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Introduction to Jackanapes and The Brownies. Borgo, Mary Elizabeth. Noell, Evelyn.
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Introduction to Jackanapes and The Brownies
By Mary Borgo and E. Noell

When a reader opens the Riverside Literature Edition of Ewing's Jackanapes and The Brownies, he or she first finds an advertisement for a publisher's catalogue that includes an impressive list of authors. Shakespeare, Longfellow, Tennyson, and Byron accompany the two little children's stories included in this volume, their venerable presence an indication of Juliana Horatia Ewing's historical importance. Though she wrote in the 1800s, her influence has extended into the following centuries: “Jackanapes,” first published in 1879 in Aunt Judy's Magazine, was used in Imperial Britain and the United States to encourage young men to fight for their countries, and “The Brownies,” appearing in Yonge's Monthly Packet in 1865, provided the name for the Brownie division of the Girl Guides.

Aside from the real-world impact of Ewing’s work, many factors make these texts worth reading. "Jackanapes" and "The Brownies" are marked by several traits characteristic of her writing, traits crucial to an understanding of the children's literature of the Victorian period. Themes of nationalism, morals, nature, and the supernatural are conveyed in a style that is at once delicate and direct, familiar as a fairytale.

One of Ewing’s central themes in “Jackanapes” is the relationship between nationalistic militarism and Christian self-sacrifice. Jackanapes, the title character, dies because he pauses in the middle of a retreat to rescue his childhood friend Tony from the battlefield. Ewing originally wrote this story as a response to a historical event, as Margharita Laski writes: The Prince Imperial had lost his life in the fighting in Africa earlier in 1879, and there was at the time much criticism of the British officer with him who, it was believed, could have saved him. Thus the story of Jackanapes, who did give his life for his friend, struck aptly at people’s emotions. (Laski 50) Thanks to this historical context, Jackanapes's death in the midst of a doomed engagement resounds with the cultural weight of Alfred Tennyson's “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” that enduring popular Victorian paean to useless, misguided, but noble sacrifice. Jackanapes's death accumulates great cultural weight not only because he stands for the warrior who valiantly dies for a hopeless cause, but also because of strong religious overtones since his death results from his refusal to leave Tony behind when he might have escaped danger alone. By this act he lives the Christian command to lay down one's life for one's friend. Furthermore, his last request, made to a hard-bitten Major, is to hear a prayer from the Parade Service. In an ironic scene Jackanapes puts his commanding officer to shame, demonstrating faith in the face of death, while the officer can barely remember a line of prayer to mutter. Even so, his faith is essentially militaristic, for his request is rooted in the army's religious routine. Thus, in Ewing's story Christian faith accompanies and tempers military courage, even becoming equivalent to it.

In the valorous Jackanapes, then, Imperial aggression meets Christian values: he is as classic a figure of this conflation as Rudyard Kipling's "Tommy" in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses or Tom Brown in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays. But "Jackanapes" and "The Brownies" are also excellent examples of Ewing's gift for positive moralizing. Instead of writing cautionary tales about bad children who get into trouble, Ewing warmly paints the benefits and pleasures of virtue. A case in point is the delightful scene in which the young Jackanapes goes to the fair: his generosity with his carnival money to Tony and his great aunt Miss Jessamine is rewarded by his grandfather with the purchase of the Gypsy's horse Lollo, a pony that had fired Jackanapes's courage and imagination. The relationship of good deed to reward cannot be missed. Similarly, the little heroes of “The Brownies,” Tommy and Johnnie, begin as lazy and unthankful but end up savoring their father’s praise when they learn to do their housework cheerfully. For the children in Ewing's stories, good deeds bring the elation of good conscience and the acclaim of adults. As a result, her moralizing is tender, addressing the child psyche adroitly in order to elicit willing obedience.

In “The Brownies,” Ewing's moral is embedded within a traditional framework: the fairytale. Thanks partly to the Brothers Grimm, the Victorians remained fascinated by fairytales through the end of the nineteenth century. In 1812 and 1814, the Brothers Grimm published their Children's and Household Tales, which fed the persisting popularity of Charles Perrault, whose classic Contes de ma Mère l'Oye, ou Histoires du temps passé was published in 1697. Collections of fairytales circulated in all kinds of formats in the 1800s, from expensive illustrated volumes to penny chapbooks, and they contributed in part to a new generation of mid- to late-Victorian authors working in the genre, such as George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde. In these collections of fairytales, the narratives were often scripted as oral stories told by female narrators to a young audience. Ewing reclaims this female voice in “The Brownies” as she constructs a complex oral framework for her tale. A teller we sense to be female frames the story, in which a bachelor Doctor entertains his neighbor the Rector's children with a tale about Tommy and Johnnie. But within the Doctor's story, the boys' grandmother and an Old Owl, both female, tell their own fairytales. To complicate this structure further, the Rector's children at the end demand that the Doctor give them another ending to his fairytale, constructing for the reader the fantasy of a present, spoken, mutable narrative such as Ewing herself used to tell her siblings in their childhood nursery. Together these layers add to the oral quality of “The Brownies.”

Other aspects that mark "Jackanapes" and "The Brownies" as stories characteristic of Ewing are their sense of place and their emphasis on nature. The very first paragraphs of “Jackanapes” conjure a world of village peace and security; the opening of “The Brownies” is comic yet tender in its portrayal of childhood woes. Essential to this atmosphere are the plants and animals clearly dear to this writer. The Gray Goose in “Jackanapes” and the Owl in “The Brownies” are as much characters as the human actors, but Ewing makes them so without sentimentalizing or overly humanizing them. The Old Owl marries real life to the supernatural as a semi-human figure who sets Tommy on a moral path, and Lollo, the fiery little red pony of “Jackanapes,” exemplifies the Victorian tendency to worship horses as the embodiment of a nature that happily serves mankind. Ewing's attention to plants and animals thus builds a rich background for her stories.

A final trait of these narratives is the addition of figures outside the family circle who intervene in family events. The Doctor in “The Brownies” epitomizes this sort of character. His liminal status enables him to speak into the family situation unimpeded by family obligations, as he uses his story to encourage the children to be tidy without the domineering stance he might convey if he spoke with parental authority. He is a bridge between the child and the adult, a childless man who has not lost his sense of boyishness. Indeed, his adult maturity combined with friendly interest enhances the warmly moralistic quality of Ewing's tale.

Through "Jackanapes" and "The Brownies," then, we as readers experience the best characteristics of Victorian children's writing. A first encounter with Ewing's delightfully simple, friendly, and funny style is enough to explain why this author was so popular among the Victorians and remains influential today. In her understated way she has shaped our expectations of what a good children's story should be, and her tales only continue to enchant.


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  • Demers, Patricia. “Juliana Horatia Ewing ( )” . Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Children’s Writers, 1800-1880. Ed. Meena Khorana. Detroit: Gale Research 1996. 163: 91-99.
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