raik's name is not widely known today. A surprising number of people, however — women in particular — will nod in recognition when told that she wrote The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak, The 1875 "parable for children and adults" is still being reprinted in both library and cheap editions, although some of the more recent have been simplified for the modern reader. Although never identified primarily as an author of juvenile fiction, Craik wrote for children and young people throughout her publishing career.
The mid-nineteenth century was the first golden era for children's literature. Families were big. The growing middle class kept children at home or at school for a much longer time, instead of sending them to work as soon as possible. Childhood became more and more a separate state, with its own proper interests and pleasures; children were protected from the grown-up world, instead of being expected to go straight from the primer into books with adult characters. And parents were willing to spend money on books — there were, as yet, no children's libraries. For the first time, a large number of books other than works of information and moral instruction were written for children. Craik worked in most of the forms that became important: she wrote didactic stories, fairy tales, fantasy, narratives about commonplace everyday events intended for the very young, and short novels for what she described as "the girl from eight to eighteen." (Advertisement, Is It True?)
Despite the versatility of type, however, the essential content remained constant. The simple stories that Craik wrote for children reveal basic emotional patterns that satisfied her as a writer and a person, and that she repeated — although less obviously — in her books for adults. The sentimental writer's goal is to educate the emotions. Craik did not teach children how to behave by using rational arguments based on commandments. Nor did she try to [79/80] scare them into morality by showing the sufferings of bad children. The sentimental story, instead, promotes habits of feeling; it arouses positive emotions and gives them plenty of exercise so that they will become strong and healthy. If feelings flow freely and automatically along well-worn paths it is not even necessary to tell people how they ought to act in any particular situation; if the right feelings are habitual, the right actions should necessarily follow.
Craik published five more-or-less-realistic children's books between 1846 and 1855. In each, the protagonists are thrust into situations where their success depends largely on their own actions — and where, more important, their happiness grows from the way other characters feel about them. With slight differences in emphasis from story to story, the central character (and the reader) is encouraged to be unselfish, thoughtful, honest, and kind; these traits lead both to practical success and to a flow of love and admiration from other people.
The earliest books were learning experiences for the author as well as the readers. Reviewers pointed out that the characters were interesting but the plots "ill-constructed" ("Cola Monti", Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, 24 Nov. 1849, p. 333). Also, like so many women novelists of her period, Craik needed practice in English grammar and syntax; she corrected the text of the early books before letting them be reprinted in later years.
The first book she published, Michael the Miner, was done for the Religious Tract Society in 1846 and was shaped by the tradition of Hannah More: it had details about day-to-day life among the poor so that readers would identify and enough direct moralizing that even the barely literate would be sure to get the point. Michael is a poor boy who uses pluck and hard work to support his family. He is able to foil some ore thieves because of his unspotted reputation; the mine owners believe Michael, despite his lowly status, because everyone knows he has never told a lie.
In How to Win Love, or Rhoda's Lesson (1848) a twelve-year-old farmer's daughter is sullen and antagonistic when her father remarries. She wins love first by patiently accepting help from others when she is ill and then by bravely rescuing a sick tramp and taking care of a baby. Rhoda's primary lesson, as a girl, is to think first of others. In the companion piece for boys, Cola Monti (1849), the essential virtues are hard work and fair play. [80/81]
A Hero (1853) has twelve relatively self-contained episodes, each about long enough for reading aloud or for a child just beginning to read alone. Captain Philip Carew tells his nephews a series of stories that show the difference between foolhardy boldness and the true heroism revealed in forethought, steadiness, and unselfishness. The stories dramatize the everyday events of children's own lives: going on a trip, feeling timid in a new school, learning to row a boat, having a hat snatched and kicked around the schoolyard. This kind of story — now so typical of books for elementary-school children — was not common before the middle of the nineteenth century. It is an analogue to the domestic novel for adults; the middle-class reading public became interested in stories of people like themselves, and the heroes of children's fiction could be children involved in the commonplace incidents of child life.
