Reading the smile in nineteenth-century children’s literature

In this first of our guest blog posts for Literature & the Face we welcome the following discussion of the smile in children’s literature by Catherine Gay.

Catherine is a PhD Candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is also a Digital Studio Internship fellow for Literature and the Face, where she is currently working on a digital humanities project about the cultural history of the smile. Stay tuned for more on this exciting project in the coming weeks!

Introduction: Reading the smile

Childhood is a period when a person’s emotional understandings and behaviours are cultivated and influenced. [1] Although children learn emotions through many channels, it has been well established that ‘texts for children and young adults are used as tools for emotional socialisation, enculturation, political persuasion, and moral or ethical education. [2] Whether children absorb or even employ the desired information, children’s texts are nevertheless often written by adult authors in an attempt to mold young minds.

In the English-speaking world, didactic texts emerged in the 1700s, charged with providing moral guidance for young readers and listeners. One such text is Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), which follows nine girls at Mrs Teachum’s school. In each chapter a girl gives both an account of her life and a recites a moral story for the class. The story culminates with nine good, obedient pupils who have learnt their lessons. The Governess states in its opening pages, ‘The Design of the following Sheets is to endeavour to cultivate an early inclination to Benevolence, and a Love of Virtue, in the Minds of young Women.’ [3] Books such as these contained moral messages which could easily be drawn from the text.

Sarah Fielding, The Governess; or Little Female Academy 1749. Image

In the Victorian period, unambiguously instructive texts came to be replaced with narrative-driven material. Yet these children’s stories, from domestic tales to adventures in fantastical worlds, still sought to nurture and provoke normative emotional reactions in their readers. Charlotte M. Yonge’s 1856 domestic novel The Daisy Chain outwardly sought to influence its young readership. Described as a family chronicle, it was:

a domestic record of home events, large and small, during those years of early life when the character is chiefly formed, and as an endeavour to trace the effects of those aspirations which are a part of every youthful nature. That the young should take one hint, to think whether their hopes and upward-breathings are truly upwards, and founded in lowliness, may be called the moral of the tale.

So how did Victorian children’s novels seek to influence and inform ‘youthful nature’? By focussing on one facial trope, the smile, it is possible to see how the representation of this expression and its attendant meanings in texts had a considerable influence on the broad understanding and development of emotions in children. Examining where the word ‘smile’ (and associated words such as smiled, smiling etc.) appears across a range of children’s literary texts reveals a change in usage over time. Other notable changes in the use of ‘smile’ include genres that use the word, characters and situations that use the expression, and the gendered audiences that were encouraged to use the smile.

To reveal this finding I used data from 71 English-language children’s books, published between 1826 and 1911, and drawn from CLiC, a collaborative corpus analysis project between the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham. [4] By concentrating on one facial trope across a select cluster of texts, we can therefore begin to explore how nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century authors tried to influence children’s emotional formations. Fictional texts also provide examples of when someone should or should not smile, and the manner in which they should use the expression. This is often established through dialogue or speech wherein characters compel one another to smile or query why a smile is visible on another’s face. Children’s texts therefore not only presented instances of the smile to children but intimated through dialogue and prose types of appropriate or inappropriate smiling.

Smiling across a corpus

One surprising finding is the gendered distinctions in the smile. In general, male pronouns appear more frequently than female pronouns across the sample texts. This trend suggests that there are more male characters, or at least more active or central male characters, than female characters within the selected children’s books.

When we examine the data on the smile throughout the texts, however, the gap closes. ‘Smile’ as a noun, verb or adjective appears with female pronouns (she/her) 60 times, whereas it appears with male pronouns (he/his) 66 times.

From this data we can infer that female characters smile more than male characters—0.105% of the instances of female pronouns involve smiling, whereas this is the case for only 0.049% occurrences of male pronouns.

Looking at the context and adjectives surrounding the smile and the smiler across the texts paints a more nuanced picture. I examined the 564 instances where the noun ‘smile’ appears across the texts and noted 482 sentences where a clear gender could be ascribed to the smiler. Using adjectives and context to frame these findings, I labelled smiles as either positive, negative or neutral. Positive smiles for example, could be surrounded by adjectives such as ‘sweet’ or ‘beaming’. Negative smiles often used adjectives such as ‘grim’, ‘sad’ or ‘cunning.’ Neutral or ambiguous smiles were characterised as those with descriptors such as ‘strange’ or ‘queer’, in scenarios where it appears that a character is smiling for no obvious reason, had mixed emotions or the smile’s use was ambiguous in the immediate context of the surrounding sentences.

