Thomas Hardy’s little-known Christmas story for children (with a happy ending)

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B Calkins via Shutterstock

Stephanie Meek, University of Exeter

If you are looking forward to curling up with a heartwarming story this Christmas, you might not necessarily choose anything by Thomas Hardy – you’d be more likely to turn to the seasonal staples of Charles Dickens or Raymond Briggs. While Hardy is renowned for his tragic tales of Wessex life, his brief foray into the world of children’s Christmas fiction is largely unknown.

Published in the Christmas annual Father Christmas: Our little Ones’ Budget, Hardy’s story The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing is a tale for children which also has much to delight adult enthusiasts of his work.

Hardy’s story made its appearance in the first edition of the annual in December 1877. By this time, he was working on The Return of the Native (1878), having already published five novels – including Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), which first appeared anonymously and established his career as a successful novelist.

Nonetheless, his contribution to the annual could easily be overlooked. In this extract from the Illustrated London News (December 12, 1877) Hardy’s name is sandwiched between lesser-known literary figures:

A new claimant, entitled “Father Christmas: Our Little Ones’ Budget”, is announced to appear shortly. It comes with weighty claims on the favour of the rising generation, being crowded with amusing tales, songs, riddles and acrostics, by its fair editor, Miss N. Danvers, Austin Dobson, Thomas Hardy, W.H.G. Kingston, Reginald Gatty, and other writers of note in this special field of literature.

Thomas Hardy (1923) by Reginald Eves.
National Portrait Gallery

The story has received scant critical attention, despite the wealth of Hardy scholarship that exists. Hardy himself does not mention it in his autobiography, although it is included in a list of works compiled by his wife Emma in 1880 (which is available at Dorset County Museum) and categorised as a “Child’s story”.

Unlike Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) where social commentary is cosily bound up within a supernatural fantasy world, Hardy does not spare the reader his trademark realism. The action takes place in the “Vale of Blackmore”, which was described as “a fertile and somewhat lonely district” later to become the famous backdrop for the tragic events of Tess of the D’Urbevilles.

‘Twas the night before Christmas

It is Christmas Eve and the 14-year-old protagonist, Hubert, courageous but “a little vain”, is making his way home on “his stout-legged cob Jerry and singing a Christmas carol”. There is barely time for the reader to reach for a mince pie before Hubert is attacked by robbers with “artificially blackened” faces, tied up and thrown into a ditch.

Disorientated and upset that his horse has been stolen, Hubert extricates his legs from their bonds and wanders on until he chances on “a large mansion with flanking wings, gables, and towers, the battlements and chimneys showing their shapes against the stars”.

He enters the house, hoping to find assistance there but – like a scene from a modern-day thriller – suddenly hears the familiar voices of his attackers. Hubert quickly dives under the dining room table and listens as the thieves discuss their plans. It seems they have created a “false alarm” to get the wealthy occupants briefly “out of the house”, giving them time to find a hiding place where they can wait until everyone is in bed before robbing the mansion.

Before long, the “ladies and gentlemen” return to continue their festive celebrations, unaware of the thieves biding their time in a disused closet. Hubert then makes his appearance and starts to tell his story. However, it is met with disbelief – and he is even accused of being a robber himself as there is “a curiously wild wicked look about him…” So the resourceful lad hatches a plan to expose the thieves by pretending to be a magician with the power to “conjure up a tempest in a cupboard”.

While lacking the seasonal sumptuousness of Dickens, Hardy’s tale serves up its own socially subversive Christmas punch. Hubert, a yeoman’s son, manages to singlehandedly outsmart the upper-class family he encounters residing in the mansion. Though the reader is told he feels shame at their mistrust of his story, he accepts their hospitality. Hardy evokes a child’s sense of triumph at being a part of a privileged adult world:

Hubert, in spite of his hurt feelings at their doubts of his honesty, could not help being warmed both in mind and in body by the good cheer, the scene, and the example of hilarity set by his neighbours. At last he laughed as heartily at their stories and repartees as the old Baronet, Sir Simon, himself.

Class conflict

Although the story’s main action concerns a none-too festive attack on a young boy, the tale deals with wider social issues. Born into a working-class family, Hardy did not attend university and felt himself to be an outsider to London’s literary elite. An acute awareness of the divisions between rich and poor colours his work and The Thieves is no exception.

Hubert, outsider to the wealthy party he encounters, not only exposes the thieves through filling their hiding place with sneeze-inducing snuff, he manages to persuade Sir Simon and his guests that he is a magician. Ultimately, it is a child’s successful navigation of an exclusive adult world that is at the heart of Hardy’s narrative.

