Children’s Books for Christmas 1871

Sing-Song: a Nursery-rhyme Book. By Christina G. Rossetti. With 120 Illustrations by Arthur Hughes. Routledge.
The Princess and the Goblin. By George Macdonald. Strahan.
Through the Looking-glass, and what Alice saw there. By the Author of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Macmillan.
More Nonsense; Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, &c. By Edward Lear. Bush.

It is pleasant to see children’s literature get better as it does year by year in England. This season in particular has produced a crop of books that are delightful for them— for the children—but more delightful still, perhaps, for some among their elders; since no child, in the most enchanted eagerness of its single-minded attention and fancy, knows so full or so subtly mingled a pleasure in the best of these things as the properly constituted grown-up reader. The adult spirit here finds the reward of its affliction of self-consciousness. While the attention, the fancy, can let themselves go, and be as those of a child, following the fun or movement of the tale with all the old mirth, the old breathlessness, there lingers, beneath such abeyance of criticism, a more complex self looking on somewhere in the background, aware of the revival of ancient spells, and pleased to feel them work:—you have your own enjoyment to enjoy as well as its object, you have a hundred causes of pathetic entertainment side by side with the old absorption.

The volume written by Miss Rossetti, and illustrated by Mr. Hughes (not, by the way, a matter of story-telling but of song-singing), is one of the most exquisite of its class ever seen, in which the poet and artist have continually had parallel felicities of inspiration—each little rhyme having its separate and carefully engraved head-piece. In the form of the poetry the book answers literally to its title, and consists of nothing but short rhymes as simple in sound as those immemorially sung in nurseries—one only, of exceptional length, containing as many as nine verses—and having always a music suited to baby ears, though sometimes a depth of pathos or suggestion far enough transcending baby apprehension. But both in pictures and poetry, provided they have the simple turn, and the appeal to everyday experience and curiosity, which makes them attractive to children at first sight and hearing, the ulterior, intenser quality of many of these must in an unrealised way constitute added value, we should say, even for children. The pieces range, indeed, as to matter, from the extreme of infant punning and catchy triviality to the extreme, in an imaginative sense, of delicate penetration and pregnancy, with an almost equal grace of manner in either case; here is an example of the latter:—

“What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief? to-day and tomorrow:
What are frail? spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? the ocean and truth.”

And this is illustrated with one of the best of Mr. Hughes’ landscape cuts—a still, flat sea flooded with moonlight, under a black sky, with a child’s sand-castle going to pieces at its edge. There are some dealing with death—a motherless baby, a ring of three dancers from which one is caught away—in just the right mood of tender thought and plaintive wonder, striking the mere note of loss, unexplained disappearance, the falling of an unknown shadow, with the loveliest feeling; and many about out-door things, birds and flowers, animated with an intimate fanciful charity, or having sometimes a little ethical conclusion, of which the lesson cannot fail to find its way home. In tuning the simplest fancies or hints of fragmentary idea, Miss Rossetti cannot lose the habit or instinct of an artist; and the style and cadence of these tiny verses are as finished and individual, sometimes as beautiful in regard of their theme, as they can be, and not much recalling any precedent, except in a few cases that of Blake. We would direct the reader to pp. 6, 13, 21, 38, 40, 120, for perfect scraps of art in their way. Mr. Hughes’ illustrations, many of them lovely and full of imagination as we have said, and always seconding the suggestion of the verse, are not quite equal, and the sentiment is sometimes in advance of the design: but what can be more delightful than the child feeding birds at the winter window on p. 8, or its vis-à-vis supping porridge in the ingle, or the lambs and ducklings of pp. 27 and 29, or the landscapes of pp. 35 and 79, or the pathetic dance of p. 73, or the pancake-making (79), or, indeed, a full half of them all.

