Children’s Experiences and Cultural Identity through Classical Myth and History in Britain, c. 1800–2005

— an Our Mythical Childhood panel at the Children’s History Society Biennial Conference “Children and Young People, Speaking Up and Speaking Out”, Manchester Metropolitan University, 16–19 June 2021

by Owen Hodkinson

The Children’s History Society of the UK hosted its biennial conference in 2021 at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), in association with organizers from both the History Research Centre and the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies and MMU. It was a large international conference, three days long, with 24 panels running in parallel, along with several masterclasses, plenary sessions, and three keynote lectures, including by bestselling children’s author and poet Michael Rosen and award-winning Young Adult author Alex Wheatle MBE (full programme and further details available here). The conference — titled “Children and Young People, Speaking Up and Speaking Out” — included a strong focus on children’s and young adults’ own voices, in all forms, rather than only the voices of historians, authors, and others writing for and about them. 

Manchester Metropolitan University [source]

One of the host organisers, ancient historian Dr April Pudsey, is Head of History and Archaeology of Childhood at the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies; being aware of Our Mythical Childhood through its UK contributors in classics and ancient history, she approached some of us to see whether we might like to propose a panel of OMC participants, and a few of us jumped at the chance to meet new people with research interests in childhood studies across all eras, regions, and disciplines — and to plug the work and resources of OMC! Originally scheduled as an in-person event in 2020, rather than the online-only 2021 event it became because of Covid, the idea was just to submit a small panel of UK-based regular contributors to OMC to the conference. To that end, OMC researcher Sonya Nevin, and OMC conference and volume contributors Rachel Bryant Davies and Owen Hodkinson put together a panel focused on British uses of Classical myth and history over the last two centuries (and a bit); we addressed the conference’s emphasis on young voices by each choosing examples from our own research that are not only products (literary, ludic, and pedagogical) for children and young adults, but were also produced by young people, or afford researchers insights into children’s responses to them. Thus our panel was titled “Children’s Experiences and Cultural Identity through Classical Myth and History in Britain, c. 1800–2005”. Sonya explored juvenilia written by the Brontë sisters (long before their famous novels) along with their brother Branwell, which engaged creatively with the figures they learned about as part of the classical education that was so central to British schooling in the 1800s. Moving from around 1800 to the turn of the 19th–20th centuries, Rachel spoke about puzzles and games in Victorian children’s periodicals, focusing especially on submissions on Graeco-Roman themes sent in by child readers and published in the magazines. Finally, moving forwards another century, I spoke about prodigious Nigerian-British novelist Helen Oyeyemi’s astoundingly sophisticated debut YA/Crossover novel The Icarus Girl, a fusion of Yoruba and Greek myth written when she was still at school taking her A levels (age 17–18). All three papers examined issues of cultural, national and other forms of identity; they considered the place of classical education, history, and myth in shaping the identities of the young voices we heard from, along with the ways in which these classical elements were combined with more contemporary cultural phenomena or put to use by the creative instincts and distinctive voices of our various young authors and contributors. Our panel abstract and individual abstracts are given below. 

Helen Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl [source]

OMC was also represented at the conference by Susan Deacy and Lisa Maurice, in a presentation about the ACCLAIM Autism and Myth Network titled “Hercules and Classical Myths for Autistic Children”. For more see Susan’s post on her blog.

Outside our own panel, we were able to hear several other individual contributions on aspects of classical history, myth, and literature, among thematic panels ranging widely, from children’s toys and games throughout world history, to young people’s participation in activism today. Other contributions with connections to classical antiquity included the papers by PhD students Emma Gooch, “‘A Place to Play and Be a Child’: Using material culture to explore the home lives of children in Classical Greece, 480–323 BC”; Felix Seibert, “The Construction of the Juvenile Style in Ancient Roman Literature”; and by April Pudsey herself, “The Lives and Concerns of Girls in Antiquity”. In addition there were two Masterclasses, one by Cora Beth Knowles: “The Autistic Labyrinth: Anyone May Enter…” and one by Sally Waite and Andrew Parkin: “Material Cultures of Childhood”.

Altogether, the conference was a rewarding experience, with a very rich and diverse offering of pre-recorded panel papers (which could therefore all be watched at our leisure, even those clashing with our own panels!) and live plenary sessions. This was a very welcome chance for some of the UK-based OMC regulars to participate, and to spread the word about OMC to new audiences. 

Videos of the pre-recorded papers and live Masterclass related to Classics are now available on the Manchester Classical Association YouTube channel:

Panel Abstract

Children’s Experiences and Cultural Identity through Classical Myth and History in Britain,  c. 1800–2005 — an Our Mythical Childhood panel

Dr Owen Hodkinson, University of Leeds

Ancient Greek and Roman history and myth, as cornerstones of British education and culture until at least the early 20th century, have long played a central role in children’s own writing and play, as in literature for children since its inception. While children’s voices can be heard using Classical heroes and narratives to mediate their own experiences and to express their identities in cultural products and practices throughout the last two centuries, the changing status and place of Classical narratives in an evolving British society — from discourses of colonialism and the military experience to postcolonial explorations of non-European cultural inheritances — have inevitably altered the ways in which children express themselves in terms of and in opposition to models from antiquity. Likewise, the ways in which adult voices have taught children about and via Classical narratives, and have mediated children’s expressions in their writing and play, have changed to reflect socio-cultural trends in pedagogy, in the creation of consumer products and texts for children, and other areas. This panel examines young voices in Britain speaking out in play and in creative writing across a broad chronological scope (ca. 1820s–2000s), exploring how knowledge of Classical culture both informed their perceptions of the world around them and was used to mediate their own experiences and construct their identities. This chronological scope will allow the panel to shed light on substantial continuities and radical changes alike in three case studies of young people choosing or encouraged to use Graeco-Roman antiquity as a central facet of their self-expression.