Again, the data reveals more male smilers (304) than female (178). But when we look to the percentages of types of smile, we can see that female characters show a significantly higher proportion of positive smiles, with a similar number of neutral/ambiguous smiles.

As these findings show, a distant reading approach is useful in revealing larger patterns of facial expression. Delving into individual texts through close reading and analysis adds further granularity as to how the smile is used.

Genre and the Smile

When individual texts are closely examined with other information in mind, such as characters and genre, further gendered patterns emerge. The gender of protagonists can have an effect of the frequency of the smile in literary texts. Fantastical stories, centring around medieval royalty or magical lands, appear to employ a gendered use of the smile. The word ‘smile’ appears 11 times in The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872), in which the main character is a princess. By comparison, in Prince Prigio by Andrew Lang (1889), which follows the adventures of a know-it-all protagonist prince, the smile only appears once. Tellingly, it is a female character that bears the expression: ‘Lady Rosalind came sweeping down, with a smile on her kind face.’

Andrew Lang, Prince Prigio 1899. Image


George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin 1872. Image

Comparing domestic and adventure novels (the latter usually aimed at boys and the former at girls) reveals different uses of the smile. In the above-mentioned The Daisy Chain, smile, smiles, smiled and smiling appears 228 times. Though a large novel, at nearly 700 pages, the relative frequency of smile is high, at 767.67 per million words. The novel follows a doctor’s eleven children, but centres on the third daughter Ethel. The Daisy Chain includes a ‘smile of assent’, ‘smiling sweetly’, ‘a half smile’, ‘grateful smile’, ‘amused’ smiles and many others amongst the cohort.

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Daisy Chain 1856. Image

The 1857 adventure novel The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne contains numerous instances of smiling. The book was explicitly written for a male audience as evidenced by Ballantyne’s remark: “I present my book specially to boys, in the earnest hope that they may derive valuable information, much pleasure, great profit, and unbounded amusement from its pages.”

With an all-male cast of characters, the smiles present do not always hold positive connotations. A conniving villain captures the protagonist:

“So, youngster,” he said, with a Sardonic smile, while I felt his grasp tighten on my shoulder…”

The text also exhibits ‘bitter’, contemptuous and ‘cold sarcastic’ smiles, alongside ‘joyful’ and ‘friendly’ ones. The relative frequency of the smile and smiling is 481.38 words per million in The Coral Island.  

R.M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island 1857. Image

Conclusion: Ambiguous smiles

As this brief foray in distant reading shows us, the smile holds an influential and revealing place in nineteenth-century children’s literature, with clearly gendered uses and subtle shifts detectable across variations in genre. The frequency and positivity of female smiles speaks to the gendered socialisation of Victorian-era children and the extent to which authors of the period were enmeshed in social and cultural traditions that shaped and informed children’s emotions. Finally, examining instances of the ambiguous smile in these texts, gives an indication of the complexity of the smile as a facial trope. Despite being commonly associated with positive or happy emotions, the smile can also be vexed, vague, troubling, or used as a curious mask to conceal an otherwise turbulent inner state.  


[1] Olsen, Stephanie, ed. Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

[2] Kristine Moruzi, Michelle J. Smith, and Elizabeth Bullen, eds., Affect, Emotion, and Children’s Literature: Representation and Socialisation in Texts for Children and Young Adults (New York: Routledge, 2017), 2,

[3] Professor M O Grenby, ‘Moral and instructive children’s literature’, the British Library; Image.

[4] Mahlberg, M., Stockwell, P., de Joode, J., Smith, C., & O’Donnell, M. B. “CLiC Dickens: Novel uses of concordances for the integration of corpus stylistics and cognitive poetics.” Corpora 11, no. 3 (2016): 433–463.   

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Guy Webster (October 21, 2021). Reading the smile in nineteenth-century children’s literature. Literature the Face: A Critical History. Retrieved July 12, 2024 from

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