Gothic and the Child Reader, 1764–1850

Authored by: M.O. Grenby

The Gothic World

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  October  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415637442
eBook ISBN: 9780203490013
Adobe ISBN: 9781135053062


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Attempting to catch the Christmas market, the London publisher John Newbery brought out in late 1764 his History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, often said to be the first children's novel. In the same city, just before that same Christmas, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, the founding text of Gothic literature. It is tempting to make a great deal of this coincidence. These books were two seeds, perhaps, planted in the same soil, from hich germinated rival literary forms. Or one could go further. Children's literature and Gothic literature were “two contrary states,” to use William Blake's subtitle from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789–94): opposites that were nevertheless necessary to one another, each representing precisely what the other was not. On the one hand there was children's literature, concerned to instruct, nurture and carefully protect children's innocence. On the other is the Gothic, characterized, at least for David Punter, by “paranoia” and “barbarism,” obsessed with “taboo” and “the problems of sexuality,” and “almost never didactic” (Punter 1980: 404–5, 411). Certainly the sole substantial study of pre-Victorian children's Gothic gives the impression that children's and Gothic literature, though sharing a birthday, could never come together. “Simply put,” writes Dale Townshend, “culturally approved forms of children's literature become everything that the Gothic is not” (Townshend 2008: 21). It is a persuasive argument, and there is more than sufficient evidence to support his claim that “British culture officially barred the Gothic from literature for children” (Townshend 2008: 27). Yet the claim is an overstatement, and does not tell quite the whole story. What this essay will consider is whether children's culture and the Gothic were quite so incompatible as has been thought. The principal evidence to consider will be the not insubstantial number of discernibly Gothic texts that were, despite the voluble opposition, published for children in the years before 1850.

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