opening a volume till you have first read it and stamped it with your approval?

But even if it were possible, is it certain that it would be desirable? Is the parent always able or willing to keep pace with, and in advance of, the child's reading? There are many parents who are no great readers themselves. There are others who spend their own leisure in reading works on philosophy, or science, or poetry. Is a young girl, say of sixteen, with perhaps a passion for romance, to wait gazing at the binding of some novel that all her friends are discussing, till such a parent finds time or inclination to examine it--and probably be utterly bored by it--and mark it with a chalk-mark of satisfaction like a custom-house official passing a portmanteau? Nor is it by any means certain that if the parent could do this, he or she should be an infallibly good judge of what is best for each of their children to read or leave unread. To begin with, I think there is much truth in the contention that the danger of indiscriminate reading for children is often greatly exaggerated; that what is objectionable makes little or no impression on their minds. But of course this depends very much on the age of the child and its individual temperament. But there is another reason, which I think is sufficient in itself, why we should not stringently regulate the reading of our children. It is because in that case the critical faculty is never called out by exercise at the period when it is most plastic; and consequently when the time comes when the external control must be of necessity be removed, they have never had the training to enable them to discriminate for themselves between good literature and bad, and the result will always be that their judgments will afterwards be formed on wrong principles.

But if these objections may be urged against the old system of regulation, there are weighty objections on the other side against leaving young people too free to choose their own reading. I have said that I think these objections are often exaggerated; but they exist none the less, and should be guarded against. There are books that are absolutely, in their essence, and apart from all considerations of the age and circumstance of the reader, pernicious; and these should be at all hazards kept out of children's way, just as they should also be kept out of our own way if that is possible.

There are others of a different sort which in the case of readers of sufficient experience and judgment may be not only harmless but positively good for them to read, but which it may be a great injustice to a child to be allowed to read too soon. But the conventional view of what is undesirable in books for the young person is as often as not entirely misconceived. It is often taken for granted that any story which introduces the subject of sex should be forbidden, at any rate to girls before they leave the schoolroom. And so long as this is stringently enforced, no more subtle discrimination is as a rule thought necessary by average parents. But this is a double mistake. There are many books in which the incident is concerned with this subject, which are quite harmless and wholly desirable reading for many girls; while, at the same time, some of the most objectionable books are perfectly free from it. Here again much depends on the age of the reader. Thus quite young children will pass over incidents or traits of character, which would arrest their attention and arouse their curiousity a few years later; and they will be content with explanations which a few years later they would reject as insufficient or dishonest.

Of course at no age should any explanation be given a child which is really dishonest; for if there is one thing that children are entitled to as of right from their parents, it is scrupulous truth. Nor should their quite laudable curiousity be crushed by replies that are no answers--that are mere irrelevant 'puts-off' to enquiry. For example, read to a child of nine or ten some simple version of Lancelot and Guinevere. You are sure to be met with some question as to why it was wrong for the Queen to love the bravest of all the knights. You reply that it was not wrong to love him, but that her sin was that she loved him more than Arthur, although she had solemnly promised always to love her husband best. The answer is a real answer to the question; it is a true answer; and it will be accepted as a sufficient answer.

But at a rather later age--say at about 13 or 14, if not sooner--a fuller knowledge of the facts of life will have been gained (from the parents' own lips if they are wise), and then the same story will be read in Tennyson or Malory, and no questions will be asked or explanations required. The full significance will work its own way to the front of the child's consciousness. And it can hardly be imagined that any thoughtful person believes that the reading of that lovely and pathetic old romance could stain in the slightest degree the purest mind, when all motive of mere unsatisfied curiousity has been thus removed by deliberately imparted knowledge beforehand.

Another reason why the difficulty really does not present itself with the quite young child is that these books conventionally regarded as most objectionable--unless in the case of exceptionally precocious children--would often be found intolerably dull, and would therefore make no impression. Of course I am not suggesting that such books should be thrown in their way. But it occasionally happens that a child hears a book mentioned, perhaps somewhat mysteriously, by an elder, and immediately becomes anxious to read it. In such a case if you prohibit it, you merely stimulate curiousity (I always think if I were a Catholic the books I should most ardently long to read would be those on the Index), and when the book is read afterwards--perhaps at an age when it is really much more open to objection--the mind is on the alert to discover the reason for the previous prohibition, with the result that those aspects of the book which would otherwise have been slurred over, unobserved, or taken for granted, are taken out of their proper perspective, and unduly emphasised in the reader's attention.

