Child meets Burglar

Editha's Burglar

Frances Hodgson Burnett, novelist of several famous children’s fictions, including The Secret Garden (1911), also wrote a novella called Editha’s Burglar that was published in 1877. The illustration above accompanies the somewhat sickly episode when, on hearing some noise on the ground floor, the saint-like child of the title creeps downstairs and disturbs a burglar at work. As the caption records, she kindly warns him not to be frightened – ‘I don’t want to hurt you’ – before requesting that he be quiet so as not to wake her sleeping mother. When, in 1904, Edith Nesbit rewrote this incident in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), she played it much more for laughs. Her children have obviously read earlier depictions of encounters between children and burglars, such as that related above, and struggle to remember the etiquette.

A product of the lag between suburbia’s energetic expansion and a much slower concomitant expansion of street lighting and police presence, the professionalisation of burglary was a hot topic in the press and culture more broadly towards the end of nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth. Fictions from this period often draw from a conflicted discourse upon the figure of the burglar, tapping into anxieties about the security of the middle-class home as well as worries about the enormous social inequalities of the time that were the material basis for acquisitive crime, then as now. If you’re interested more in this topic, do read the work of historian Dr Eloise Moss (Oxford), who has done some really pioneering research into burglary in this period:

http://oxford.academia.edu/EloiseMoss

I’ve also published a chapter about G. K. Chesterton and burglary in an essay collection about this author’s city writings, co-edited by Dr. Matthew Beaumont (UCL) and I, which came out in December 2013: http://tinyurl.com/m7prrs2

 

 

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