The Little Lychetts (1855) is an interesting variation of the Cinderella plot. At age thirteen, Eunice Lychett suddenly stops being the richest child in the boarding school and becomes an orphan who has to live with an impoverished farmer and look after a sickly and whining young brother. But even when she was a rich girl, Eunice had been hurt by her inability to conform to the feminine ideal: she is big, awkward, bold, and not much good at music or needlework. When she has responsibility for her brother, Eunice develops maternal-feminine traits — and she also grows painfully aware that she is not likely to be loved because she is physically ugly. She tries to earn her brother's affection with gifts, but he likes the pretty, musical, passive Janie Allardyce much better. Illness and mutual self-sacrifice eventually bring Eunice and her brother together. In the happy ending, both are heading off to Germany to get the professional training that will allow them to have careers.
Despite the division between "boys' books" and "girls' books," the children in these stories tend toward a single-sex ideal. Rhoda and Eunice are active and daring; all the admirable boys are sensitive to others' needs. The union of strength and weakness that is so central to Craik's imagination is apparent in all of them. Michael the Miner has two deaf-mute girls. The nobleman's daughter had been babied for her infirmity and is peevish and uncommunicative; Michael's sister is equally afflicted but self-dependent because she is poor, and she helps and teaches the spoiled rich girl. Both Rhoda and Eunice grow softer and less self-centered when they are confined to bed and realize how much they depend on others. Cola Monti [81/82] functions as both savior and saved; he rescues a poor Italian street boy from starvation and is worshipped by him, and he idealizes the manly Archibald and falls ill of brain fever at the end so that Archibald can nurse him. Illness or helplessness calls forth from people of either sex a love that is essentially maternal; all of the characters feel the strongest emotions toward those who are infants, or ill, or disabled, or helpless. In these children's books Craik's system of ethics rests on the obligation to help and protect those weaker than oneself; she guides her readers to maturity by giving them opportunities to feel the glow of approval and self-approval that comes from taking care of other people.
The classic fairy tales from France were published in England soon after 1700, but by 1800 many people considered magic unwholesome. Educators like Mrs. Trimmer warned parents to avoid books that "fill the heads of children with confused notions of wonderful and supernatural events" or stories like "Little Red Riding Hood" that "injure the tender minds of children, by exciting unreasonable and groundless fears" (quoted in Suitable for Children, p. 38). The traditional English tales like "Jack and the Beanstalk" were most often seen only in cheap, crudely illustrated chapbooks. But the serious interest in folklore was spurred by the translation, in 1823, of the stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. By the 1840s and 1850s fairy tales had become a recognized part of children's reading. Not only were the traditional stories of many countries collected and translated, but also, beginning about 1850, English authors began to invent new and original fairy tales, often with moral or allegorical intent.
Craik's Alice Learmont (dated 1852, but advertised for Christmas giving in December 1851) combines invention with traditional folklore, in much the way that Hans Christian Andersen (whose books were translated in 1846) wrote new stories from ideas suggested by the oral tradition. The narrative of Alice Learmont — an infant stolen from the cradle and raised in fairyland — is original, but virtually all of its details come from the popular lore of the border country and the Scottish lowlands. Alice is a descendent of Thomas surnamed Learmont, also known as True Thomas, Thomas the Rhymer, and Thomas of Erceldoune, a thirteenth-century poet who, according to legend and ballad, lived for seven years with the fairies and returned with the power of prophecy. [82/83]
Many of the legendary details about Thomas are incorporated in Alice Learmont. The fairies are not cute little creatures with wings, but inhabitants of the alternate world which, in lowland tradition, overlaps with the human world. The fairies are ageless immortals, the size of a human child, who live under the surface of the earth and ride out, visible to human eyes, on New Year's Eve and other ancient festivals. They owe a tribute to the devil every seven years; they try to have a mortal human available to offer so that they need not sacrifice one of their own kind. They are like humans in form but have no souls: they have no affection, no grief, no fear, and spend their lives in sport and amusement.
