Wild at colonial boys

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Britannia's Children: Reading Colonialism through Children's Books and Magazines, By Kathryn Castle, Manchester University Press Pounds 40. The All White World of Children's Books and African-American Children's Literature, Edited by , Africa World Press Pounds 10.99, Distributed by Turnaround

Writing as I am from India, and growing up as I did with the descendants of Pluck, Magnet and Marvel, the Enid Blytons and Richmal Cromptons and Eagle and Schoolgirl weeklies, I am tempted to describe Kathryn Castle's book as a "jolly good read".

Yet, the Billy Bunter books or the schoolboy heroes of the children's periodicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a far more susceptible readership than this reviewer. The British people had to be informed of the reasons for keeping the Empire "governed" and where better to start than in the classroom?

Historians and storytellers served the same purpose. But, says Kathryn Castle, "while the texts and 'improving' journals painted the [Indian] sub-continent as emerging from the 'darkness' of primitive existence, the fictional heroes thrived upon this interaction with the 'perilous' East." India's princely rulers were portrayed as despots, and manly young British heroes felt honour-bound to topple such rulers. Fiction, says Dr Castle, was directly re-enacting the textbooks' rationale for intervention in India.

Writers seized the certainties of class. The princely Hurree Jamset Ram Singh becomes part of Billy Bunter's Greyfriars gang, aligns himself with the English against the "alien" French and German boys, and laughs off his own idiosyncratic use of English. He is an honorary English boy, but on the rulers' terms: acceptance involved betrayal.

However, she says, the "crown recognised no elite in Africa that corresponded to India's elite". If the hunt was a metaphor for social interaction in India, in Africa the safari was the equivalent, with the "natives" playing guides or scouts. Strength and physical skills were valued.

The stories of Jack the English boy, Sam the American and Pete the African in Marvel and then in Magnet and Pluck, show the uses of the "wise darkie". It is Pete who performs prodigious feats, learned from his life in the circus, to save the trio.

The conflation of racial identity and social Darwinism threw up stereotypes, judged by Anglo-Saxon attributes. Athletic, muscular princes played cricket. Moral values were assessed through Christianity; the polytheism and rituals of Hinduism were seen as grotesque and young boys grappled with fearful practices to overcome the terror of the barbarian and the unknown. I would have liked to see more discussion of the missionary tracts in India (eg "Half-Hours with the Hindoos") and of the nature of graphic illustration.

Images, verbal and graphic, are central to Osayimwense Osa's volume on African-American literature for children in the United States. These essays offer a counterpoint to themes in Castle's book. The Harmsworth empire flourished with the publication of children's periodicals.

In the US, say Mary Thompson Williams and Helen Bush Caver, black and white authors succumbed to writing in dialect in the 1930s, because this was the only way they would be published. So "Frawg" was a human protagonist with distorted pronunciation of the animal of that name and corresponding physical distortions in the illustration.

African-American political activity had an impact, the numbers of books increasing, says Rosalie Black Kiah, when activity was greatest. And just as African-Americans attained freedom from legal slavery, mainstream literature developed virulent stereotypes in a backlash, says Donnaree MacCann.

Religion was an important factor in the growth of literature for children coping with discrimination. But Madge Gill Willis addresses another invisible barrier, challenging assumptions of the literaryoral divide in the African context. Her telling analysis shows how verbal skills have heightened the use of metaphor in African-American language. An extremely useful source book of the literature in the US.

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