Individual Abstracts

The Voice of the Young Brontës. Antiquity and Social Comment in the Brontë Juvenilia

Dr Sonya Nevin, University of Roehampton 

The Brontë children’s world changed one eventful afternoon when their father arrived home with a box of toy soldiers for his son, Branwell. The toys inspired an outburst of creative writing in which the soldiers were the daring protagonists. With their usual precociousness, the Brontë children depicted themselves as god-like genii controlling the toys’ universe. They created a fictional world for the toy soldiers that would dominate their imaginative play and writing even into adulthood. It was a creative apprenticeship that would inform their ground-breaking adult work. 

The Brontë juvenilia offers a fascinating insight into the lives of these writers as young people. This paper will focus primarily on the juvenilia of Charlotte and Branwell and their creation, Angria, a colonial society in West Africa. It will analyse how the two children drew on their knowledge of classical antiquity to enrich their imaginative writing. The worlds of ancient Greece and Rome provided them with tools to use in their growing command of metaphor and characterisation. For Charlotte in particular, reference to classical antiquity also offered an opportunity to comment critically on the heavily gendered nature of contemporary education. Who knows what, who is learning what, who reads what, and who is described as what all take on deep significance in this fictional world, reflecting the children’s own attempts to understand and respond to the real world around them. This paper will also refer to the Our Mythical Childhood database of antiquity in young people’s culture, a valuable resource for exploring the Brontë juvenilia and young people’s culture more broadly.

Patrick Branwell Brontë, The Brontë Sisters, painting c. 1834,
National Portrait Gallery, London [source]


‘Classics […] is not defunct yet’: Interacting with Greco-Roman Antiquity through Victorian Children’s Magazines

Dr Rachel Bryant Davies, Queen Mary University of London

Even as the privileged status of Classics in education began to be questioned towards the end of the nineteenth century, versions of Greco-Roman antiquity created for―and by―children proliferated. Some of children’s most sustained encounters with the past were enabled by the Victorian press. The burgeoning variety and relative affordability of periodicals enabled large readerships, encouraged interactivity through competitions, and fostered a sense of community, particularly through letters pages. While young characters re-enacted ancient scenes or attended fictional schools, informative articles explained historical characters and archaeological discoveries: details which could be mined for answers to puzzles or recounted in prize essays. 

In this paper, I will examine how Greco-Roman antiquity became a prime example of the balance many periodicals strove to achieve between pedagogy and play. Tracing entertaining and informative content across a representative sample of titles, including Boy’s Own PaperGirl’s Own Paper, Boys of England, Young Folks, and St Nicholas, I will focus on the Trojan War. This was the backbone of both popular entertainment and school curricula, and a prominent subject for serial stories, puzzle clues, and “How-to” articles promoting the creation of classical pastimes, such as Trojan horses, from everyday items (including brooms) and generic toys (wooden horse and lead soldiers). 

Such evidence demonstrates the challenges of reaching historical children’s voices through their submissions, when these were mediated by adult editors, or retold as adult reminiscences of school-days — which often highlighted traumatic experiences at public schools and sometimes represented this as comic. It also emphasizes the specific ideologies — particularly patriotism, religious or moral qualities and gendered role-models — promoted to child readers and by child contributors, camouflaged by the classical content. When such interactive journalism is placed alongside children’s encounters with antiquity in other media, the reception of Greco-Roman antiquity in children’s culture becomes a powerful measure of societal values.


Constructing Dual-Heritage Identity through Classical and African Myth: Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl

Dr Owen Hodkinson, University of Leeds

Icarus’ myth has remained a popular subject in British children’s literature from its beginnings: from straightforward retellings (usually in collections of Greek myth for children), to more allusive and allegorical adaptations or receptions of Icarus as a figure for exploring transformation and transcendence, and their failure. Like many characters of culturally shared narratives retold for children, from “Classical” and other mythologies to national histories, the capacity of child readers to identify with Icarus has at various times been exploited by adult authors using literature for didactic or moralizing purposes, as well as encouraging a notion of cultural identity constructed from the assumed common heritage of Classical myth in traditional European children’s literature. 

Children’s literature in recent decades has responded to cultural changes both by the increasing attempts at convincing portrayals of children’s voices like the readers’ own (instead of “talking down” to children and using literature as an overtly didactic tool); and by becoming in some cases more inclusive to readers whose heritage is not that of the dominant culture where the book is published, necessitating the revision of previous easy assumptions about shared narratives and common heroes for child readers to identify with. Helen Oyeyemi, a dual-heritage Nigerian-British author, entered into the tradition of creative adaptations of the Icarus myth with her 2005 novel The Icarus Girl, written when she was still studying for her A-Levels. She employs the Icarus myth and other Classical allusions in concert with more prominently foregrounded Nigerian myths in order both to construct and to explore the dual-heritage identity of the novel’s 8-year-old girl protagonist, who has one Nigerian and one British parent. As a child author giving voice to a protagonist who shares many of her own experiences, Oyeyemi speaks to other children wrestling with plural identities, discrimination, and with the feeling of not being “at home” in either culture. The possibility of escaping through flight is one way in which the eponymous Icarus myth is hinted at.

Dr Owen Hodkinson is an Associate Profesor of Classics in the Department of Classics at the University of Leeds, UK, an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation alumnus, with research interests in Greek and Roman epistolary literature and ancient prose fiction, the Second Sophistic, Philostratus, and Reception in 20th and 21st-century literature.

Elaborated by Olga Strycharczyk

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