Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA  boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Continue reading “Gothic Horror And Children’s Books”

American Childhood From The Late 19th Century

  • American methods of child-rearing were far more lenient than in Britain.
  • Although American ladies’ journals began to promote slenderness and weight control for women in the 1890s, it wasn’t considered necessary to restrict the diet of children.
  • Medical experts advised parents to make sure their children — particularly boys — were not underweight. Between-meal snacks and fatty foods were encouraged.
  • Home was thought of as a refuge from the outside world.
  • Children were believed to be innocent rather than inherently sinful.
  • Indulgence was preferred over strict discipline.
  • Children were considered ‘priceless’. They were given allowances, had lavish birthdays, were allowed treats such as candy bars, ice-cream and Eskimo pies.
  • American children were allowed fruit, salads, oysters, johnny cakes, toast swimming in butter, fish, flesh and game at breakfast, jellies and ices at night, tea and coffee. (In England children were eating bread and milk in the nursery.)
  • American children were treated as ‘robust and confident’ whereas British parenting was watchful and anxious.
  • English family stories (especially those for girls) had little appeal for American children and didn’t do well across the Atlantic.
  • Since American children were allowed to eat, American children’s literature from this time isn’t quite so full of food fantasies as it was in England at this time. (More food fantasies appeared later, during WW rationing in the mid 20th century.)

Notes from Peter Sterns via Carolyn Daniel

English Childhood in the 18th and 19th Centuries

  • Children of the rural laboring classes relied for reading material on cheap chapbooks
  • Chapbooks were passed from family to family
  • School library books were all of the “goody goody, Sunday-school prize type”
  • Middle class children were able to choose their own books and had a wide selection of adventure, school, nonsense, fantasy and fairytales available
  • Poor children grew up without access to literature
  • Between the late 1700s through to the beginning of WW2 young children from wealth British families rarely ate with their parents and other adults apart from servants
  • Their diet was generally austere even though they were well-off, at least by today’s standards. It was thought during this period that rich food spoiled the character of children, so they may not have been allowed to eat things such as pork chops. Experts of the time advised that children shouldn’t be eating fat, sugar, wine and spices.
  • So what did they eat? Boiled meat, steamed fish, cabbage, milk-based puddings.  Milk was considered only food for children — adults wouldn’t drink it.
  • Eating between meals was strictly frowned upon.
  • Bread and jam both on the same piece of bread was thought to be very indulgent and unheard of. Such greed was a matter of morality.
  • Middle class children and above spend childhoods almost entirely within the self-contained space of a nursery where they were looked after by a nurse or nanny.
  • Boys were sent to boarding school but girls were generally tutored at home by a governess.
  • The nursery was usually situated at the top of the house or in a far-flung part and was frequently spartan, furnished with items not needed elsewhere.
  • Children saw their parents — generally the mother — for about an hour a day.
  • Children were allowed plenty of exercise.
  • They were accustomed to being seen and not heard.
  • Children were regarded as inherently sinful. They were confined to the nursery until their ‘natural state’ had been knocked out of them. They weren’t allowed to eat with the adults until then.
  • By 1850 it wasn’t just the very wealthy who employed nurses — genteel tradesmen could afford to employ women as nannies and nurses, too.
  • George Bernard Shaw described how, seeing his own mother so seldom, he tended to idolise her when he did see her — similar to the way in which modern children can also idolise a generally absent parent after a separation.

 

For more see Lark Rise to Candleford, autobiography of Flora Thompson, as well as the academic work of Denis Butts and Carolyn Daniels.

You can read more about these types of families in books such as:

  • Mary Poppins
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • Dickens
  • Seven Little Australians (who had an English father)

 

Sendak On Childhood: Passionate, Upsetting and Silly

“If there’s anything missing that I’ve observed over the decades it’s that that drive has declined,” said the 83-year-old author… “There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”

Children’s books today aren’t wild enough, says Maurice Sendak, The Guardian