Craik's story brings to the surface some of the psychological implications of fairy lore. Alice, born just before dawn on rhe first day of the year, is stolen from the cradle and allowed to return home only on her birthnight at intervals of three and then seven years. Raised by the fairies, she is, like them, self-absorbed and indifferent to others. When she appears in her human mother's cottage, she frisks and plays, criticizes the food she is offered, and has no affection for her family. On the night of her tenth birthday she is briefly touched by her mother's love, but in the end returns gladly — eagerly — to her enchanted pleasures.
But when she reaches the age of fourteen, Alice begins to grow weary of perpetual play. She discovers that her brother Hugh has been captured by the water Kelpie; she wants Hugh to stay in fairyland so that she will have someone from whom to hear the word "love," but finally — for his own good — she shows him the way to escape.
When Alice goes back to her human family again, on the night she turns seventeen, her mother is ill. Alice tends her and in the act of serving another becomes a woman. The fairies come for her; they mock the poverty and ugliness around them and woo Alice with their dance, but she refuses to leave. The fairies return the next evening — they want Alice very badly because the tribute to the devil is due. Alice, fully aware of the danger, nevertheless goes outside to get water for her suffering mother. She is seized and carried away. She can now see that the fairies are ghastly, withered, old creatures absurdly imitating youth. The next time they ride through human lands, Alice calls out to her mother, who holds her fast through all of the transformations and terrors that the fairies [83/84] can devise. Rescued by her mother's love and courage, Alice is at last fully human.
Retelling makes the moral structure more obvious than it appears on first reading. The story is longer and more complex than most traditional fairy tales; characters and scenes are developed with a wealth of circumstantial detail. The outcome is seriously in doubt, even for readers who perceive the message about mother-love; our very awareness of the psychic truth encoded by the pleasure-avid amoral semihumans that live beneath the surface of the visible world makes us realize that the traditional stories do not always have happy endings. It is easy to construct an allegorical reading about the charm of illusion and the thoughtlessness of young people. The ages often, fourteen, and seventeen are obviously related to the physical stages that turn a child into a woman; the rapid change of shapes that Alice goes through in her mother's arms — from beast to snake to bar of red-hot iron — is familiar to the parents of adolescents. The fairies have power only when mortals fail; the rivers one must cross to get to the enchanted pleasures are made up of all the blood and tears shed on earth. Old Thomas the Rhymer remains forever under his spell because "like many another bard, he had worshipped no reality but only the dream of his own poet-heart." (Alice Learmont, in A Hero, Bread upon the Waters, Alice Learmont, chap. 8.)
How, therefore, given the strength of illusion, can a child be turned into a woman? The answer, imposed by Craik's perception of female nature, is to give her a male that she can rescue and a mother she must look after. But the allegory does not intrude. It is essentially a layer of enrichment, an underlying structure that gives cohesion to traditional materials. Alice Learmont deserves to be better remembered than it has been.
The collections of fairy tales continued to swell during the 1850s. Alexander Macmillan asked Craik to edit what he hoped would be the ultimate anthology for his own list. In May 1862 he sent her volumes of Planché and Grimm and advised her to consult the sixty-volume Cabinet des Fées in the British Museum. He asked her to "try by every means to fix on so many of what are clearly the best as would make one volume ... so that our babies unborn shall know they have all the cream of the cream of Fairy lore" (Macmillan, p. 109).
The collection, entitled The Fairy Book (1863), contains thirty-six tales, including most of the ones that have become thoroughly standard and a few that are less familiar. The introduction indicates that Craik decided deliberately to omit the modern, or invented, [84/85] fairy tales; thus there is no Hans Christian Andersen and no "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" (supposed at the time to have been written by Robert Southey).
