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My Childhood Years And Victorian Children’s Books

A photograph of Louisa May Alcott

At the moment I’m on a Victorian literature learning bender and as tends to be the case when you’ve already learned a fair amount on a subject I’ve been looking into the smaller details, going further afield to writers of other countries, looking at lesser-known writers who wrote for different ages.

And there they were – a list of Victorian children’s (chapter books) writers. And hold up a moment, go back. I recognised all of them.

To sum it up, all the children’s writers listed were ones I’d read in my childhood. It was a sudden realisation and please feel free to laugh because I’ve been reading and studying literature for, what is it, six years now, but have only just worked it out – my parents tricked me into reading classic books.

A photograph of Johanna Spyri

I use the word ‘tricked’ loosely because in fact I really love the idea. I can see in it my classics-loving father and my you-can-never-have-too-many-books-oh-dear-what-have-I-done mother, introducing me to the canon without any fanfare.

What’s interesting is the next thought I had. These books constituted gifts from my parents and extended family, books I’d not specifically asked for. And these I read at home; my choices at school were modern. It’s been a revelation – during a certain period of my childhood I finished very few books. I’ve often felt embarrassed by this. Now I can correlate the period with those books; it was the classical literature I didn’t finish.

Not all – I do remember finishing Little Women and I think I finished Pollyanna… or at least I finished the film. But Black Beauty, Heidi, What Katy Did? No. I remember finding them all very charming, though I wouldn’t have used that word then, but looking back with the hindsight and knowledge I have now I can see that the differences in culture and so on made these books less appealing. They were lovely and somewhat utopian but they didn’t represent my experience of life.

A photograph of Kate Douglas Wiggin

This is starting to sound as though it’s in line with my feelings as to the appropriateness of classics at exam level so I’ll say now that it’s not. Whilst I think classics at school are classics before their time, children’s books are obviously read at the right age, it’s just that time has moved on since their release date. Whereas a GCSE student will go on to have the experiences and knowledge to appreciate the Victorian adult canon, a children’s book naturally comes without the requirement to live first. It’s simply a sad fact that due to the progression of time a person may enjoy Victorian children’s literature more as an adult.

A photograph of Eleanor Porter

To spin off this subject I distinctly remember my editions of Black Beauty and Heidi included the word ‘unabridged’. Even then I was very happy to hear from my mother that this meant it was the complete text – I’ve always been someone who prefers a slow trudge if it means reading a book as it was written. What intrigues me about this is that abridged books are often children’s books. Adult books are abridged for children and recently there’s even been the publication of classics as board books for toddlers, told in twelve words (it’s quite fascinating, see here if you’re interested). But these are adult books made accessible for children – what exactly is the point of abridging a book that was written for children in the first place?

Of course there’s a reason; I suppose it’s to counteract that problem I had – the inability to relate. Children’s books don’t tend to be violent and whilst culture has changed as the years have gone by, Victorian children’s books were hardly gruesome. It’s an interesting one.

As for myself I think I’m going to try and incorporate those old books into my present reading.

Did you read Victorian chapter books during your childhood, Lewis Carroll aside? What do you think of the abridgement of children’s books?


Alex (Sleepless Reader)

February 26, 2016, 2:42 pm

You made me remember how cheated I felt when I discovered my edition of Treasure Island was abridged!

Other Victorian/Edwardian childhood favorites: The Railway Children, The Wind in the Willows (BBC series included), Little Princess, La Petite Fadette (apparently translated to Fanchon, the Cricket).


February 26, 2016, 3:16 pm

Wonderful post, Charlie! Out of the books you have mentioned, I read ‘Little Women’ when I was a child (not really ‘child-child’, but probably in my early / middle teens). I also used to love R.L.Stevenson’s books then and I read most of his major adventure novels. Also R.M.Ballantyne’s ‘The Coral Island’. I loved that. I was a big lover of adventure fiction. I also read the abridged version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I remember. I read many abridged classics when I was a child – some Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Dumas, Austen, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard. I have thank my parents for that. I actually didn’t like Lewis Carroll’s works much when I read them as a child :) I didn’t read ‘What Katy Did’ as a child, but recently I got a copy of it, because I wanted to read it. Jacqueline Wilson wrote her own version of it and I got that too. I am hoping to read both of them together.

Thanks for this wonderful post. It made me feel nostalgic :)

April Munday

February 26, 2016, 7:51 pm

I don’t think I finished a single children’s classic as a child, except my abridged version of Little Women. I read the complete version as an adult, but Jo still didn’t marry Laurie and there was even more tedious stuff about her professor. Heidi lost me early on with the saga about the bread rolls. I had no idea why one sort was better for the old woman than the other. I think I was on the cusp of teenagerhood when I read, and loved, The Secret Garden.
My favourite books as a child (apart from Enid Blyton) were mostly written by modern writers, but set in the past. by ‘modern’ I obviously mean half a century ago. Books like Tom’s Midnight Garden and the Septimus Quinn stories.
When I was teenager I discovered the nineteenth century novel and there was no stopping me.


February 27, 2016, 2:03 pm

Sadly as a child the only Victorian novels I completed was What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next. For some reason I loved them but I couldn’t tell you why now as it has been years and years since I read them! To make up for this I have a lot of Victorian children’s classics on my Classics Club list :-)

Jenny @ Reading the End

February 29, 2016, 9:15 pm

Oh, I was so, so angry when I realized that the copy of The Count of Monte Cristo I was reading at age eight was abridged. When I tried to read the long version, it was a bit much for me, and I gave up, but I didn’t go back to the abridged version. I felt so cheated! ABRIDGED INDEED.

On the other hand, I did have those “Classic Comics” versions of a few (adult) classics, and I loooooved them. Except for the Sherlock Holmes story with the snake in the vents, which scared the living hell out of me and still does. :p


March 4, 2016, 12:54 pm

Alex: Right? You’ve read a book and feel good and then…

The Railway Children! (And the film.) I’ve not heard of La Petite Fadette – feel I should do some research.

Vishy: Thanks, Vishy! Stevenson rings a bell… That’s a lot of adult classics; how did you find them when younger? Yes, I read about that, Jacqueline Wilson’s version – it’ll be interesting to see how it goes, if it’s a success. Interesting idea to read them together – a blog post comparison is in order ;)

April: Yes! I can understand you thinking perhaps Jo’s marriage would be different later and then being disappointed. I don’t think I got that far (can’t remember if it happened in the first book or later…) but certainly Laurie seemed the right choice. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a ton of Jo/Laurie fan fiction out there. She’s ensured we’ll keep talking about her work! I don’t remember that in Heidi, I think I gave up early, seem to remember a lot of repetition, not much chance for action in that book.

I’m quite fond of Blyton, my mum read my her books and was all over The Famous Five; I remember Tom’s Midnight Garden well. Love that you started your Victorian classics early!

Jessica: I seem to remember the story was fun and rebellious? That’s a very good idea, adding them to your classics list. I’d think I’d do the same only then it’d be even longer…

Jenny: I hate to think how much shorter that might have been, in terms of seeing you had a lot more to read later on. I don’t blame you for giving up, it’s huge. I know someone who recently read it and just kind of shrugged off their completion of it like it was no big deal (and in a modest way, too, not as though they thought it easy). I’m in awe.

Comic versions sound a great idea.


March 14, 2016, 12:07 pm

I read abridged versions of most of those adult classics and I liked most of them. The only book that was hard, if I remember right, was Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’. I think that is a real grown up book and it is best read and appreciated when one is older. My mom used to rave about it when I was younger and I didn’t understand what was great about it. Now I do.



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