'An Adventure of Master Tommy Trusty; and his delivering Miss Biddy Johnson, from the Thieves who were going to murder her': this is the charming title of a story in the first-ever children's periodical, the Lilliputian Magazine, brought out by John Newbery in 1751, and with its theme of character-moulding (a silly little girl is cured of vanity through suffering a fright) it set the tone for a good deal of juvenile magazine fiction for some time. Right up until the 1930s and Forties, characters in the children's papers were still being moulded, sometimes with equal suddenness, as defects such as snobbishness or spite were ironed out of them. But it was during the last century that the reformist impulse in children's authors was at its strongest. Such papers as there were, were full of fearful warnings about the likely outcome of frivolity or disobedience. Give in to naughtiness, the message was, and you will pay dearly for it: after the misdoing (being boisterous on a Sunday, or coveting a pear), as likely as not, comes the deathbed scene - however, Kirsten Drotner tells us, pictures of dying children were sometimes juxtaposed with elephants and giraffes, presumably to keep readers' spirits from subsiding altogether. Not that all fictional children were seen as wilful - on the contrary, the misbehavers had their counterparts in the horde of priggish young who set about eroding the turpitude of wicked adults, as in the magazine story of 1827 called 'The Pious Girl and her Swearing Father': judging by her clinging attitude (she is illustrated with both arms clasped around his neck), he had plenty to swear about.
LRB 1 June 1989 | PDF Download