Reviews 2013

Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe

Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe. Andrew O'Malley. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 195 pages. £50.00 (hardback).

Andrew O’Malley’s ground-breaking first book, The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century (2003) mapped out the interconnected histories between the consolidation of the middle classes in eighteenth-century Britain and the emergence of children’s literature as a major publishing phenomenon. His second book, Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe (2012) indirectly picks up where his first book left off, presenting a prolonged meditation on the curious case of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), which, unusually, has been taken up both as a classic work of children’s literature and as an iconic work of popular culture. The popularity of this work among both children and the ‘common people’ (4) does not, for O’Malley, compromise the alliance between eighteenth-century children’s literature and middle-class ideology that his first book so persuasively established, since its interest lies in its very idiosyncrasy. It is indeed, as O’Malley muses in his introduction, hard to think of a comparable text which plays such a seminal role in both high culture and low culture, least of all one which is also read – and loved – by children. However, what the peculiar case of Robinson Crusoe reveals, O’Malley suggests, is ‘how the two newly “discovered” categories of “the child” and “the people” took shape alongside one another’ (4) – which is to say that, with the entrenchment of the normativity of middle-class values, both children and the working classes began to be viewed as others, so much so that the characteristics of the one could be used to identify the other: ‘if the people possess[ed] qualities of childlike innocence, children likewise possessed uncivilized popular tendencies’ (11). In its more benign form, the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fascination with both types of othered subjects resulted in unprecedented interest in the education and welfare of children on the one hand, and the preservation and valorisation of folk culture on the other. In its more invidious form, what Michel de Certeau refers to as ‘the period’s infantalizing rusticophilia’ (123) was used to justify the well-documented subordination of the values of both groups – linked by their apparently shared lack of sophistication – to the values of educated adults.

O’Malley’s book treats Robinson Crusoe as a ‘case study’ (4), and in so doing, deftly strikes a balance between acknowledging the particularity of this work and its reception, whilst also reflecting on the ways in which examination of it might bring into clearer view a wider historical phenomenon. O’Malley’s carefully bi-focalising approach is especially fitting for a work which, as O’Malley observes, itself ‘has managed to occupy the seemingly irreconcilable terrains of modern, realistic novel and of myth’ (157). O’Malley’s book thus functions both as a meticulously researched account of the reception of Robinson Crusoe (one which will be of interest to literary critics and book historians of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s literature and popular culture) and as an incisive theoretical exploration of the ways in which our concepts of ‘childhood’ and ‘folk’ are infected by ‘nostalgia’ (making this an indispensable read for scholars across the disciplines interested in the history and theory of childhood, class, and their relationships with culture).

Chapter 1 considers why Robinson Crusoe, a novel which features no child characters and was not originally written with a child audience in mind, so quickly and enduringly became established as a major work of children’s literature. O’Malley accounts for this by tracing how the novel’s pedagogical spirit is consistent with both of the major educational theories of the eighteenth century by exemplifying the ‘supervisory’ (30) model outlined by John Locke as well as anticipating the experiential model of natural pedagogy proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Through consideration of children’s adaptations of the novel by writers including Joachim Campe, Madame de Genlis and Barbara Hofland, O’Malley demonstrates that Robinson Crusoe’s emphasis on the appeals of domesticity and the virtues of filial duty, together with its stylistic reliance on repetition to reinforce lessons learned, dovetails with many of the central themes and methods of works written expressly for a child audience in the eighteenth century. Chapter 2 assesses the extent to which the many abridgements and editions designed for the use of children and schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reiterate and confirm the dominant ideological structures with which the text has been associated in our own age: individualism, colonialism, and an emerging capitalist ethos. In particular, it analyses how the many adaptations of the novel for girls tame the ‘wanderlust many parents and pedagogical theorists found…worrisome’ (75) in the original by decisively returning their protagonists back home at the end, re-planting the novel’s affective roots on home turf rather than on alien soil.

The third chapter provides an illuminating tour through the ways in which the numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth- century chapbook editions of the novel altered the source text in order to appeal to a predominantly lower-class audience, highlighting the nervousness among educational commentators produced by the ‘discursive conflation’ of ‘the child’ and ‘the people’ (20). Chapter 4 charts the fascinating afterlife of the novel in theatrical form, both through serious productions at mainstream venues such as the Theatre Royal and, in the nineteenth century, as a popular pantomime piece. O’Malley identifies here the seeds of a shift in which the title character evolves from a role to be ‘assumed’ into a ‘product to be consumed’ (130). In the final chapter, O’Malley pursues this evolution into our own age in which Robinson Crusoe features as board game, video game, cake decoration, toy, asking: ‘what is being sold with the Crusoe name and image?’ (21-2). The discussion presents a powerful and intriguing case for the ways in which Crusoe toys reinforce ‘the modern ethos of individualism’ (137).

This is a beautifully researched and intricately thought-out work of scholarship, whose apparently modest scope is deceptive, since the book ultimately pushes towards a far-reaching and provocative conclusion: that Robinson Crusoe, by heralding the future ‘as modernity’ and evoking the past ‘as nostalgia’, performs ‘the kind of fundamentally contradictory cultural work into whose service the idea of childhood itself has been called for at least the last two centuries’ (157). In so doing, Children’s Literature, Popular Culture and Robinson Crusoe testifies to the valuable insights to be gained from painstaking and historically precise analysis of the spectral texts which haunt children’s literature.

Louise Joy
University of Cambridge, UK

Works Cited

De Certeau, Michel. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

O'Malley, Andrew. The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 2003.