Unlike many earnest mid-Victorians, Craik did not intrude maxims of bend the stories to her own purposes. ( George Cruikshank's Fairy Library, published in 1853-54, has Cinderella's fairy godmother spouting a lecture on temperance, and Jack retraining the giant to build roads and bridges instead of killing him.) Craik was delighted by the bold and greedy con game of "Puss in Boots," which Cruikshank found so immoral. And although she left out "Bluebeard" — the story most criticized for inducing bad dreams and terrors in the night — she did not try to avoid frightening children. "Little Snowdrop" (now generally known as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"), like the version in Grimm, has the wicked stepmother demand that the huntsman bring back Snowdrop's lungs and liver, a detail glossed over by early translators, who usually had her tell him simply to lose Snowdrop in the forest. She sticks to the abrupt end of "Little Red-Riding-Hood," without bringing any father or woodcutters to kill the wolf and rescue the girl and her grandmother, and preserves the tragic outcome of Madame d'Aulnoy's "The Yellow Dwarf."
On the whole, Craik's versions are very close to their sources. She sometimes makes the language less abrupt, clarifies details, provides transitions to make the stories read more smoothly. She adds some rational explanations of causes and motives; in "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood," for example, she explains that a spindle remains in the palace because the old woman in the tower is "so old and deaf that she had never heard of the king's edict." (The Fairy Book, 1863) She also adds a few human touches. The good fairy puts everyone else to sleep along with the princess because she "might be a good deal embarrassed, especially with a young prince by her side, to find herself alone." At the end of the story the princess's dog makes a fuss because his mistress is paying attention to the prince instead of to him.
The Perrault version of the tale ends with a subsidiary story about the prince's mother being an ogre. Craik, like most recent storytellers, omits this material and concludes, briefly, in her own voice: "Nor — whether or not the day of fairies was over — did the princess ever see anything further of her seven godmothers. She lived a long and happy life, like any other ordinary woman, and died at length, [85/86] beloved, regretted, but, the prince being already no more, perfectly contented." That is as far as Craik went, in The Fairy Book, in the way of adding commentary or revealing an authorial attitude.
Books for the Children Craik Knew
Once Craik was beyond the necessities of the didactic fiction she had sold in her early years, she said that she believed "no 'preaching' should be admissible" in a child's book. ("The Age of Gold", Macmillan's Magazine, p. 297.) After she had godchildren and then, later, an adopted daughter, Craik began to write simple books based on everyday life for and about the children that she knew.
Our Year: A Child's Book in Prose and Verse (1860) is an almanac that provides, for each month, two poems and a narrative suggesting things to see and do. Craik got together with two young collaborators and remembered what they had actually done; they told where to find caterpillar nests or wild strawberries, how to transplant hyacinths, how to make a willow whistle, and the "rules" for some chase-and-tickle games.
Little Sunshine's Holiday (1871) is also, as the subtitle says, "A Picture from Life." There had not been many true nursery stories before 1870; there were rhymes, fairy tales, and alphabets, but not books about the adventures of very small children told in language that preschool listeners could follow. In Little Sunshine's Holiday Craik wrote about taking her daughter to Scotland when she was not quite three years old. It is the kind of story many of us make up or look for to prepare children for new experiences — it tells about packing clothes, riding on a train, taking a bath in a washtub in a strange house, being jealous when Mama picks up someone else's baby, having unfamiliar food for supper, making fishes out of toast and swimming them in Mama's tea. The moral is more for the reader-aloud than for the listener; "Mama" is quietly tolerant of the jealousy and the late-hours crankiness and she's not embarrassed to fish out the security blanket (a tattered bit of flannel from an old apron) so that Sunshine can comfort herself to sleep on the train.
The Adventures of a Brownie (1872) was also written for Dorothy, with simple words and a tone of voice that encourages imaginative play without condoning lies. The Brownie is a foot-high little old man who lives in the coal cellar, is never seen except by the children, and is probably responsible for the noises sometimes heard in the [86/87] walls. He also has a tendency to conspire with the children so that they can do what they want and still be obedient — he shakes down cherries from the tree, for example, when the children have been told not to climb it to get the fruit.
