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Historic children’s library a window on Victorian childhood

Historic children’s library a window on Victorian childhood
13 June 2017

A library created by children in 1860s Orkney is challenging ideas of stiff Victorian upbringings and childhoods confined to nurseries.

The Minervian Library is an extensive collection of short stories, poems and other writings and is held in the Orkney Library and Archive.

A selection of these fairy tales, novellas, poems, plays and humorous newspaper articles is now on display in the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall.

The collection reveals a childhood where children were encouraged to pursue and advance their education.

In 1864, 12-year-old Maria Cowan, her 10-year-old sister Clara and their young cousin Isabella Bremner began producing their own library.

Proudly naming it the ‘Minervian Library’ - possibly based on the eighteenth-century publishing house, the Minervan Press – the children set out to put together one hundred volumes for the library.

Around 50 of these appear to be original compositions, written sometimes with the help of other children including Maria and Clara’s younger brothers, Malcolm and Alfred.

Tankerness House, where the Orkney Museum is based, was once the summer home for the Cowan family.

The collection has caught the attention of researchers.

Kathryn Gleadle, Professor of Gender and Women’s History at Oxford University, says the Minervian Library one of the most extensive collections of children’s writing from the period that has come to light in recent years.

She said: “Archives such as these have great significance in helping us to reinterpret the lives of Victorian children, who, for so long were seen simply as the recipients of repressive educational and child-rearing practices.

“These texts illuminate how children were actually engaged in independent educational and cultural activities.”

Not only does the collection challenge popular ideas about Victorian childhood, it offers surprising insight into the adult world as well, and how children reacted to it.

Kathryn Gleadle said: “For example, many of the stories feature rebellious and dominant heroines intent on exploiting opportunities for independence - this provides a strikingly different view of Victorian girlhood than the pious models of innocence and submission which are assumed to have been the accepted ideal.

“The children’s texts poke fun at local religious ministers, teachers, debates on local town improvements, missionary projects and so on. These are not young people who felt they should be ‘seen and not heard’, but lively and knowing commentators on civic life."

An exciting feature of the archive is the survival of the library’s ‘accounts book’, detailing who borrowed what. Supplemented by census data and surviving letters and other documents from the period, it is possible to unpick the networks of those involved.

“What emerges is a picture of the liberal and forward-thinking landscape of opportunity for middle-class girls in Orkney at the time, including a range of private girls’ schools in Kirkwall, and education in Edinburgh and Germany.

“These were assertive, culturally astute young women writing in a context in which the local newspaper was proud to defend women’s right to vote as early as 1867, and in which children’s civic activities were strongly encouraged.

“At the same time, the substance of many of the stories and the children’s adherence to European rather than Orcadian storytelling traditions is indicative of sharpening class divides on the islands.

“The Cowan children were descended from the Baikie family, one of the leading families in Mainland Orkney at the time.

“Those who borrowed from the library were the daughters of solicitors, estate managers, bank managers, religious ministers: the educational elites of the community.

“So the Minervian Library is a window on the cultural and social tensions which were also a feature of local life during this period of flourishing economic activity on the part of the lairds.”

Lucy Gibbon, assistant archivist at Orkney Library and Archive, added: “It is a pleasure to see these items on display in the place where they were written and to share this wonderful collection with a new audience.”

The Minervian Library exhibition is in the Library Room at Orkney Museum until the end of July, before moving to the Orkney Library and Archive for August.

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