But if it be true that books which introduce incidents connected with the question of sex are often perfectly harmless, it is equally true that numerous books which as a rule pass without question through the conventional censorship of the parent, are not at all harmless. I mean books which, without containing any single incident that you could pick out as objectionable in itself, are written altogether from an undesirable point of view--the point of view which is apt to narrow instead of expanding the sympathies, or to make children self-conscious or priggish, or opinionated; which make love-making and marriage-at-any-price the single aim of a girl's endeavours; or which emphasise the distinction between mistress and servant, and represent accidents of social difference as if they were as eternal and vital as the moral law. To this list I would add that class of goody-goody story, composed of religion and water--happily very uncommon now--in which naughty children fall into the river because they go larking on Sunday, and drummer-boys are saved from bullets by a Bible in their breast-pocket. Such stuff as this only leads children, when they get a little knowledge and sense, to look back with scorn instead of reverence to the religious ideas instilled in childhood. Then again, there are books which to be harmless require to be read by a person of sufficient experience of life to gauge the value of the picture of life presented to the reader; to distinguish accidents from types, satire from narrative, caricature from portraiture; books which cynically represent all life as frivolous, all society as selfish and flippant, all men as sordid, all women as intriguers--which, like Vivien, would leave

"Not even Lancelot brave, nor Galahad clean."

These are bad for the young, not because there is fear of their soiling the mind in the ordinary sense of the word, but because they may warp the judgment, destroy that balance of mind in weighing social life and institutions which is the spring of all that is valuable in opinion, and sow the seed of an unjust and untrue pessimism, cynicism, and scorn of men and things. A child naturally has not learnt that exaggeration is a legitimate device of rhetoric for enforcing a single aspect of life. We ourselves can read Dodos and Dolly Dialogues and the rest, and enjoy their wit and point without harm, because we know them to be caricatures of exceptional sports of Nature; and we have no inclination to accept a picture of a heartless, selfish, empty-headed, petted woman as a model for imitation, or as a true portrait of what is successful, happy, and lovable in life. But the child that has no experience of the bigness of life may not be able to discount these things at their true value, or perceive the true perspective; and for them such books are certainly not to be desired during the most formative years of the character. And if there be any truth in the belief now held by a good many, as to the powerful influence of mere unconscious mental suggestion, not only on the character but even on the physical health, of course it is still more important to guard the young against the entrance into their minds--even into that region of the mind which is not supplying conscious thoughts--of whatever is not lovely and of good report.

It must not be forgotten, that what is harmless at one age may be harmful at another. It can only be left to the judgment of the parent to decide when the change occurs. This is the more difficult because in addition to the question of age (and largely affecting it) is the question of individual temperament, which must be closely studied and intimately known by any parent who undertakes to choose literature for the young. It does not follow because a certain book has been quite wisely recommended to her own children by some friend in whose judgment you have confidence, that therefore it is desirable reading for your boys and girls. It does not even follow that what is suitable for some or one of your own children is suitable for the others, any more than it follows that a tonic prescribed for one is required by the rest of the family. This is what makes it so impossible to generalise on this subject. It may very well be the case that those who maintain that no control or choice whatever is desirable, have found such a system--so far as it is possible to give effect to it--satisfactory in their own experience as parents: it by no means follows that it would be satisfactory in the experience of anyone else. This matter of individual temperament is indeed all important. One of our children for example--more especially perhaps one of our boys--may urgently require to have the emotion of sympathy aroused, the sense of pathos stimulated, or the imagination excited. For such a one, the tales of adventure where perhaps deeds of oppression or cruelty or bloodshed, even if not held up for admiration, are passed over as matters of course, might be more infinitely more harmful than the outspokenness of the most outspoken New Woman; while on the other hand such stirring yarns might be most wholesome food for children of a different disposition. There is no more exquisite child's book than Mrs. Ewing's Story of a Short Life, but I should imagine there are many little girls quivering with sensibility and too keenly responsive to all sadness and pathos, to whom it ought to be a closed book.

