[The following essay is Part III of the author's "Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction." Click on thumbnails for larger images]
reud freely admitted that creative writers “are far in advance of us everyday people" in “knowledge of the mind" (34), and it seems significant that his favourite novel, and the first present he gave to his future wife while courting her, was David Copperfield. Even taking into account Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s recent work, this is the first novel that really evokes the child’s developing consciousness (see the second chapter, entitled "I Observe"). As the children’s writers emerged from the mists of romanticism and the shadows of Evangelicalism, they too began to push back the boundaries and depict children with much greater inwardness.
Several factors urged the Victorian authors in this direction. Apart from individual childhood traumas, many had suffered from the general religious climate of the times. Looking back, Charlotte Yonge remembered the "worst terror of all" as being the Last Judgement: as a child, she tried to ward off sleep and its nightmares by pulling hairs out of her mattress (Mare and Percival 25). "To sleep — if only one could!" recalled a later writer, Sylvia Lubbock:
For a few minutes every night it seemed not too impossible.... [but then], still wide awake while the firelight faded, [I] stared into the darkness to see what form my fear would take. The 'Eye of God' was perhaps the worst. In the daytime it had seemed only inconvenient, an invisible guardian of sugar-basins or forbidden books; but by night it grew visible, a terrible single orb in the corner of the bedroom, searching my infant soul, pursuing me even under the bedclothes, coming closer, closer, closer, till at last I would scream with terror.... (25)
Such writers revisited their pasts, sometimes exorcising it by creating happier childhood worlds in their fiction (as well as her autobiography and other writings, Lubbock wrote a collection of fairy tales, The Cuckoo’s Call, and Other Fairy Tales, 1908). Other factors, too, encouraged the new spotlight on childhood, some largely social, and some related to advances in scientific knowledge. In the early eighteenth century, Defoe had been delighted to see small children busily engaged in adult labours; but industrialisation changed all that. The uproar about young workers’ hours and working conditions in factories, mills, mines and elsewhere gave children a new and separate status. The efforts of the educationists, as well, drew attention to their particular needs, while the closing in of the family at this time (Mintz 14-15) put a sharper focus on children and how they felt. Then, the child could hardly be treated as a "fixed cultural centre" (Kincaid 79) in the age of Darwin and Spencer, an age moreover, when Froebel's carefully paced kindergarten programme was making parents aware both of the stages of human development, and of variations in individual children's progress through them. By the early ‘70s, changes in children's clothing were confirming the growing appreciation of children's distinct requirements: while still giving instructions on how to make a stay bodice for a six-year-old child of either sex, Cassell's Household Guide (1873-74) concedes: "It is wrong ever to girt children in any part of the figure" (1: 333).
In children’s literature, the change in presenting child characters is often dated to Catherine Sinclair’s popular Holiday House (1839). Here, Harry and Laura Graham are "two of the most heedless, frolicsome beings in the world" (Ch.1), flouting the strictures of their governess (the aptly named Mrs Crabtree), and taking advantage of their fond uncle and grandmother, before finally being subdued by the death of their older brother Frank. For the reader, though, nothing can quite erase the effects of the earlier thrills and spills, or hide the author’s sneaking admiration for the children’s high spirits, and, equally, her keen awareness of their powerlessness in the adult world when things go wrong. Harry and Laura are still seen from the outside, but there is the same sense of once-lived experience, the same partisan feeling here (almost, of identification with their plights), that there will be nearly four decades later in Flora Shaw’s more subtly told Castle Blair (1878).
Charlotte Yonge was even better at drawing her readers into the child’s world. For a long time an only child, she used to make up imaginary families for herself, and loved holidaying with her host of young cousins in the Devon countryside. In the family chronicles she went on to write, large bands of siblings form and reform into groups, stumbling over and recovering from difficulties, and in the process making discoveries about themselves, each other, their elders — and, of course, God's wisdom and providence. In her most acclaimed work, The Daisy Chain, or Aspirations, a family chronicle (1856), Margaret May is shown dissuading her academically-inclined younger sister Ethel from trying to keep up with their brother Norman:
"You see," said Margaret kindly, "we all know that men have more power than women, and I suppose the time has come for Norman to pass beyond you. He would not be cleverer than any one, if he could not do more than a girl at home."