The Thieves is not Hardy’s only children’s story. Our Exploits in West Poley: A Story For Boys (1883), serialised in The Household ( November 1892-April 1893) lay in obscurity until its discovery in 1952. While Hardy is certainly not known for his children’s fiction, it can provide valuable insights into his career, as writer and poet, which had a foot in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

Writing for children in 1877, Hardy gives us a message, as relevant now as it was in his own time: however young, poor or seemingly unimportant a person is, they are still capable of doing great things.The Conversation

Stephanie Meek, Full time PhD candidate, University of Exeter

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ten novels to help young people understand the world and its complexities

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Nataliia Budianska via Shutterstock

Fiona Shaw, Northumbria University, Newcastle

In this confusing and often conflicted world, children’s author Gillian Cross has summed up what it is about reading fiction that is so important: “Good stories help us make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like being someone completely different.”

As the author of a children’s novel myself, I’m going to double down on this and say that if this is important for adults, it’s 100 times more important for children.

Children passionately want to understand what’s going on – and fiction is a potent way for them to do this. A study by education professor Maria Nikolajeva found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.

In the wealth of recent fiction for children and young adults, here are ten powerful stories for young people, addressing some of the most important, and troubling, questions we face today.

1. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion)

Imagine being imprisoned for your whole life. Imagine growing up like Subhi.

Life in a refugee camp. Source=Orion.

The nine-year-old’s world ends at the diamond-shaped fence – the outer edge of the detention centre he is detained in with his Rohingya family in Australia.

Fraillon draws a vivid picture of life inside the fence – vulnerable people fleeing persecution, only to find – instead of the peace and sanctuary they so desperately need – indifference and hostility.

But Subhi finds hope in his friendship with an Australian girl from outside the fence. (Age: 11+)

2. The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (Red Ink)

What if Germany had won World War II and the UK was now part of a Third German Reich? This is a coming-of-age story with a difference – 16-year-old Jessika is a talented ice-skater in a high-ranking REICH?family.

But her friendship with subversive, courageous and desirable Clem threatens everything: her family, her future, and her very life. This is a story that paints the dangers of totalitarianism in vivid language. (Age: 12+)

3. Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)

Fourteen-year-old Shif lives in a country that conscripts its children into the army. The country isn’t named, but may be in Africa. He wants to play chess with his best friend Bini and race him home from school. But the army comes calling and the two must flee.

Shif experiences at first hand the brutality of a totalitarian government, then the trauma of migration and trafficking. Despite this, the story manages to be hopeful. (Age: 12 +)

4. The Jungle by Pooja Puri (Ink Road)

Sixteen-year-old Mico is surviving his life in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Without anyone to look out for him, he must look out for himself, living on his wits and his luck. Using careful research, Puri shows us what life is like as a refugee, owning nothing, not even the clothes on your back or the blanket you sleep beneath.

She shows us the desperation and terrible lengths refugees will go to, to try to find a home. But when Mico meets Leila, we see, too, the hope – and the risk – that friendship brings. (Age: 12+)

5. After the Fire by Will Hill (Usborne)

Moonbeam has lost her mother and she only knows life inside The Fence – it’s a life controlled by cult leader Father John.

Life in a cult.

But one night a devastating fire burns that life to the ground – the buildings, the people, the leader are all gone and only Moonbeam and a handful of children survive. Moonbeam and the others must now discover the world beyond the fence.

Can she do this when Father John has told her to trust no one outside? Using the WACO siege as his source material, Hill explores the power of brainwashing and cult identity.

Moonbeam’s search is for a truth she can stand by now, and for the mother she thinks must be dead. (Age: 12+)

6. I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan (Macmillan)

Written in the voice of its smart and self-deprecating heroine, British Muslim Pakistani teenager Muzna, this is both a coming-of-age novel and a thriller. Muzna navigates her life at home and at school, working out how to have her own identity and her own ambitions, not those imposed by her parents, religion, school or friends.

And, as her relationship with Arif develops, the story becomes a thriller, and the stakes become very high. (Age: 13+)

7. The Territory trilogy by Sarah Govett (Firefly Press)

What happens when the sea levels rise? Govett imagines a flooded world with dwindling resources and not enough dry land for everyone. Choices have to be made, about who stays on the dry territory, and who is banished beyond the fence, to the dreaded Wetlands. But when 15-year-old Noa finds herself beyond the fence, she discovers that not everything the adults have been telling her is true. (Age: 13+)

8. Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias (Scholastic)

Following Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, a far-right Nationalist party has come to power.

Living in a far-right Britain.

Only those born in Britain (or BB as they are known) are allowed to live legally – everyone born outside the country is subject to immediate arrest and deportation and failing to report illegals is a crime.