We have seen that though some amount of selection of literature for the young is required, there are pretty formidable difficulties in the way of carrying it out, and it is clear that it is almost impossible to formulate anything like a definite general principle for our guidance. But when we come to deal with those who are no longer quite young children--those between the ages, let us say, of thirteen and eighteen--the principles are, perhaps, rather more clearly definable. This is because reading may then be directed towards a more definite purpose, although of course the consideration of individual temperament must still be kept in view. With quite young children (say under twelve years old), I suppose the main purpose of books is to amuse, to occupy the mind, to form the habit of reading. But as the mind matures, literature should begin to be something more high and serious than this. Not that these cease to be a function of books, but that they acquire a larger meaning, and that to them something more high and serious is added.

Mere "amusement" merges in a higher species of delight, for which "amusement" is an inadequate and inappropriate term; occupation of mind remains a good aim, but it becomes of paramount importance that the occupation be a worthy and not an unworthy one; the habit of reading requires still to be encouraged, but it will also require to be directed into definite channels and concentrated towards definite ends. Here then is a clear objective for the aim of those who have to choose literature for the young after the age of early childhood. Reversing the order of the aims just enumerated, the end in view is to guide the choice of books so as to form a habit of systematic, not of desultory reading; so as to occupy the mind with the best thoughts of the best writers; and to show the delight that such reading must give if it is to have any effect beyond a graceful waste of time. In other words the aim is--culture, according to the definition of that greatly abused and misused word given by Matthew Arnold--"to know the best that has been thought and said."

But before it is possible to find that delight in the best that has been thought and said, which is essential to any true knowledge of it, it is necessary to be able in some measure to recognise what is best; not only to be able to tell the good from the bad, but the good from the best. We have to learn to know what is good in literature as we learn to know good wine, by education of the literary palate. We have to awaken the critical faculty, and when it is awake, train it. As Montesquieu says, "The first motive which ought to impel us to study is the desire to augment the excellence of our nature, and to render an intelligent being still more intelligent."

Unhappily there is no infallible recipe for training the critical faculty, no recognised method, no accepted school. We live in a period not only of literary mediocrity, but of literary anarchy. Authority is scouted. We have no kings by divine right, no dictators of unchallenged perogative.

But there must be some way of saving our children from falling into the literary criminal classes and preferring Marie Corelli to Meredith, or holding an opinion of Shakespeare like that of King George IV or Mr. Bernard Shaw. We have all heard of the girl who in a "Confession Album" entered as her favourite poets, "Shakespeare and Mrs. Hemans"! How are such sad things as these to be avoided? I know of no prescription unless it be that of Guinevere in Tennyson's Idyll--"We needs must love the highest when we see it." But the "seeing" must be an early acquired habit. The only [remedy?] is to have a high standard of excellence presented to us early. Care must be taken, however, not to force the pace. You must not expect or wish children of one age to appreciate what is only suitable for the digestion of another age. You would not expect a boy of fifteen or sixteen to derive from Wordsworth--

"Sensations sweet
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into the purer mind, with tranquil restoration."

For Wordsworth, like milk pudding is simple and wholesome, but the taste for his verses only comes with maturer years; and "tranquil restoration" is the last thing needed by a healthy school-boy. Still less, of course, would you expect a youth to find pleasure in The Ring and the Book, or In Memoriam, and if you were to be foolish enough to select such things for his reading, you would have only yourself to blame if he went through life with the conviction that "poetry is all 'rot.'"