Most of Craik's later poems and short stories for children are marked by an intent to encourage empathy with others' feelings. Some of the earlier romantic tales ("The Italian's Daughter," "Antonio Melidori," "The Half-Caste," "The Last of the Ruthvens") had become juvenile property by the end of the century. But the pieces that Craik wrote later for Chambers's, Good Words for the Young, and Once a Week became much quieter and closer to the life she knew. She did not write stones of action or adventure. She was always against pain and suffering in any form; she wrote about "A Hare-Hunt" from the hare's point of view and, although she had managed to work up a little quiet respect for individual soldiers in essays written during the Crimean War, her writing for children is quite consistently pacifist. In the poem "Waterloo-Day" (Our Year) the children who ask their grandfather for a story get a grim one about how he has been haunted for more than forty years by the shriek of a wounded French soldier that his horse rode down in the press of battle.
Although the stories emphasize empathy and understanding, Craik did not believe one should lie to children. In "Poor Prin" a loving mother tells her children how she drowned her pet dog with her own hands to keep it from going to a bad master. Her father and mother who, as we understand, have troubles of their own, had simply vented their anger on their child by ordering her to take the dog to its new owner instead of explaining their worries and telling her why the dog had to be sold. The story seems designed to help children understand that parents are imperfect, and that sometimes nothing can be done about injustice and unfairness. There are also many portraits of young people — particularly girls — who take heavy responsibility at an early age, and who are proud of their self-sufficiency but denied their youth.
The Multiple Fantasies of The Little Lame Prince
The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak (1875) is an invented fairy tale or, as Craik called it, a parable. The infant Prince Dolor is crippled soon after his birth. His uncle, the Prince Regent, [87/88] usurps the throne and exiles Prince Dolor to an impregnable tower set in the midst of a wasteland, with only a condemned criminal for companion and nurse. Once Prince Dolor is past babyhood his life becomes intolerably dull and lonely. He wishes desperately for some change — even for death if no other change is possible. A fairy godmother appears and tells him "I cannot alter your lot in any way, but I can help you to bear it" (chap. 3). She gives him a traveling cloak which lets him fly through the air and see — but not touch — the natural world and its people. At first the prince simply enjoys nature and envies everything alive and active; at times, in fact, the contrast makes his own lot harder to bear. Then, from his vantage point above the earth, he begins to see the dirty alleys behind the stately facades and to feel compassion for those who have less than he. Finally, the usurping uncle dies in a revolution. Prince Dolor is restored to the throne and rules his country with wisdom and compassion.
At one level, obviously, the story is an allegory about the imagination (and, perhaps, about the writing of fiction). The magic traveling cloak can provide entertainment, nourish the mind, and comfort the spirit in even the most oppressive physical circumstances. The imagination, however, is not simply for escape. Once Prince Dolor understands that he was born to rule, he uses his magic cloak to examine the unpleasant facts of life instead of seeing only what he wants to see. Human imagination, then, is the key to an empathetic appreciation of all human life, and empathy is the source of human goodness. The story works rather well at that level. The language is simple enough for reading aloud to a child of six or seven. There are enough subsidiary details — incidents of life in the tower, separate journeys in the traveling cloak, minor climaxes of frustration or despair — to make each of the ten chapters a satisfactory unit. Occasional wry comments about the politics and customs of Nomansland, which is, the author says, "much like our own or many another country" (chap. 1), are there to be appreciated by an adult who is doing the reading.But that level does not account satisfactorily for the way that The Little Lame Prince continues to haunt the memory of many who read it as preadolescent girls. Like the classic fairy tales, the story touches a deeper fantasy. The orphaned and helpless Prince Dolor is a projection of the female situation. He inherits his name and nature [88/89] from his mother, Queen Dolorez, a patient and sad woman, gentle, uncomplaining, dutiful, and totally ignored by the king and court. The godmother and her gift also come to Dolor through the female line. He is crippled only because of superficial worldly customs (a nursemaid drops him while she is arranging her gown for the christening ceremony). He is the rightful ruler of his country, but he is not allowed to take his place because his body is defective. He cannot help himself because he is physically weak and no one pays attention to him. His uncle stays in power illegitimately through trickery disguised as tender (chivalric) care for Prince Dolor's health. He is shut up in a tiny but physically comfortable home where he has no contact with equals, knows about the world only from books, and suffers because he has nothing to do. When he is left alone in the tower and believes he is going to die, he wishes that he "had done something first — something worth doing, that somebody might remember me by" (chap. 9). Despite his perception of the world's ills and his recognition that he, as ruler, could correct some of them, there is no action he can take to alter his own situation. He must wait to be rescued by the convict-nurse — a deviant woman, and therefore not debilitated by social practice — who seizes the opportunity created by a revolution to have Dolor proclaimed king.
