LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Anthea the Feminist

During my research for my final paper, I came across a great article on The Five Children and It entitled “E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation and Gender” by Michelle Smith. Among her discussion of other social issues presented by the three books, Smith points out that Anthea’s incessant mothering of her siblings seems to be at odds with Nesbit’s personal “unconventional femininity.” As we discussed in class, Nesbit was an intelligent, socially involved woman, so the narrator’s assertion that Anthea was “meant to be a good housekeeper some day” seems awfully backwards (15).


Anthea in ten years. Well, this was 1902, probably five years.

Anthea in ten years. Well, this was 1902, probably five years.

Smith, however, argues that Anthea’s mothering is actually the source of her strength of character. I found this assertion convincing. She thinks the most clearly, has strong moral convictions and an empathetic temperament. She is the favorite of ‘the Lamb,’ which implies that her patience and quality of care are superior to her other siblings. This hyper-feminine personality seems to encourage her siblings to rely on her, and she wastes no time in expressing her opinions on the right and moral path of action in each of their adventures. Being a child, she lacks complete responsibility, but she makes up for it in quick-wittedness. This mature temperament is not due to age – Anthea is actually younger than Cyril.


"Mom-substitute, what should we do?"

“Mom-substitute, what should we do?”

This “feminine shift in the parameters of heroism” allows Anthea to remain feminine and motherly while still being the hero. To me, this is extremely forward-thinking for a novel published in 1902. Feminism is by no means a recent development, but women who choose to cultivate femininity and domesticity, especially by being housekeepers like Anthea, do still suffer accusations of being anti-women. The more women who choose to become educated professionals, the more work we do towards bridging the divide, but this doesn’t mean that the 1950’s housewife aesthetic is inherently against the equality of women – it’s just a different lifestyle choice. This statement has become mostly accepted at present, but during Nesbit’s time, women were still working towards the right to vote: Nesbit’s display of a woman who was feminine and heroic without sacrificing for either was undoubtedly ahead of her time.

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A Modern Day Feminist and the Goblin

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin presents the tale of a young princess in a kingdom under siege by malicious and conniving goblins.  Like many fairy tales of the time period and similar to many that we have studied in the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” class, Princess Irene is a young female protagonist who possesses many qualities representative of purity and femininity.  She is a young member of a royal family known for her beauty—notably her long, golden hair—and is placed under many restrictions by her caregiver, Lootie, that prevent her from making many mistakes that young women could often find themselves making at such an age.  However, this novel took a turn in a new direction in that it presented additional female characters who each possessed almost entirely different characteristics from the next.  The text delivers descriptions of just as many female characters as it does male characters, which displays a shifting view towards feminism in children’s literature.

Each of the female characters throughout the tale is presented in a manner that represents their various traits and qualities.  This gives the plot of the story a more dynamic quality that readers may not have seen in fairy tales prior to this time.  The princess is no longer a damsel in distress in desperate need of salvation by a male hero.  She is a cunning, while simultaneously polite, young lady who overcomes the struggle for her father’s kingdom by defeating the wicked goblins who have arranged for their Prince Harelip to marry her without consent.  She does this using the help of a seemingly god-like character brought to the story as her somewhat omniscient great-great grandmother.  This brought to the modern, global culture a wise, female character often represented in Scottish literature.

1920 illustration from "The Princess and the Goblin" by Jessie Willcox Smith

1920 illustration from “The Princess and the Goblin” by Jessie Willcox Smith

I feel that the portrayal of these various female characters in such a dynamic manner truly made this story what it was as an outstanding tale.  It represents a shift in literary culture that allowed female readers to relate to the characters in stories and consequently feel empowered by their daring adventures.  I believe that male authors such as George MacDonald represented the powerful female figures in their lives through their literature, which led to a trickle-down effect in female empowerment.  The young girls reading these fairy tales undoubtedly felt empowered by strong, heroic, female protagonists, and consequently felt empowered to live fruitful lives with more independence than they had in the past.  These women then began writing and told more tales of heroines to inspire young girls of their time, who grew up to be even more independent and even arguably rebellious.  I feel that stories like The Princess and the Goblin paved the way for feminist literature, which planted the roots for a more tolerant society that eventually grew into the predominantly egalitarian structure that we know today.

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Brave and The Princess and the Goblin: Scottish Girls with A Determination to Defy Gender Norms

As I was reading George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the children’s story of 1872 and the Disney film that was released recently entitled Brave. Both young girls share a Scottish heritage and have an intense craving for adventure along with a strong sense of self. Their defying of gender roles seems very ahead of its time given that MacDonald was writing The Princess and the Goblin in the 1800s, where a woman’s abilities often went unrecognized. As Irene’s character becomes revealed, we realize that she is much more than a little Scottish girl who just so happens to be a princess, but rather she possesses a wisdom beyond her years and courage that would be limited to men in armor at the time that MacDonald was writing. In the Disney film, the female protagonist, Merida, also possesses great courage and endeavors to defy her parents’ decision to marry her off.  The peace of her father’s kingdom depends upon this marriage, but her happiness becomes her first priority so she runs away into the woods and turns her mother into a bear. A similar plot involving marriage is included in The Princess and the Goblin, in which the goblins plan for their prince Harelip to marry Irene in order to attempt “peace” between the two kingdoms against the princess’ will.  Though Irene is unaware, Curdie, the male protagonist (and her future husband) realizes their plan and saves the princess. The two girls are also very sheltered and the discovery of self often takes place in the wilderness and away from the home. These females serve as strong role models for girls and though they may not accomplish all their goals alone (we have to give Curdie some credit!), they surely do not sit idly much like the character archetype assigned to females in works of the time.

Here is a link to the trailer for the Disney film Brave:

Princess Irene and Curdie

Princess Irene and Curdie


Merida of the Disney film Brave

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