books,  the ethical life

19th Century Children’s Literature and the Obsession with Self-Improvement

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White lies – those little lies one tells to be polite. Do you encourage your children to tell them? Do you let them claim a prior engagement to get out of an invitation? Do you let a child blame a parent to avoid insulting a friend? I’ve wondered about that…. my mom always told me I could use her as an excuse any time I needed, and I appreciated that, though I don’t think I did it much. My children have more hesitancy about telling falsehoods than I. They dislike the very idea.


Charlotte May Young’s introduces the topic in her book Countess Kate. It is a children’s novel written during the 19th century about an eleven year old girl who goes to stay with two aunts. In some ways it has the feel of the books of Johanna Spyri, Louisa May Alcott, and Frances Hodgson Burnett – there’s the 19th century pressure for self-improvement, which I’ll write about in a minute or two. But first the bit about lies. At one point an aunt tries to get the girl to write a “fashionable falsehood” to get out of an invitation, and the girl outright refuses to lie. Instead she runs away to a different relative, who assures her that her duty is to obey her aunt. So on one hand, the book seems to make excuses for these little lies, at least when promoted by the adults in charge. However, in a little subtle twist the story mentions that when the aunt receives a true message about her niece being too sick to travel, she assumes it is just a “fashionable falsehood.” While urging obedience the book also points out the problems with accepting that people don’t always tell the truth.

Truth features into the story in different ways too. The girl tries to excuse her own actions by claiming that the relatives she stayed with previously allowed such things. The result is her aunts start to believe that the relatives were a bad influence on her and decide the connection must not be encouraged. The girl creates a narrative to herself about how her aunts mistreat her, and let that narrative keep her from taking responsibility for her own actions. At many points the story feels way too hard on the little orphaned girl, out of the belief that no matter the circumstances the individual is responsible for their own choices and should strive to do better.

I’ve started reading novels by Charlotte Mary Yonge, because Christina Rossetti’s biographers said she read Yonge’s novels. Yonge was a part of the Oxford Movement, which I’ve been studying recently, and I am interested in seeing how her stories fit into that.

However, I have mixed feelings about the whole 19th century self-improvement ideas. As a child I read and re-read books that urged little girls to strive towards self-improvement. Be loving, wise, mature, slow to anger, obedient and humble. Think of others before oneself. Take responsibility for one’s own action and moods. On one hand, it is all good advice. On the other, it can lead to a lot of self-doubt, self-chastisement and perfectionism. Taking the message that perfecting oneself is supposed to allow one to win over all the difficult people in one’s life, I assumed the bullying I faced at school was my own fault and a sign of my ongoing imperfection. I have had to strive to unlearn that.

Yet, at the same time, I still believe in the idea of needing to take responsibility. I think of conversations I’ve had with my children about the idea that they can see situations multiple ways, understanding the other person’s point of view but also having their own, and they don’t know who is too blame. Yonge’s book cuts through that dilemma, explaining both sides of almost all the situations but then saying both members are responsible for their own poor actions. What it does not answer is whether it really takes two sides to argue – if one side made better choices, would that really make a difference or not?

In some ways the whole 19th century self-improvement stuff can perpetuate abuse. I know it can. It is tempting because it implies that one is never powerless. One can always shape one’s own actions. It sounds empowering. Yet… yet… it has to be balanced with more honest appraisals of power imbalances, age appropriate expectations and other aspects of reality.

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