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Victorian children’s books for the holiday season

Before Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, there was a market for books as gifts during the Christmas season, but for the most part, these books were not Christmas themed at all.  The success of A Christmas Carol led English publishers to issue Christmas titles in a similar format: short, heavily-illustrated tales priced at 5-6 shillings.  Eventually the final three months of the year became the biggest book-buying season in Victorian England, and authors and publishers arranged to have their books issued near the holidays —  especially in the case of children’s books.  For example, most of Lewis Carroll’s titles were published at Christmastime.  Fairy stories were popular fare for authors of children’s literature, and the adults buying books for children.  Many of these stories were didactic but others had more serious meanings.

Juliana Horatia Ewing’s The Brownies and Other Tales (1870) is an example of the didactic fairy book.  The Girl Scouts took the name “Brownies” from Ewing’s title story.   It is about children whose family supposedly had a “Brownie” that once helped the family prosper economically by doing many of the chores.  They learn that they can be “Brownies” in their own home by doing chores and being helpful to their family.  Many of the other stories in the collection also teach lessons: a big brother learns to make amends for breaking his little sister’s toys; a spoiled little girl wanders into the land of the dwarfs, where she learns through trials to be unselfish and considerate of others; magic shoes teach a little boy to be obedient.

The Mayhew brothers’ The Good Genius that Turned Everything to Gold, or, The Queen Bee and the Magic Dress: a Christmas Fairy Tale (1847) is a fairy tale with a deeper moral.  It is the story of a poor woodcutter named Silvio, who meets a fairy who gives him a magic coat.  She promises to appear every time he wears it and fulfill his wishes.  Each time he makes a wish, he finds that ambition gets the best of him.  He needs food and a bigger house.  He falls in love with a princess and wants to be a prince  so she’ll fall in love with him.   Silvio gets so wrapped up in the pleasures of being king of his own city that he imposes too many burdens on his subjects and they rebel and force him and his family out of the city, and he loses the magic coat.  Silvio regains his coat and his kingdom and reaches out to reconcile his family with his father-in-law, whose country has been rocked by famine. Silvio promises to end the famine, but, once again, he loses access to the coat, and the King nearly burns Silvio at the stake before the fairy arrives and causes the ground to burst forth with ripe crops.  Again and again, the fairy helps him until at last he is learns to be driven by generosity rather than ambition.  The lesson of generosity is underscored by the fact that the British Isles were plagued with famines in the early decades of the 1800’s — so the fairy tale highlights the very real problem of hunger and poverty in Victorian England.

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