But give him Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake, and The Revenge, The Relief of Lucknow, and a little later Enoch Arden, The Idylls of the King, and Childe Harold. The fancy will be caught by the romance, the ear captivated by the rhyme and rhythm, the sense of fitness will gradually respond to the appropriateness of epithet and metaphor and imagery. Later on the attention will fasten on the curiosa felicitas of verbal nicety, and, as the mind and taste expand, the fitness of poetic expression and poetic method as a vehicle for high thought comes to be recognised. And if the taste be thus trained by the habit of seeing these tools used by master hands it will acquire the power of detecting the botched work of fumblers; of discriminating, as Carlyle says, between the artist and artisan; of feeling instinctively the contrast of whatever is trivial, weak, shallow or mediocre. For, if we think of it, the critical faculty, like every other faculty, is something that in greater or less degree is latent within each of us. You cannot implant it by any process from outside; you can only draw it out from within and develop it by suitable exercise, just as you develop the boy's biceps in the gymnasium or his lungs in the football field.

And so your choice of literature should be like the choice of exercises by the gymnastic instructor, suited to the age and capacity of the individual, but all directed towards attaining as far as possible to the same ideal. He will not set a small boy to a feat performed by a professional "Strong Man" at the Aquarium, nor will you select Samson Agonistes for a child's reading. But he will train the growing muscles with light dumb bells and easy trapeze work, gradually increasing weight and difficulty, but always with the standard of the strong man in his mind, and always adapted to the boy's development at the moment. In the same way you will guide the reading of your young people by setting before them always what is excellent of its kind, always suited to their development of taste and power at the moment, and always with the aim of leading them to recognise the minute gradations of literary excellence.

The biographer of that extraordinarily gifted woman, Jenny Lind, tells us that, although her judgments of books, as of everything else, were touched by genius, yet, because she had had no systematic literary training in her youth, she was always "at the mercy of any book that interested her." That is an admirable description. How many are "at the mercy of any book that interests them"! What is meant is, of course, that if the story of a novel, or the subject matter of a book interests them, they are blind to its faults from the literary point of view--faults of style, of construction, of language, of proportion; just as they may be blind to the daubiness of a picture if it presents an interesting subject matter, and thus fail to perceive wherein likes the superiority of a Tintoretto or a Gainsborough to some cheap print telling a melodramatic story. And the converse is equally true--if the story of a novel is not to their liking, or the characters not such as they would care to live with, it may be faultlessly constructed, written with an exquisite fitness of words and perfection of style, and the material handled with that broad sane judgment and artistic balance that denotes the hand of a master, and full of strong thought and keen insight, without appealing in the least to their instinct of beauty. Newman tells us--or is it Dean Church?--that during the Catholic revival at Oxford, no one would acknowledge Milton to be a great poet. Compare this with the delightful appreciation of the great Puritan shown by Mr. Frederick Harrison, who certainly has as little care for Protestant theology as Newman himself. The man or woman who can thus discriminate between the best and what is only second-rate, gets from books the highest pleasure, just as the highest pleasure in music is reserved for him who has no doubts as to the relative places of a Beethoven and a Gounod, a Wagner and a Meyerbeer.

But of course there is far more in it than mere pleasure. The influence of literature, subtle as it is and hard to define, is one of the most important elements in education, if education is the formation of character and the development of faculty; for it is the influence which more than anything else gives us--whether we naturally belong to the Barbarians or the Philistines--some measure of sweetness and light.

This may be thought a digression. But my purpose is to show that in choosing literature for the young, our object should be to draw out this latent critical faculty by always presenting a high standard proportionate to their stage of development. It will be remembered that one of the aims we set out with was to form the habit of methodical, not desultory reading. If you read two books on the same subject from different stand-points, the impression left is more than double what remains after reading one only. The habit of concentration may be stimulated by encouraging the association of reading with some other pursuit, or with the child's regular lessons, though it will probably be best not to let it appear too openly that that is your object. Thus if children are learning some English History, it will not be difficult to find stories by Miss Young or Mr. Henty, and above all--if the children are not too young--by Sir Walter himself, which will excite their intensest interest in the period they are reading about; or if the children love as they should their pencils and paint brushes, and are as eagerly on the outlook for subjects as a hungry journalist for "copy," you can take down Kingsley's Heroes or Professor Church's lovely stories from Homer, or some one of the many excellent children's version of the Arthurian legends, or the Nibelungenlied, and tell them to read a story and then paint an illustration of it. Or a gain, perhaps you have lately been to the Lyceum. You tell them about the play you have seen and excite their interest. This will serve as an introduction to Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare or even to the plays themselves.

