Holiday House and the shift from didactic to enjoyable literature for children


   Prior to 1839 literature for children was heavily didactic in nature and sought to instruct a child in the most immediate means possible. In fact popular sentiment held that fiction was at best an idle waste of time and at worst a source of social ruin. In 1577 Hugh Rhodes talked about the popular view of fiction when he called it “fayned fables, vayne fantasyes, and wanton stories”. The same sentiment held true through the 17th and 18th centuries and into the 19th but by the 1830’s things were beginning to change. More and more children wanted stories that were exciting and interesting, ones that spoke to their peculiar lot in life. Parents, eager to cultivate what was becoming a cult of childhood as well as the publishing industry always keen on capitalizing on newly emerging trends were only to happy to give them what they wanted. And a now largely forgotten book called Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair would fit the bill.

   Catherine Sinclair was born in 1800 to the noted reformer and parliamentarian Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster and acted as his secretary until his death in 1835 after which she began to write children’s books the first and most popular of which was Holiday House. This book would have a profound effect on society, especially that portion of it concerned with the nature of childhood. Such was the popularity of Holiday house that by 1861 A newly ordained deacon of the Church of England and future don of Christ Church gave an inscribed copy to three sisters, Ina, Alice and Edith. This of course was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson who gave careful consideration on gifts given to his child friends making the choice of Holiday House a very telling one indeed.

Holiday House is the story of the three Graham children Harry, Laura and the Eldest Frank as they flout all the imposed rules of order placed upon them by the governess aptly named Mrs. Crabtree (the name alone would come to be a commonplace name for teachers and governess in literature, film and television). Their disobedience is never conveyed in a truly negative light, rather Sinclair seems to relish in their childish attempts at promoting independence and imagination. The story ends with the death of the eldest sibling Frank and the opportunity is not missed at a moral lecture however no one reading Holiday House would assume this to be a condemnation of the actions of the children. If anything it can be read as a slight wink by Sinclair to the children. She is an adult and adults after all must maintain a sense of order but her real loyalties belong to the children.

   Holiday House was written as a response and a challenge to Sir Walter Scott’s opinion that in “in the future there would be no poets, wits or orators because all play of the imagination would be discouraged”. Scott was of course referring to the long standing trend in literature which discouraged imagination and childish playfulness in favor of heavy handed instruction. Holiday house for its part certainly contains more than its share moral instruction and critics have been quick to point out how deeply the narrative structure relies on didacticism or the overt morality of its formulaic death bed ending, a theme popular in literature for children at the time and used to great effect in establishing the importance of moral character. Where Sinclair broke from tradition was in her playful tone and natural depictions of childhood with an equal importance placed on imagination and play as on instruction and virtue. In so doing Sinclair broke ground for future children’s authors and paved the way for the first golden age of children’s literature.

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