Exploring the Victorian Kite

Katrien van Riet
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When you combine a love for nineteenth-century literature with a love for kites, some interesting things happen. As I began researching nineteenth-century kite literature, I realized that there was preciously little material on the subject, even though nineteenth-century stories involving kites abounded. It soon became clear that the nineteenth-century kite had been largely glossed over in favour of the earlier electric kite hype (building on Franklin’s 1752 kite experiment), and the later developments in cellular kites starting roughly around the 1880s, which were a crucial part in the invention of the airplane. This period dating from the electric to the cellular kite is perhaps just seen as the long pause that separates one big invention from the next, but as I will show, the kite nevertheless underwent a fascinating development in nineteenth-century literature. In order to explore this statement, I am mainly interested in the moral aspect of the kite in children’s stories. I will look at a few poems and stories intended for a youthful audience, and describe how exactly the kite is a shaping presence in these texts.

Victorian children’s magazines abound with pictures of kites broken free, or of children being carried off by an over-sized kite (figs. 2 and 3). This notion of freedom returns powerfully in the fundamental paradox of the flight of a kite: the kite pulls on the line, as if wanting to break free from its captivity, but it cannot stay up without being tethered. Of course, this duality did not escape writers who used the kite as a metaphor in their texts. As a result, this paradox was often used in moral imagery featuring the kite. In these texts, the kite represents a boy or girl who is tired of being told what to do, and the curtailing character of the string represents the child’s necessary obedience to its parents. They all contain the lesson that without restraint, a child will plunge (as a kite literally plunges) into bad behavior and will come to harm.

The comparison between kite and wayward child as it is depicted in “The Kite; or, Pride must have a fall” (fig. 1) was a very popular one. The poem begins with an image of pride. Almost like a real person, the kite yearns for appreciation and wants to display its talents to the crowd of people beneath, but it feels restrained by the string that tethers it. The kite is not only proud of the great height at which it is able to fly, it feels it can also do better on its own, without the restraint of earthly fetters (string) that literally hold it down. The kite then breaks the string to gain its freedom, but this turns out to be a bittersweet liberty. Restraint is necessary, the poem seems to say, even though the arrogant think they can do without it. Towards the end of the poem, physical restraint is transformed into a religious one: the string becomes a metaphor for the individual’s relationship with God, whose authority is portrayed as a good and much-needed part of life.

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