Dame Darcy's cover for The Illustrated Jane Eyre

Over the past few years, I have come to learn a lot about children’s literature and the reading preferences of young urban children and youth. I am involved with a wonderful organization that provides books free to children in low-income neighborhoods. Books are donated to the organization, which then displays them in a beautiful location in a century home – complete with window seats and fireplaces – and then children browse the shelves and take home one free book every time they come for a visit. The organization serves hundreds of children a day and is a wonderful oasis in the middle of Toronto.

What I have come to realize the more I work at the organization is the rather marginal status of Victorian children’s fiction among these children and youth. Right now, the Twilight series rules supreme, and we cannot keep a Stephanie Meyer book on the shelf for more than a few hours. One of my fellow volunteers was proud that she managed to foist Bram Stoker’s Dracula on a young person originally in quest of Twilight, and I wondered both about the advisability of that bait-and-switch and about what the young reader’s response to Stoker’s strange tale will be.

More generally, I have been thinking about the place of nineteenth-century children’s literature in today’s literary landscape. Our organization receives donations of books by L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, R.L. Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle by the box load. But the bucolic images of rural P.E.I or detection stories set in Victorian London do not seem to appeal to these young people and these books barely move off the shelves. Recognizing this lack of youth interest, some publishers are attempting to market nineteenth-century fiction to youth through innovations in illustration and updated covers. Penguin used this strategy in 2006 with their Illustrated Jane Eyre, illustrated by the famous goth artist Dame Darcy. In describing her cover of Brontë’s book, Darcy said,

…I thought the way to make it really kind of punk rock for the new generation of goth girls that it’ll appeal to was to take the scene where Jane Eyre is freaking out while the giant mansion is burning behind and Jane Eyre is written in bloody red letters. That’s how hard core Jane Eyre gets! People think its this classic about a governess, but its not necessarily about that – I mean she gets called a witch about 7000 times and everything demented and tragic goes down during the book.

The Penguin site for the book affirms that Dame Darcy’s illustrations “update the classic for a new era,” and I am very curious about whether the sales figure for the edition met the publisher’s hopes.

When I think back to my own childhood, I realize that nineteenth-century fiction made up much of my reading. I read Montgomery’s entire oeuvre as a girl and even contemporary historical fiction, like Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, was a revelation to me. Please do not misunderstand this observation as being a “kids these days” type of rant. When I think back to what my friends were reading when we were in middle school, I remember a slew of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine murder mystery novels. (In our organization, those are as unpopular today as the nineteenth-century fiction). It seems that I was inhabiting the fictional worlds of Jane Austen and L.M. Montgomery alone, a fact which leads me to a startling question: was I always going to be a Victorianist?

What was I, at eleven years old, drawn to in nineteenth-century fiction? And is it those same qualities that draw me today? Readers, do you see any interesting connections between your childhood reading and your current interests? I also wonder whether, like my colleague, I should be more aggressively encouraging these kids to take home some of the fiction that I loved (after all, even if the cover doesn’t appeal, surely some of them may connect with the narratives themselves?)

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12 thoughts on “Dracula in Twilight and Goth Janes: Nineteenth-century Young Adult Fiction Today

  1. Jen, what an interesting post! You raise many great questions. You also reminded me of another publishing tactic (that we may have discussed here on the floating academy?): Wuthering Heights, apparently Bella from Twilight’s favorite book, was published with a cover matching the Twilight novels, encouraging young readers to read it alongside the franchise. I suppose I’m all for it, if it gets young people reading Victorian literature (but I wonder what kind of messages they would gather from Wuthering Heights!).

    Though I also read L.M. Montgomery as a child, I was pretty light on Victorian reading. So I guess that means your kids might come to appreciate nineteenth-century literature in time. Still, trying to sneak some in now wouldn’t hurt!

  2. Thanks for bringing up the Twilght/Wuthering Heights connection Tara!!

    Here’s an article from the Guardian that talks about the WH cover that mirrors the Twilight aesthetic– “How Much Harm Does a Bad Book Cover do?”:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/aug/19/harm-bad-book-cover

    The article is interesting for a few reasons. One, it seems to sort of denigrate both young women and publishing success when Barnett, the author, writes that some might be offended at the comparison between a “classic” like WH and “a mass-market publishing phenomenon aimed at adolescent girls.” (A comment which seems to overlook the fact that WH was written by a young woman and was also panned by some critics).

