Six to Sixteen: A Story for GirlsSix to Sixteen: A Story for Girls by Juliana Horatia Ewing

Read as part of the Book Riot Read Harder 2018 Challenge (Category: “A children’s classic published before 1980”)

She’s no relation, but I’ve always had a curiosity about the work of my mid-Victorian namesake Mrs Ewing, author of dozens of books and short stories for children. In her time a bestseller – enough that her early death sparked an 18-volume memorial edition of her collected works – hardly anyone reads her now, but there’s a chain of admiration linking her to the present day. There’s something of Mrs.Ewing’s unpatronising interest in childhood concerns in the work of E. Nesbit, for instance (who is not much read herself but whose flame is kept alive by Pullman and others).

Even so I was a bit scared to approach Six To Sixteen – I had the idea Mrs Ewing’s books might be rather dry and improving, since she was keen for them to lead her child-readers along virtuous paths. But I was wrong. If there’s a central message of Six To Sixteen, it’s one that’s orthodox today but I suspect was a good deal less widely agreed in the 1860s – the need for girls to have an education and lifestyle that strongly emphasises curiosity and “intellectual pursuits” (everything from art to naturalism to languages) over the traditional domestic and social spheres of the Victorian feminine.

Most of the novel – an autobiography started on a whim by Margery, the lead character, as exactly one of these pursuits – is a progress through a series of social milieux until our heroine winds up in one where she can effectively live this life. After an early childhood spent in India, Margery passes through life in a regimental town (too gossipy), an ancient family home (too traditional), and a private girls school (too limiting) before finally finding happiness in a vicarage on the Yorkshire moors where she can read, write, paint, learn, debate and play with the family dogs to her heart’s content.

This isn’t to say Mrs Ewing isn’t a moralist, or religious – but she’s not didactic. Religious morality is the air the characters breathe, but they explicitly remark on it about as rarely as they talk about that air. The improving character of the novel mostly shows itself through omission – there are no villains and very little bad behaviour, and when a character does display unfortunate traits (a flighty governess, for instance) the book is annoyingly careful not to go into too much detail. Mrs Ewing’s instructive method here is imitative – and it wouldn’t do to give people the wrong things to imitate.

The result is an episodic book with a very loose, barely discernible plot, whose characters are at worst well-meaning. Within thirty or so pages I’d adjusted to the Victorian style and within that style the book bubbled along very merrily even though not much ever seemed to happen. Where there is tension, it comes out of differences in philosophy, not from open conflict. It makes for a surprisingly subtle story, whose narrator is often quietly ironic, like a Jane Austen heroine for kids.

Though not entirely like – there’s no overt romance in Six To Sixteen, even if there’s plenty for Victorian shippers to work with. The book ends with Margery’s best friend Eleanor getting married, but the advantages of marriage as presented by Mrs. Ewing are firmly in keeping with the rest of the book. Eleanor has found a life-partner, someone who will share in and encourage her sketching, scientific pursuits, reading Dante and so on. I’m aware it’s my own stereotyping of Victorian mores that made this ending such a pleasant surprise, when I’d been expecting more of a “put away childish things” type resolution.

If parts of the novel felt disarmingly modern, other parts reflect a very different world. Eleanor, Margery, and other characters are independent-minded and practical, but there’s not even a hint that financial independence or work is on the cards. And if religion is taken as read, so too is class: Mrs Ewing’s good life of intelligence, culture and curiosity is not available to every Victorian girl (let alone girls in India, who are never mentioned in any case!). Nor is there any indication the possibility could exist. This isn’t a flaw in the novel, but it’s a possible clue as to why Mrs. Ewing’s work didn’t much survive her time, despite its approachability and sparkle.

Aside from religion and class, there’s one other constant presence in Six To Sixteen: death. Margery is an orphan; so are many other kids; and those that aren’t have often lost brothers and sisters, since every illness carries some risk of fatality and many – cholera, scarlet fever, smallpox – are reliable scourges. It wouldn’t be true to say that Margery takes death in her stride, but the fact of it is taken for granted in a way that would be impossible even in 20th century children’s literature. With mortality all around, the book’s central question – of how to live your best life – becomes still more urgent

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