Mathias has set her thriller in a British dystopia that is more scarily plausible than ever.

The young protagonist Zara is an illegal living in this scary new Britain – and falling in love with Ash might be the most dangerous thing she could do. (Age: 13+)

9. Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

It’s ten years since Joe saw his brother Ed – and now Ed is on death row, facing execution for the murder of a police officer. What do they know of each other now? Ed says he’s innocent of the murder, but everyone else believes he’s guilty.

Crossan’s verse novel explores a single summer, perhaps Ed’s last, as 17-year-old Joe struggles to understand what has been done to his brother – and to himself. (Age: 13+)

10. The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre (David Fickling Books)

What will the neighbours think?
Fickling Books

The only picture book in the list, McIntyre’s delightfully illustrated story explores how intolerance and scaremongering can run like a mad fever through a community. When new neighbours move in to the tower block, hysteria builds quickly, until finally the other animals discover the truth about their newest neighbours. (Age: 2+)The Conversation

Fiona Shaw, Senior Lecturer, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Juvenal, the true satirist of Rome

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Thomas Couture, The Romans and their Decadence, 1847.

Robert Cowan, University of Sydney

An angry man stands at the crossroads and rails against the moral cesspit around him, teeming with sexual deviants and jumped-up immigrants. This is the image which the Roman poet Juvenal paints of the satirist castigating the vices of contemporary Rome.

Juvenal’s Satires provide a fascinating window onto the social melting-pot that was early second century CE Rome. But they also hold up a mirror to those whose feelings of alienation and disempowerment produce a bitter distortion of that society.

Juvenal wrote 16 satires, divided into five books. Most are between 150 and 300 lines in length, except for the monstrous sixth satire attacking women and marriage, which rants on for over 650 lines and takes up a whole book on its own. Each satire has its own theme or target, ranging from decadent aristocrats and hypocritical moralists to giant turbots (a fish) and Egyptian cannibals, but this theme only loosely constrains a free-flowing structure which follows the satirist’s fulminating stream of consciousness.

Contradiction is the essence of these poems. The satirist indignantly condemns Rome’s vices as he pruriently lingers on their salacious details. The sheer force of his outrage and the vigour of his rhetoric sweep the reader along at the same time as she recoils from his bigotry. In Juvenal’s own words, it’s difficult not to write satire, and once you are sucked into its twisted world, it is difficult not to read it. But working out what to make of it is really difficult.

Frontispiece from the 1711 publication of Juvenal’s Satires.
Wiki Commons

The beginning of Roman satire

Roman satire bears only a distant family resemblance to the modern idea of satire. Instead of John Clarke parodically impersonating an incompetent politician, Juvenal and his predecessors take direct aim at the follies and vices of their day, lambasting any who deviate from social norms with moralizing fervour, scathing mockery, and stomach-turning obscenity.

The Romans admitted that they inherited all other genres of poetry — epic, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, and the rest — from the Greeks, but they proudly declared that satire was “totally ours”. It was written in hexameters, the lofty metre of epic poetry, but it always sets itself up as epic’s “evil twin”. Instead of heroes, noble deeds, and city-foundations recounted in elevated language, satire presents a hodgepodge of scumbags, orgies, and the breakdown of urban society, spat out in words as filthy as the vices they describe.

The first great Roman satirist was Lucilius, writing in the latter half of the second century BCE at the height of the free Republic. Only tantalising fragments of his work remain, but his reputation among later generations was unambiguous: a fearless exponent of extreme free speech who would lay into the powerful, stripping away the skin of respectability to reveal the foulness beneath.

Every later satirist lamented his inability to live up to Lucilius’ freedom and aggression. During the rise of the first emperor Augustus, as the free Republic gives way to the monarchical Empire, the poet Horace wrote satire whose buzzword was moderation, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Self-consciously playing it safe, his satirist chooses not to see — he even blames conjunctivitis — and not to talk about the death of political freedom.

Ninety years later, under Nero, the reclusive poet Persius turned satire inwards, boiling it down to dense, almost unreadable Latin which he doesn’t care if anyone reads. His image of the satirist is the barber whispering into a hole in the ground, “Midas has ass’s ears!” You can tell the truth, as long as you don’t need let anyone hear it.

Chariots of ire

With Juvenal, another half-century later, satire seemed to get its balls back. He dismisses epic and tragedy as tedious and irrelevant. Satire is the only possible response to the swamp that is Rome. Indignation is his Muse and the vices of Rome flow unmediated from the crossroads into his notebook. This is barely poetry at all. It is the unvarnished truth about Rome there on the page in front of you.