Even coming into his kingdom does not make Dolor entirely whole. He learns to walk only with crutches and depends on the aid of others. He is a humane king because he lives "in and for other people" (chap. 10). He abolishes capital punishment and makes his dominion clean and healthy, but he never takes a queen; he raises a nephew as his heir. And whether he was happy, the author says, "is a question no human being can decide. But I think he was, because he had the power of making everybody about him happy, and did it, too ..." (chap. 10). Once his heir comes of age, however, Dolor abdicates his throne and takes out his traveling cloak one last time to go to the Beautiful Mountains. "I am tired, very tired," he says to his subjects. "Let me go home" (chap. 10).
Is the power of this female experience of life written into the tale, or has contemporary interpretation put it there? At the beginning of chapter 5, Craik says that "there is a meaning in this story, deeper than that of an ordinary fairy tale . . . But I have hidden it so carefully that the smaller people, and many larger folk, will never find it out. ..." Some of the details suggest the rather specific social conditions of Victorian women's lives. The essential elements [89/90] contain the same fantasy that lies beneath a great deal of Craik's writing for both children and adults: rejection, enforced helplessness, a discovery of inner self-determination which may not alter worldly status but does make life bearable, and compensation found by living for and through others.
Elaine Showalter suggests that the story is "an allegory of Craik herself — cast out of the happy kingdom of the family by her father's desertion, crippled by her female role, and finally redeemed through self-discipline and imagination" ("Dinah Mulock Craik and the Tactics of Sentiment", p. 8). Although that may be the case, the fantasy grows from roots that are widely shared. As a novelist and as a writer for children, Craik's strongest point was not her power of observation but her ability to tap the springs of feeling; she was in touch with sentiments that have moved and continue to move a great many women.
The very short novels that Craik wrote late in her life are what current library practice would call "books for young adults." In 1871 Craik had edited a private journal kept by a girl in her teens during a brief stay in France so that it could be published as Twenty Years Ago. In the preface to that volume Craik says that she had not omitted the girl's sentiments "on love, marriage, and other subjects usually tabooed in girls' books. Why? Girls will think of these things — ay, and talk of them too." (Twenty Years Ago, p. iv.) Craik's novels "for grow-ing-up girls" (Address, signed "The Author of 'John Halifax'", printed as advertisement in Is It True?) are about love, but they are not about finding Prince Charming and living happily ever after. She treated adolescent attachments quite seriously but showed that in the real world even the most perfect love may be unreciprocated or otherwise frustrated, leaving young women with lives to fill through their own resources.
