In an essay on the history of France, contained in a collection published in 1992, Max Beloff recalls his childhood reading, saying he cannot remember which of Quentin Durward and The Three Musketeers he read first. He then adds a footnote:
As far as I can make out, neither Scott nor Dumas are read by English schoolchildren today. Instead they are fed, when they read at all, on a diet of books especially written for the juvenile market, of no literary value and offering no entry into the world of history… Even Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1905),… while not great literature, is better than what the young read now.
The first thing to observe about this note is that it is gratuitous. He had not the slightest need to digress on the subject of children’s reading today, and would seem just to have felt a sudden urge to pontificate. It would have been better resisted. A second observation is that it contains half-hidden rhetorical devices intended to make the reader accept contentious points as truths. “fed” implies that the books children read are not of their choosing but are foisted on them, and that they have no opportunity or inclination to discover anything else. “when they read at all” implies that most children don’t and that this is generally known. “especially written for the juvenile market” implies that children’s writers are hacks working to order, who lack any purely literary motivation – indeed “market” implies a nakedly commercial one.
And a third observation is that it is all nonsense. “As far as I can make out” – but Beloff cannot have looked at all at what children read now – and they do – if he really believed that it has no literary worth. Come to that, he cannot have looked properly at what children read in the past. Books “especially written for the juvenile market”, if we must put it like that, existed in Scott’s and Dumas’s day; they became more numerous as the nineteenth century progressed, were a distinct subgenre in the first half of the twentieth century and exploded in the second half. I do not believe Beloff had not heard of Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Ransome and Noel Streatfeild, nor that he had not read at least the first two. Children’s authors of literary merit from about 1950 onwards are too numerous to mention (and many of them have specialised in offering an “entry into the world of history”). They, and their qualities, have been well publicised, for example by many a children’s librarian, by Puffin Books in the 1960s and 70s, and over fifty years by the Federation of Childrens’ Book Groups, whose annual conference I shall be attending this weekend. Yet he writes as if books especially written for children were a recent arrival; almost as if they were a regrettable modern phenomenon introduced like myxomatosis, and intended to prevent young people’s appreciation of the classics. This is sad stuff for a historian.
Do children today read Scott and Dumas (or Baroness Orczy)? Probably not, but this is a consequence of the general, unending repatterning of literary tastes and evaluation. I remember one of my A level English teachers, a man with a Cambridge degree, drawing our attention to this process nearly forty years ago. Had anyone in the class, he asked, ever read any Scott? No one had. He then told us he hadn’t either, and that that would once have been a shameful admission for someone in his position to make. But he was quite unruffled – he had after all volunteered the information. If adult readers with English literature degrees no longer read Scott, why should the young do so, especially when they have so much of their own – we cannot at all jib at the word – literature?