What folks have done ever since — their hopes and fears and anger,
their pleasures, joys, and toing and froing — is my volume’s hotch-potch.
Was there, at any time, a richer harvest of evil?

Except, of course, it isn’t. Juvenal goes through the same crisis as Horace and Persius. This isn’t the Republic and he isn’t Lucilius. It isn’t safe to tell it like it is when the rich and powerful can silence you. Juvenal’s solution is that he will only criticise the dead. The fearless satirist is compromised before he has even begun.

A depiction of Juvenal in the Nuremberg Chronicle, late 1400s.
Wiki Commons

Yet it isn’t just his caginess about causing offence which problematises the satirist’s voice. His strident attacks on women, on homosexuals, on Greek and Egyptian immigrants are often put in the mouths of characters who sound remarkably like the satirist himself.

Satire 3’s panoramic view of a decadent Rome is presented through the skewed vision of Umbricius, “Mr Shady”, about to abandon the city because Greek immigrants take all the jobs.

I now proceed to speak of the nation specially favoured
by our wealthy compatriots, one that I shun above all others.
I shan’t mince words. My fellow Romans, I cannot put up with
a city of Greeks; yet how much of the dregs is truly Achaean?
The Syrian Orontes has long been discharging into the Tiber,
carrying with it its language and morals and slanting strings,
complete with piper, not to speak of its native timbrels.

But his main complaint is that they get away with the same things he tries.

We, of course, can pay identical compliments; yes, but
they are believed.

This isn’t moralising, or even simple bigotry, but sour grapes.

Readers take the first-person voice of the satires as reflecting Juvenal’s personal opinion in a sort of autobiographical confession. Indeed, we know nothing about him except what we can try to deduce from his poems. More recently, the satirist’s voice has been seen as a persona, a mask, a character just like Umbricius.

Is Juvenal satirising immigrants or the bigots who rail against them? The latter is certainly the more comfortable reading, but we need to be careful not to make the Romans too like us. Satire is meant to be uncomfortable.

Beyond Anger

biblioteca de humanidades/flickr

Juvenal’s satirist doesn’t only “punch down” against easy targets. He also “punches up” and fights the corner of the little guy oppressed by the rich and powerful. Satire 5 condemns a rich patron for the humiliation he heaps on his poor client, though he acutely criticises the client for his complicity. Throughout, Juvenal’s main targets are hypocrites from all levels of society. The satirist stands outside and inveighs against what is wrong with Rome, but he has few suggestions on how to improve it.

In his later satires, Juvenal moves away from indignation altogether and adopts a new model. He will not be the philosopher Heraclitus, weeping at the state of the world, but another philosopher, Democritus, ironically laughing at it with a sense of detachment.

This is the spirit of satire 10, on the dangers of getting what we wish for. The satirist is not angry, but mockingly – and sometimes pityingly – amused by Sejanus, who got the power he wanted but was dragged through the streets on a meat-hook.

Now the flames are hissing; bellows and furnace are bringing
a glow to the head revered by the people. The mighty Sejanus
is crackling. Then, from the face regarded as number two
in the whole of the world, come pitchers, basins, saucepans, and piss-pots.
Frame your door with laurels; drag a magnificent bull,
whitened with chalk, to the Capitol. They’re dragging Sejanus along
by a hook for all to see.

Or the man whose prayer for long life is answered with impotent, incontinent senility.

The poor old fellow must mumble his bread with toothless gums.
He is so repellent to all (wife, children, and himself),
that he even turns the stomach of Cossus the legacy-hunter.
He loses his former zest for food and wine as his palate
grows numb. He has long forgotten what sex was like; if one tries
to remind him, his shrunken tool, with its vein enlarged, just lies there,
and, though caressed all night, it will continue to lie there.

The angry satirist hurls unconstructive abuse, but this new version has a suggestion for self-improvement:

Pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.

Juvenal unbound

Juvenal is the greatest Roman satirist. He, far more than Horace or Persius, defined what satire meant for most of the early modern period and it is translations and imitations of him by Pope, Dryden, Jonson, and others – not to mention Hogarth’s paintings – which dominate the great era of English Augustan satire.

His satires give us a ground-level view of a Rome we could barely guess at from the heroism of the Aeneid, the drinking-parties of Horace’s Odes, or even the histories of Tacitus. We cannot trust satire, but we can allow ourselves to enjoy it.

Recommended translation: Juvenal, The Satires, Oxford World’s Classics translation by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by William Barr (1992).The Conversation

Robert Cowan, Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Finished Reading: Dark Road (Book 1) – Breakdown by Bruno Miller

Breakdown (Dark Road Book 1)Breakdown by Bruno Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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