My Mother and I: A Girl's Love-Story, published in Good Words between January and July of 1874, is narrated in the first person by Elma Picardy. Her mother gently nudges her out of the nest by encouraging her to make her own decisions. Elma goes to visit wealthy relatives and grows fond of her cousin Major Conrad Picardy, who is small, gentle, and suffering from the effects of a wound he received in India. Elma is surprised and distressed when another man proposes; she was too naive to recognize the signs of courtship, is confused by her secret and perhaps inappropriate feelings for Conrad, and makes awkward and temporizing plans from day to [90/91] day. Then she goes home to nurse her mother through an ugly and painful disease. She is consoled by learning that she can earn money to look after her mother by teaching the doctor's children, and she accepts as permanent her undeclared love for a man who will not marry because he has a tendency to consumption and because he has already lost the woman he loved when young.In The Laurel Bush, also published in six installments in Good Words, in 1876, Fortune Williams and Robert Roy are governess and tutor in the same family. They are both reserved and self-sufficient, yet both have, sometimes, a "desperate craving to enjoy" the pleasures other young people seem to have (17, part 1). She waits and waits for him to speak the one word that will acknowledge their feelings, but he is too shy and insecure to do it. He leaves the country, and the letter he promised to write never comes. Fifteen years later she is guardian of two young women whose governess she had been and he returns, also still unmarried, with two orphaned boys he has promised to educate. They become friends but the restraint between them remains; she still has no way of knowing whether he ever loved her. At last it is discovered that he did write; the letter was lost and he took her failure to answer as a sign of rejection. They marry, a sober middle-aged couple subdued by a lifetime of duty and repression. His Little Mother (1881) is about a girl who, from the age often, guides and protects her weak, indecisive male twin. Eventually she also supports his own twin children. She is engaged for years to a college Fellow who is waiting for a living, but she dies at thirty, before the marriage can take place. Although she seems content in her nurturing role — particularly because she has infants to raise — the bitterness breaks through to the surface at times. Dorcas is active, rational, energetic; she teaches herself Greek and math in order to coach Cyprian for Oxford; she is both mother and father to his children. Yet because Cyprian is male, he is the one who may take the Oxford exam, the one their father wants to come out and join him in India, the one who has the means to marry when he wants.
Miss Tommy (1884) presents a girl's-eye view of a serene old maid who lives a contented, largely domestic life, filling her time with self-imposed duties. She too had one frustrated, undeclared romance when she was young; in their old age the couple who never married become close and trusting friends because, we infer, the social barriers [91/92] and emotional inhibitions created by sexuality no longer affect them.
Each of these books is essentially a long story rather than a novel: each has an uncomplicated narrative line, a restricted cast of characters, a simple point, and a single pervading emotional effect. Craik's purpose, she said, was to give growing-up girls "a true impression of what life is." (Advertisement, Is It True?) In The Laurel Bush she warns her readers that she is "writing no sensational story. . . . no Deus ex machinâ appears to make all smooth. . . . For I have always noticed that in life there are rarely any startling 'effects' " (part 5). And therefore Craik was very careful not to encourage the idea that finding a man to love was the happy ending for every young girl's life. Rather unlikely plot events do create some of the situations, but it is not primarily the events that separate the heroine from the man she loves. On the contrary, the lovers are kept apart because the author does not supply a dramatic accident to throw them together and overcome their inhibitions. The declarations of love are prevented by shyness, by self-doubt, by insecurity and unsureness, by the very awkwardness that arises from strange and unfamiliar feelings about a person of the opposite sex.
Craik remembered the intense emotions of adolescence. She wrote in one of her essays that "the years between twelve and twenty are, to most, a season anything but pleasant; a crisis in which the whole heart and brain are full of tumult, when all life looks strange and bewildering — delicious with exquisite unrealities, — and agonized with griefs equally chimerical and unnatural." ("In Her Teens", 10, p. 220.) The novels reflect that mood, but they do not invent exaggerated scenes to give readers the release of sentimental tears. The heroines' emotional pains are private; often, indeed, they arise largely from the sense that emotions cannot be shared because there is no one with whom it is safe to share them.
In a sense, then, these adolescent novels provide an outlet for the feelings that young girls had to repress. They seem to encourage the fantasy-belief in a disappointed love as a way to sublimate sexual desires that are not met. Craik rather deliberately used love stories to prepare girls to stand on their own in the world, instead of expecting marriage to be their only destiny. She repeatedly showed young women that even if Prince Charming shows up he may be shy, disinterested, dying, or beset by troubles of his own. Yet Craik also encouraged girls not to be afraid or ashamed of their feelings;[92/93] she did not give them false models of happy spinsters who had never been troubled by the empty spaces in their lives as women.
Craik's fiction grew more conservative in her last years. None of these heroines is as intelligent or accomplished as the important women in her earlier books. Even considered as adolescent fiction, with a relatively simple style and limited aim, the short novels lack the energy and inventiveness of Craik's earlier work. They do, however, reveal the deep sadness and resignation which, late in her life, Craik seemed to feel was the inevitable consequence of woman's lot.
Last modified 16 August 2007