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The Origins of Female Protagonists in Children's Literature: Background information when reading The Magician's Daughter

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The Magician's Daughter

by H.G. Parry

The Magician's Daughter by H.G. Parry X
The Magician's Daughter by H.G. Parry
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    Feb 2023, 400 pages

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Jo-Anne Blanco
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The Origins of Female Protagonists in Children's Literature

This article relates to The Magician's Daughter

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Bridget (known as Biddy), the protagonist of H. G. Parry's The Magician's Daughter, grows up on the magical, hidden island of Hy-Brasil, with only her father, the mage Rowan O'Connell, and his familiar, a rabbit named Hutchincroft. She is greatly influenced by the stories of heroines she reads about in her father's library; female literary figures with whom she identifies and who help shape her character and moral compass. Their influence proves crucial when, in 1912 at the age of 16, Biddy has to leave the island to right past wrongs and face the challenges of the human world. Biddy's coming of age from an idyllic, magical childhood to a cruel, harsh awakening follows in the footsteps of her heroines, such as Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, and Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.

The library of Biddy's youth is filled with volumes that today's readers might consider classics of children's literature, but would have been fairly new at the time. Fiction written specifically for children and adolescents has its origins in the 18th century. Prior to this, the oral tradition of nursery rhymes and published religious verses such as Isaac Watts' Divine Songs for the Use of Children (1715) was used to inculcate morals and values. Fairy tales, such as those by Madame D'Aulnoy and Charles Perrault, with their predominantly female protagonists, were not originally intended for children. Nor was the first fairy tale published in English in 1621, which featured a male hero, Tom Thumb, already a well-known figure from folklore. In his 1730 stage play The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, Henry Fielding used the same male character to comment satirically on gender roles of the time — and, indeed, Tom Thumb himself would usually be played by a female child actress.

Little Goody Two-Shoes frontispieceIn 1749, Sarah Fielding, Henry's sister, included two fairy tales in her novel The Governess, or Little Female Academy. This book is considered to be the first English-language novel written for children and it is notable that all its characters are female. The eldest pupil, Miss Jenny, leads by example, recounting the story of her life to teach the others how to aspire to goodness and happiness; all the other girls then tell the stories of their lives as well. A few years later, in 1765, John Newbery, the first major publisher of children's books, published The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, an anonymously written story of the poor but intelligent and virtuous Margery Meadwell, who is ultimately rewarded for her innate nobility and diligence.

By the 19th century, children's literature had begun to evolve away from religious-themed morality tales as society became more secularized. Elements of magic and fantasy permeated children's stories with the advent of Edgar Taylor's 1823 translation of the Grimm brothers' fairy tales and the 1846 publication of Hans Christian Andersen's stories. Although male protagonists continued to appear in popular works of the time such as Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), the most influential, enduring, and famous of 19th century children's books feature a female main character: Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1872). The heroine, Alice, is an exceptionally bright seven-year-old girl who enters dream worlds highly influenced by Edward Lear's nonsense verses, juxtaposed with the darkness and chaos of traditional nursery rhymes. Carroll's mentor, the Scottish author George MacDonald, deserves to be as well-known today as his protégé, being the creator of such memorable female protagonists as Tangle of The Golden Key (1867), Princess Irene of The Princess and the Goblins(1872), and Rosamunde and Agnes of The Lost Princess: A Double Story (1875).

At the time we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Biddy in 1912, J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan (1904) had been published as a book in 1911 and Frances Hodgson Burnett had published her novels A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911). The tradition of female protagonists in children's literature was well-established, and writers such as Frank L. Baum, E. Nesbit, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Angela Brazil, and many others were creating timeless heroines whose impact on children's literature would be profound and whose influence would be felt for generations to come.

Frontispiece and title page from The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, courtesy of the British Library

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Article by Jo-Anne Blanco

This article relates to The Magician's Daughter. It first ran in the March 15, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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