    Also, In this case, we do have publishing numbers: apparently sales of WH have quadrupled (!!) since the Twilight phenomenon from 8551 per year, in 2005, to 34023 in 2009:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/7570922/Wuthering-Heights-quadruple-double-thanks-to-Twilight-effect.html

  3. Great post! The organization you describe sounds magical.

    When I was growing up, I was not permitted to read a lot of the contemporary secular books my friends were devouring (e.g. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret), thanks to Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family newsletter, to which my mother subscribed. Consequently, I turned to L. M. Montgomery, F. H. Burnett, the Brontes, Stoker, Stevenson, and a whole lot of Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and the Bobbsey Twins.

    Now I’m a Victorian lit PhD, too, and I do think my mother’s censorship of my childhood reading had a hand in it. I was obsessed with Wuthering Heights as a pre-teen. I thought that was what love was supposed to be like. Given how violent Heathcliff is, I’m not sure handing me Wuthering Heights and preventing me from reading Judy Blume’s YA fiction was the wisest thing my mom’s ever done…

    Which leads me to my burning question: Is Wuthering Heights a more damaging influence on young girl readers than Twilight? (and gawd, that I’m asking that, does that mean I’m just taking up mom’s banner o’ censorship??!)

    Interestingly, my mom’s lightened up as she’s gotten older. I have a much younger sister (e.g. she could be my kid). Last year, because sis was BEGGING, mom gave in and let her read Twilight. Mom and I had a long email chat about this decision, in part because I’m horrified at how Bella is represented in book and movie as a generally helpless everygirl who has to be saved by boys all the time. (Mom & sis ended up reading it together and discussing Bella’s characterization. Yay!)

    Now, sis hates to read (understatement! see my recent blog post) and mom has devised a summer challenge for her (for every book she reads, she gets $5). Sis would never stick with anything set in the “olden times.” Yes, this seems like still more evidence that kids today are not interested in Vic Lit. But then, most kids in my day weren’t either. So, Jennifer, I think it’s you and I who are the oddballs 😉

  4. What an amazing cover! I read a lot of Victorian fiction in my early teens too.

    love that the gothic trend in teen fiction is drawing in new readers to the Bronte sisters. I wonder what other authors could benefit?

    it occurs to me that the high domestic realism of a lot of Victorian fiction just may not be chiming in with the times whereas the Brontes are.

  5. Karen, I think you’re right that the Brontes, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, might be more appealing than, say, Gaskell or Trollope, to adolesents. I have to admit, Kellie, as I implied in my earlier comment, that I would also worry about what young men and women would take from Wuthering Heights! I wouldn’t censor it from my students, but would certainly (as your Mom did) ask them to interrogate Heathcliff’s brand of masculinity. It’s fascinating (and disturbing?) that Edward from Twilight seems to be so similar. What does that say about gender roles today? I like Buffy better than Bella!

    And, Jen, the language in that review is fascinating. As if Victorian novels weren’t “mass-market publishing phenomenon aimed at adolescent girls”! Thanks for posting.

  6. Thanks everyone for your thoughts!!

    I agree with you, Kellie and Tara, that a book like Wuthering Heights is hardly a “safer” book than “Twilight” or “Are you there God, its me Margaret.” I remember being flummoxed by Wuthering Heights when I first read it as an adolescent (and, really, I suppose I’m no less flummoxed by it now).

    I suppose a related question in all of this has to do with the usefulness or desirability of the very concept of age-appropriate reading. Furthermore, its interesting to think about the kinds of wider assumptions that are made about age-appropriateness and “classic” literature.

  7. Thanks for prompting me to think about this, Jen, because some time ago I was trying to reconcile myself to the popularity of Rowling’s *Harry Potter* series. Like many, part of me was disappointed that children were reading what, for me at least, was Rowling’s cannibalization of tropes developed in Victorian fiction, including especially *Tom Brown’s Schooldays* and *Stalky and Co.*

    On my dark days, I wonder if such intertextual debts are the most we can hope for.

    On the other hand, maybe it’s a mistake to assume that the conventional language and cultural context of the Victorian period would absolutely be alienating to a modern reader of Victorian children’s fiction. Pico Iyer once remarked upon how impressive it is that Rowling’s series maintained a transatlantic audience given that, for most North Americans, the “real” muggle world of late-twentieth-century suburban England was just as absurd as the “fantastical” wizard world. So maybe getting twenty-first century (North American) kids to read Victorian literature is not an impossible task. One needs only to overcome the massive marketing engines, cross-platform promotions, and distribution networks that are behind their competition. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Oh.

  8. Hi, The organisation that you are working for, sounds great. I think you should be a lil more aggressive bout promoting some of the books which you liked while growing up. I think kids these days have a false notion that classics are boring. But i’m sure, once they get into it, they can’t stop getting enough of it. Here in India, people read classics but mostly in summerized forms with quite a few illustrations. But still i think reading these short versions is nothing similar or close to reading the real thing. I have just discovered your Blog, and i intend to keep visiting it.

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