Comments on Felix Summerly’s attack on Peter Parley: review of Puck’s Reports to Oberon (from Littell’s Living Age, 21 September 1844; p. 427)
Puck’s Reports to Oberon. (One of the series called “Felix Summerly’s Home Treasure.”) London. Cundall.
Felix Summerly is a very pleasant and agreeable personage, and strings together many pleasant and agreeable tales. He has an estimable respect for fairy lore, and an amiable uneasiness lest it should be overwhelmed by juvenile books of travels. Appointing himself a sort of trustee to Mother Goose, he performs his duties with zeal and ability, and not only faithfully distributes the property she has bequeathed in the shape of divers tales to the parties beneficially interested—viz., the rising generation of England—but he does the thing in a handsome manner. His illustrations, which are lithographic imitations of the sepia style, with chalk lights, are bold and spirited, if the drawings be not always unexceptionable; nay, he sometimes goes to the first masters (vide his “Bible Events,” illustrated by Hans Holbein) for designs. Then his type is good, and he puts a neat cover on his volumes, and altogether, he has started as pretty a series of children’s books as any godmamma could wish to purchase at Christmas-time. The little work before us is a selection of tales, certainly not showing the creative power of a Prometheus, a Frankenstein, or a Friar Bacon, but they are sufficiently novel for juveniles, and are marked by a kindly feeling. Disagreeable people are punished, pleasant folks are rewarded—such is the wholesome moral inculcated. Moreover, we stopped at some of the illustrations with pleasure. The frontispiece, representing Puck sitting on a great Freischützian Owl, with a not inelegant lazy-looking Oberon reclining in the background, is vigorous and fanciful, while the drawing appended to the “Eagle’s Verdict” shows the hand of an artist.
Greatly were we shocked, however, when we had ended reading the gentle fictions and examining the “pretty pictures,” to come to the “Original Announcement of the Home Treasury,” whch is stitched in at the end of the volume. There did we find a formal declaration of war against that repectable provider of information for children, Mr. Peter Parley. Felix Summerly not only expresses himself with considerable asperity on the books, “addressed afer a narrow fashion, almost exclusively to the cultivation of the understanding of children,” but he proudly declares that the character of his “Treasury” may be briefly described as “Anti-Peter- Parleyism.” Now, we had thought otherwise of Summerly—our notions of Felix were essentially different. We represented him to our imagination as a man of a peaceful and tender temperament, living generally in a little world of his own, his heart beating high with Cinderella at the ball, or his eyes swimming with tears at the fate of Red Ridinghood, till he sunk to tranquil slumber—lulled by the nursery rhyme of his own editing. Occasionally, indeed, we knew he strayed into the actual world, but then, as we fondly dreamed, it was only to pencil handbooks to pleasant places, to tell us where the great vine stands at Hampton Court, and what we ought to think of Rafaelle and Mantegna. But now we find he is one of bitter thoughts and severities. His books for children he declares shall have a polemic bearing, for they shall be characterized by “Anti-Peter-Parleyism.” Surely, Felix, the world is big enough to hold Peter Parley and yourself too. It was found capacious enough to hold Uncle Toby and the fly, as demonstrated by a philosopher of the last century, named Laurence Sterne.
The wrath of Felix is not confined to the purveyors of information for children; he is equally indignant with those who take a comic view of fairy literature, and “turn into ribaldry fairy tales hallowed to children’s use.” Nay, he has a parental reason for this hatred, as he has experience every day in his own family, that the “funny” vein of old fairy tales, and the non-creation of new ones, is “hurtful to children.” Have, indeed, some infant Summerlys’ morals been blighted by Mr. Albert Smith’s comic words, or by Mr. John Perry’s comic music? We doubt it, Felix, for we know that fiction is your province.
Shun polemics, Felix, or some malicious person will change your name to “Infelix Winterly.” Let Peter Parley tell his stories of foreign lands, if he pleases, and vent not your wrath on him that is droll about Cinderella. Go on editing your fairy tales in the style of your present publications, and you may be pretty sure of finding youthful readers, without troubling yourself about the channels for juvenile instruction which others are throwing open.