Mr. George Macdonald is a poet also, and in his Light Princess had already achieved a humorous and imaginative success in that most difficult of all tasks, the invention of contemporary mythology for children. We should say that with this writer, more than most, it was hit or miss; other pieces in the volume containing The Light Princess we should count misses. Here, again, and on a larger scale than before, the hit is palpable and delightful. The Princess and the Goblin does not perhaps contain any invention so felicitous as that of the child to whom an evil fairy had denied the physical property of gravity; but it is a thoroughly beautiful and enjoyable story, and its machinery of princess and nurse, heroic miner-boy, evil subterranean goblins, and beneficent supernatural grandmother in her tower, thoroughly calculated to take hold of the imagination of readers of all ages. The suppressed personage within our grown-up reader will be knowing enough to observe, from his background, that there is allegory in all this; aware of the religious and ethical pre-occupations of the writer’s genius, he will guess what the beneficent grandmother is meant more or less explicitly to stand for—will, if he chooses, be able to note how it is even the moral and religious foundation that has stimulated the writer’s invention and developed the turns and incidents of the story. But all this really does not at all spoil this charming fable, as it has so many others; the narrative and scenic parts of it are conceived with a vividness of their own, alongside of the ethical part of the conception; the characters are delightfully dramatic, and there is nothing strained in the tone of purity and elevation which is given to them. Against unction, when unction passes into such bright imaginative devices as these, and only gives a peculiar ring and fervour to their pathos or their humour, the most uncompromising opponent of moral story-writing can have nothing to protest. Mr. Macdonald in this story is long, detailed; but he has the art of having been there (so to speak); and the attention never flags during all the adventures of the little Irene with her mystic friend in the tower, and the brave Curdie with his goblin enemies in the mine. The sympathetic talent of Mr. Hughes in this volume again has been employed in furtherance of the writer’s fancy,and his designs (though not so fully in his choicest manner, perhaps, as those we last spoke of) are very delicate and ingenious.

We pass from poetical enchantment to prose fun in passing from the work of Mr. Macdonald to that of Mr. “Lewis Carroll”—from the transformation scene to the harlequinade, if one may venture that imperfect parallel. Through the Looking-glass is a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, and has the misfortune of all sequels—that it is not a commencement. An author who continues himself loses the effect, although not the merit, of his originality; and in its originality lay half the charm of the old “Alice.” No reader will have the sense of freshness and the unforeseen, amid the burlesque combinations which the little lady encounters in her new dreamland, which he had amid those of the old; hence the inevitable injustice of a comparison. But, making allowance for the sense of repetition, we think the invention here shows no falling-off in ingenuity or in the peculiar humour, which mixes up untransformed fragments of familiar experience with the bewilderment of the polite child amid people of irregular manners and a topsy-turvy order of existence. There is perhaps a little too much complication in the machinery of chess-board geography prevailing in Looking-glass Land, and a somewhat meaningless eccentricity in some of the transformations; but the ingenuity which traces out the remotest consequences of its data cannot be too much praised,—as the property of space in Looking-glass Land by which to walk towards a thing is to move away from it, and the inverse disposition of the letters in the amazing nonsense-poem of “Jabberwocky.” The introduction and conclusion of the adventure are particularly well devised and written. Every reader will be charmed to meet his old friends the Hare and the Hatter (still engaged upon his tea and bread and butter) dignified with the Anglo-Saxon orthography Haigha and Hatta (Alice has evidently been having lessons in English history); and amused at the forms under which the child’s matter-of-fact dream realises the ideas of Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, Humpty Dumpty, and all the provoking brotherhood of mythic personages who insist on taking all words literally, and regarding every question as a riddle. If this prose extravaganza, this matter-of-fact absurdity, has a certain ugliness at times which seems to run near the edge of the vulgar, that is its only weak point. The clever and mannered humour of Mr. Tenniel’s designs illustrates their theme to perfection.

A stout, jovial book of More Nonsense, by Mr. Edward Lear, transcends criticism as usual. We may just indicate the interest of the preface, in which the author explains the genesis of this class of composition; we may point out the great felicity of some of the new botanical figures and names — “Nastycreechia Krorluppia,” “Stunnia Dinnerbellia,” and the rest; we may protest, with deference, against the absence of the charms of rhyme in the alliterative pieces at the end of the volume; and then leave the reader to his unmolested entertainment.
Sidney Colvin.

The Academy. A Record of Literature, Learning, Science, and Art. Volume III, no. 40, 15 January 1872, pp. 23-24.

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1 Response to Children’s Books for Christmas 1871

  1. gart says:

    talk about a banner year in literature! I have them all.

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