Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games — many of the most popular books for young adults today are works of fantasy. If you were a teenager in the 19th century, though, the books you’d be reading would be far different.
In 1884, Charles Welsh sent out a circular to schools for boys and girls in England, asking students to answer questions about their reading preferences. What is your favourite book, and why do you like it best? Who is your favorite author? Which of his books do you like best? What other writers of fiction do you like? are among some of the questions he asked. Welsh received responses from 790 boys and more than a thousand girls aged eleven to nineteen. His colleague, Edward Salmon, undertook the work of tabulating the results of what may be the first poll of child readers’ tastes and interests, issuing his findings in the introduction to his book, Juvenile Literature As It Is, published in London in 1888.
Salmon’s list of the most popular authors and books tell us two surprising things about teen readers in the late Victorian period. First, although a vibrant market for books written specifically for children existed at the time, teen readers polled by Welsh preferred authors who wrote for a broader audience, not only for children. The top vote-getting among both boys and girls asked about their favorite author is a novelist whom today we categorize as an “adult” writer: Charles Dickens, whose novels were appreciated by family members young and old in the 19th century. Only two authors who wrote primarily for children appeared on the list of girls’ favorite writers (Charlotte Mary Younge and Hans Christian Andersen), and none on the boys’ (Captain Marryat wrote for both children and adults, but his adult seafaring adventure novels were far more popular than his moralistic children’s books).
The second interesting observation has to do with gender. The children’s book market was clearly split into books intended for boys (primarily adventure novels) and books intended for girls (primarily domestic stories), and in the case of male teen readers, this split continues into the teen years. With the exception of Dickens and Shakespeare, the remainder of boys’ top ten authors are all wrote in the genres of adventure or historical romance. Girls tastes, in contrast, were far more wide-ranging: favorite books included historical romances (The Days of Bruce, Westward Ho!), domestic novels (Little Women, The Daisy Chain), social realism (John Halifax, Gentleman, David Copperfield), sentimental fiction (The Wide, Wide World), and, of course, The Bible.
The mid-19th century is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of children’s literature, for this is when works of fantasy for children first began to flourish (Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, and Mrs. Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock, to name just a few). Ironically, though, the only fantasy novel mentioned on either list is F. Anstey’s Vice Versa (which readers and filmgoers today might recognize as the precursor for the Disney film Freaky Friday). Would 19th century teens find Harry Potter as appealing as young readers do today?
Boys’ top ten authors:
C. Dickens (223 votes) W. H. Kingston (179) Sir W. Scott (128) Jules Verne (114) Captain Marryat (102) R. M. Ballantyne (67) H. Ainsworth (61) Shakespeare (44) Mayne Reid (33) Lord Lytton (32)
Boys’ top ten books:
Robinson Crusoe (43) Swiss Family Robinson (24) Pickwick Papers (22) Ivanhoe (20) Boy’s Own Annual (17) The Bible (15) Tom Brown’s Schooldays (15) Valentine Vox (13) Vice Versa (12) St. Winifred’s, or The World of School (11)
Girls’ top ten authors:
Charles Dickens (355) Sir Walter Scott (248) C. Kingsley (103) C. M. Yonge (100) Shakespeare (75) Mrs. Henry Wood (58) E. Wetherell (Susan Warner)(56) George Eliot (50) Lord Lytton (46) Andersen (33)
Girls’ top ten books:
Westward Ho! (34) The Wide, Wide World (29) The Bible (27) A Peep Behind the Scenes (27)John Halifax, Gentleman (25) David Copperfield (22) Little Women (21) Ivanhoe (18) The Days of Bruce (16) The Daisy Chain (13)
About Jackie: A former children's book editor, Jackie Horne is the author of History and the Construction of the Child in Early British Children's Literature (Ashgate 2011) and coeditor of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, volumes in the Children's Literature Association's Centennial series. She has taught courses in Victorian Children's Literature and Fantasy and Science Fiction for Children at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College. She's also currently at work writing a Regency-set historical romance for adult readers.