The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children's Literature

The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children’s Literature

Ann Dowker (Dept of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford)

Disability Studies Quarterly: Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1


The classics of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century children’s fiction contain many characters with disabilities: for example, Clara in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (1872); Katy and Cousin Helen in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872)*; Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911)*; Pollyanna in Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1911)*and Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) (not strictly speaking a children’s book, but often treated as one). There are of course also many disabled characters in children’s books that are currently less well-known and/or less available to children: books by such authors as Charlotte Yonge, Annie Keary, Harriet Martineau, Talbot Baines Reed and Dinah Mulock (Mrs. Craik).

The received wisdom on the part of most recent commentators on earlier children’s books is that disabled characters in books published before the time of the First World War are usually two-dimensional stereotypes. They are sometimes villains, especially in books predominantly intended for adults, and in some fantasies (e.g. Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”; originally Peter and Wendy, 1911). More often they are saintly invalids, either to begin with, or because their experience of disability has reformed them. Most of these saintly or reformed invalids are girls. They rarely become disabled adults: either they die young, or experience a miracle cure.

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