Happily there is no difficulty nowadays in finding books which will interest and at the same time present a high standard. But just as in the case of poetry we should be careful not to go too fast--not to set Wordsworth or Browning before those who can as yet only digest Scott, or Tennyson's ballads, or Macaulay's Lays--so, in prose fiction we naturally should not expect mere children to worship at the shrine of George Meredith or even to perceive the richness of Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. But it is a happy thing for modern children that writers in the front rank of authors are willing to devote themselves to producing books for children--books, moreover, which from the excellence of their literary qualities, no one can be too old to enjoy--such books, for instance, as Mrs. Ewing's and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett's stories, or the Jungle Books of Rudyard Kipling. For a later period there are the splendid romances of Stevenson, with his grand original style, acquired, as he has told us, by "playing the sedulous ape" to older masters. Then in good time, as the mind grows and thought begins to be more active in investigation and reflection on human character and the puzzles of the situations of life, they will be ready to read Thackeray with some appreciation, and to be entranced by Silas Marner, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss.

One of the great functions of reading, and especially of novel reading (which is in reality one of the most important influences in education), is to widen the sympathies by throwing the reader into a larger circle of life than his own; by putting on his head Teufelsdrockh's magic hat, that annihilates time and space. This is what the great books do so magnificently, and what the second and third-rate books do so miserably and falsely. Think of the splendid series of experiences that becomes the possession of the boy or girl when first they have read through the eight great books of George Eliot. What a world is opened up even by a single novel like Romola; what sympathies are stirred by Adam Bede; what insight into the misunderstandings that flow from mere differences of character is the gift of The Mill on the Floss; what realisation of the struggle between generous ideals and mean circumstances is awakened by Middlemarch!

If the taste of young people be gradually formed and developed by such steps and such standards as these, until they arrive at love for Stevenson, Scott, Austen, the Brontes, Thackeray, George Eliot, Meredith, they will at least have a fair chance of escape from being "at the mercy of every book that interests them," or of being captivated by Superfluous Women, Women who Did, Heavenly Twins, Mighty Atoms, and the rest of the ephemeral brood. They will gain too sensitive an ear to desire Keynotes or Discords.

But all this leaves one important consideration untouched. What, it may be asked, is to be done with that class of books which no one can deny to possess high literary merit, but which treat "objectionable" topics with greater realism of presentment than is to be found in the older and greater masterpieces like Adam Bede or Rhoda Fleming? Would not the very principles here advocated lead young people to read with admiration such books as Mr. George Moor's Esther Waters, and the later works of Mr. Hardy; and is that a conclusion in which a right-minded parent ought to acquiesce? Here again one is met by the impossibility of framing any answer of universal application. But the nearest approach to a general rule seems to be, that while openly enforced prohibition is often harmful, such books as these are really almost incapable of doing any true injury to the character of any boy or girl, provided they have been carefully and wisely brought up. Of course what has been said in preceding pages, respecting age and temperament, is here specially applicable. Mere children would be almost as unlikely to read twenty pages of Jude the Obscure as twenty lines of Sordello; and if they did it would be about equally injurious to them. Before they reach the age when such a book would have any attraction for them their knowledge should be such that the book would have nothing to teach them as to matters of simple fact. And if that were so, what would there be in it to hurt them? Once get rid of the notion--and we whose children will be the children of the twentieth century must get rid of it whether we like it or not--that we can bring our girls to the threshold of womanhood, if not even beyond it, equipped in ignorance--get rid of this notion, and our alarm at much of the literature we find on each other's drawing-room tables will be found to have no sufficient foundation.

By all means let those who cannot shake off this alarm be careful, so far as possible, to keep such books from falling in the way of their school girls (our boys, who probably require protection much more than their sisters, we never think of protecting once they have gone to school at about ten!); but depend upon it, that if the volumes that are in every friend's house from the circulating library if not your own, are placed upon a prohibited list, you are more likely to arouse a dangerous curiousity and perhaps provoke deception and the tasting of forbidden fruit, than you are to shield your child from any real danger lurking on the printed pages.


Proofread by Phyllis Hunsucker, Feb 2013