Towards the end of the nineteenth century, literature written specifically for boys and girls became increasingly popular. In fact, the New York publisher, Charles Scribner's 1894 catalog, Popular Books for Young People, separates reading by the sexes and Scribner's selections of book reviews highlights the different manner in which boys and girls were to enjoy their reading. Included in the $1.50 recommendations of Books for Boys are the following:
Sou'wester and Sword. By Hugh St. Leger. With 6 page Illustrations by Hal Hurst. Crown 8vo, $1.50 — "As racy a tale of life at sea and war adventure as we have met with for some time. It is from the first to last a plain-sailing, straightforward narrative, alive with incident and character, and stamped with a veracity that suggests actual experience by the author of the things he describes... Altogether it seems the sort of book that boys will revel in." &mdash Athenaeum.
With the Sea Kings. A Story of the Days of Lord Nelson. By F.H. Winder. With 6 page Illustrations by W.S. Stacey. Crown 8vo, $1.50. — "Just the book to put into a boy's hands. Every chapter contains boardings, cuttings out, fighting pirates, escapes of thrilling audacity, and captures by corsairs, sufficient to turn the quietest boy's head. The story culminates in a vigorous account of the battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Victory. Happy Boys!" &mdash The Academy.
In contrast, Scribner presents an utterly different list of reading for girls. Where boys are to be presented with racy tales of adventure at sea and at war, their sisters were to be charmed by domestic scenes. A selection of the $1.50 volumes reads:
Banshee Castle. By Rosa Mulholland. With 12 page Illustrations by John H. Bacon. Crown 8vo, olivine edges, $1.50 — "One of the most fascinating of Miss Rosa Mulholland's many fascinating stories. . . The charm of the tale lies in the telling of it. The three heroines are admirably drawn characters." &mdash Athenaeum.
The Clever Miss Follett. By J.K.H. Denny. With 12 page Illustrations by Gertrude D. Hammond. Crown 8vo, olivine edges, $1.50. — "The story is well constructed, and the character-drawing of the Follett family is good. Girls will like the story, for it is interesting." &mdash The Queen.
In fact, the reviewers themselves reveal the tone of the volumes they advertise. The boys' reviews are much more pro-active and "vigorous" whereas the girls' reviewers are rather more insipid, the Athenaeum review provides a concise summary of the latter in stating that "The charm of the tale lies in the telling of it" rather than in any actual plot excitement.
Traditionally, children's literature remained undifferentiated by gender, for instance Newbery's 1744 A Little Pretty Pocket-Book addressed both Mastery Tommy and Miss Polly, and throughout the century both boys and girls continued enjoyed Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes or even the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. However, as the demand for children's literature continued to grow, authors and publishers sought to create new niches for their work, first by social class but eventually and more significantly, by gender. While children's authors of the early nineteenth century wrote extensively to prepare their young readers for religious salvation, later works also aimed to inculcate social and cultural morals.
Given the Victorian practice of serializing new literature before publishing it in entirety as a complete volume, the vast array of girls and boys magazines available to the young Victorian reader by the last decades of the nineteenth century indicates the new interest in producing gender specific literature. Indeed, the presence of popular adventure story authors such as R.M. Ballantyne, G.A. Henty and William H.G. Kingston and school story authors such as Frederic F.W. Farrar and Thomas Hughes in boys' periodicals is hardly surprising and illuminates the content and tone of what was deemed suitable for aspiring British gentlemen. Popular women authors, Charlotte Yonge and Susan Warner to name but two, are equally prolific in popular girl's periodicals.
Adventure and school stories form the bulk of boys magazines. In her survey of British children's periodicals, Drotner notes that boy's magazines, led by Samuel Beeton's Boy's Own Magazine addressed middle-class youths, specifically boys "whose glorious heritage it is to possess the Empire that their fathers have founded and preserved" (98). Thus by 1879, even the early pioneer of children's periodicals, the Religious Tract Society, originally conceived to inculcate young readers with religious and moral values, overwhelmed by the "demoralising serials now so widely disseminated" (Noakes) introduced the Boy's Own Paper. The Boy's Own Paper, along with offerings from secular competitors, enthusiastically propagated the schoolboy's maxims: "Never sneak, never weep, never lie, and never trust foreigners" (Drotner 107). From the rather lofty sixpence price of the Boy's Own Paper to the penny Boys of England, the honor, pluck and pride of the British boy was upheld and celebrated whether in the more wholesome exploits of Talbot B. Reed's schoolboys or the less salutary adventures of Jack Harkaway.
Girls continued to read their brother's books. However, by the middle of the century, critics feared that girls would be dissatisfied with their prescribed domestic role after reading rousing adventure stories and therefore began to emphasize creating more inviting stories for girls (Rowbotham 8). Girls serials emphasized lady-like behavior, religious conviction, cheerfulness under adversity and familial obedience (Rowbotham 24). Instead of bracing adventures in exotic locales, girl's stories concentrated on realistic depictions of domestic scenes. In this manner, although the heroine of Warner's popular The Wide, Wide World suffers from adversities reminiscent of those experienced by boy heroes, she is abandoned by her parents and travels chaperoned only by uncaring guardians from the exotic New World to the Old, this remains a domestic fantasy. Ellen Montgomery fails to become a pirate or to pursue a life of adventure at sea or otherwise, she remains staunchly faithful and although she asserts her independence through her ability to find friends even in unlikely situations, Warner leaves her heroine awaiting the day she is old enough to marry. It ends: "I am satisfied," said Ellen softly, nestling again to his side; — "that is enough. I want no more" (583).
In fact, even the length of the story lent to this new division. Girls' tales take the form of hefty tomes in keeping with the Victorian cult of feminine domesticity, since girls after all had much more time to read at home. In contrast, boys' tales are much shorter and gripping, suited for active British youths who had to divide their time between school and sports.
Drotner, Kristin. English Children and their Magazines, 1751-1945. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
Noakes, Richard. "The Boy's Own Paper, 1879-1967." Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical. SciPer Project, University of Leeds. Accessed Online at http://www.sciper.org/browse/BP_desc.html. 15 August 2007.
Rowbotham, Judith. Good Girls Make Good Wives: Guidance for Girls in Victorian Fiction. Oxford and New York: B. Blackwell, 1989.
Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World. 1878. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1987.
Last modified 20 August 2007