Colonial Australia and the Child Reader
Writing to the editor of The Adelaide Observer in 1857, Australian writer, Catherine Helen Spence, noted that ‘education is the great question of the day.’ Without it, she wrote, the ‘political privileges’ gained for South Australia’s children ‘will be worse than useless.’ An educated population was, for Spence and many others in the nineteenth century, a central means of progressing the nation.
Children’s literature also had an important role to play in this education. Fiction for children was commonly viewed in this period by prominent educationists in both Australia and Britain as something that should both amuse and instruct. Its central purpose was to educate the child in terms of morality and rational thinking, as well as assist in socialising the child for adult life as active citizens of a nation. Within this context, children’s literature becomes an ideological site for inscribing social and cultural norms – it effectively presents a worldview to children that they accept as normal.
Children in Australia had a varied selection of literature to choose from in terms of the texts that circulated throughout the colonies in bookshops and libraries. Today, many Australians of a certain generation will be familiar with children’s texts that have endured from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894), Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (1899), May Gibbs’ Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddle Pie (1918), Norman Lyndsey’s The Magic Pudding (1918), and Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill (1933).
The Thyne Reid Trust Collection of Children’s Books held at the State Library of New South Wales provides a fascinating and detailed snapshot of children’s literature and its changing publishing trends in Australia throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. The full collection holds approximately 1700 titles. These titles comprise books and magazines for children, as well as original manuscript illustrations, published between 1790 and 2006, including commercial reproductions of Gibbs' illustrations for Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The library also separately holds the original manuscript of Turner’s Seven Little Australians.
Roughly 200 of the titles in the collection were published during the nineteenth century and they capture many of the forgotten texts for children of this period that influenced how children began to understand the world around them. Many of these texts were not published in Australia, neither were they published by Australian writers, but composed instead by American and British children’s novelists. The collection also demonstrates how towards the end of the nineteenth century, there are many more publications by Australian writers coming out with Australian presses.
Adventure stories abound and are often framed within a masculinist colonial context of discovery, endurance at the colonial frontier, and heroism in the face of a supposedly uncivilised Australian bush landscape. Many of these adventure stories also reformulate more well-known legends and fairy tales, such as The Australian Babes in the Wood (1866) and The Australian Dick Turpin (1885). The collection also illustrates the predominance of stories about lost children, many based on true events in Australia, and which encode cultural and national anxieties and desires about the discovery and settlement of the country. Ethnographic and historical texts for children are also included in the collection, such as K. Langloh Parker’s More Australian Legendary Tales (1898) and True Stories from Australasian History (1893) by A. Patchett Martin. Moral and didactic literature, as well as memoirs dedicated to children, by women writers are also prominent, especially during the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Imported books in nineteenth-century Australia, however, were expensive commodities and many children would not have had the means to purchase these books, or have had access to libraries to borrow them. Many children would have been confined to the reading materials that were distributed through the state schooling system. Many of these school readers privileged the imperial centre to an even more acute degree than the children’s fiction that circulated independently of school reading curricula. For much of the nineteenth century, British colonial administrators for national education in Britain and its colonies produced these texts outside Australia. The Irish National School Readers used in Australia were compiled and printed in Dublin before being shipped to Australia.