"That's the very thing."
George du Maurier on Childhood fears and resentments: Left: Gentle Terrorism — Being forced to greet scary srangers with bushy beards. Right: I Must have this tooth out! — Resentment at having to wear hand-me-downs from an elder sibling.
Here, Margaret cleverly capitalises on Ethel’s resentment of her brother's privileges. Norman has more time? Well, of course he has. For Ethel has other duties to perform, doesn’t she? And isn’t being "a useful, steady daughter and sister at home" much more important than struggling with Greek and Latin (Pt. 1, Ch. 18)? At the same time, there is great sympathy both for Ethel’s scholarly yearnings and for Margaret, who is really reluctant to squash Ethel’s ambition. The didactic element is still there, of course — very much so. It lasted longer in the girls’ stories than anywhere else. But gone is the cut-and-dried moralising that characterises the moral tale. Instead there is a genuine effort to show how children and young people (Maragret is not much older than Ethel, something that bothers her when exerting authority) think and feel in the struggle between personal fulfilment and the duties expected of them.
George uu Maurier on children trying to understand a puzzling adult world: the explanation for twin siblings and interpreting a famous painting.
As the nineteenth century progressed, children’s writers had a special incentive to produce more psychologically acceptable child characters. John Sutherland puts it succintly: "The juvenile market was significant throughout the nineteenth century, but changed radically over the period. One main change was in patterns of purchase. At the beginning of the century books were bought for children. At the end, by children" (122). This was partly due to the increase in literacy brought about by educational reform, of course. Naturally, this large new readership demanded more believable child characters with whom to identify, and wanted less in the way of preaching, and more in the way of entertainment. The child's interior life, once narrowed down to the spiritual enlightment that precedes death in Evangelical tales (see, for example, little Charlie Trueman’s death in Mrs Sherwood’s The Fairchild Family), now needed to be explored, and explored with élan, through the whole range of childhood experience.
Some of the great classics of children’s literature were written at this time, and Lewis Carroll’s first Alice book of 1865 is often seen as heralding "The golden age of children’s literature". It is worth paying a little more attention to this already much-discussed author here, because he came up with was exactly what was required: a natural and attractive child character who rises to the challenges of a weird and wonderful world. The first glimpse of a harried rabbit in formal attire suggests at once that adults are the ones to be distorted in this world, not children. For Alice, who thinks her sister’s book is boring and runs off after the rabbit "burning with curiosity" (Ch. 1), is no angel; yet when a large pigeon beats her "violently with its wings" and screams "Serpent!" at her, she adamantly rejects its accusation: "I’m not a serpent, I tell you!" Rather hesitantly (because of all her recent changes in size) she explains, "I — I’m a little girl" (Ch. 5), and everything about her bears this out, from her feeling that "something interesting is sure to happen" (Ch. 4) and her wish to hear "something worth hearing," to her constant efforts to "make out" what is happening around her, however odd or daunting it may seem (Ch. 5).
As such, Alice develops in ways accounted for by what George Eliot calls "a peculiar combination of outward with inward facts" (Adam Bede, Book 4, Ch. 29). She invites her challenges herself, drinking from the bottle labelled "DRINK ME" and eating the cake which shrinks her. She speaks coaxingly to the playful puppy who is, to a child of her exceptionally small size, so worryingly like a clumsy and perhaps even hungry cart-horse. She even throws a stick for the puppy, dodging behind a thistle to avoid his careless paws. Next, she stretches up eagerly to see the top of the huge mushroom on which the Caterpillar is smoking his hookah; knocks at the Duchess's door; and gate-crashes the Mad Hatter's tea-party. Not even the metaphysical challenges that assail her in the second Alice book, Through the Looking–Glass (1871), can throw her off course. When Tweedledum insists, "You know very well you're not real," her natural pragnatism asserts itself: "'If I wasn't real,' Alice said — half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous — 'I shouldn't be able to cry.’" And then, when challenged about the reality of her tears, she decides they are talking nonsense, brushes away those tears, cheers herself up quite successfully, and hurries on (Ch. 4).
Alice’s spirit is clearly bolstered by resolution and courage as well as curiosity and pragmatism. Far from considering herself a passive pawn in the game of life, in the Looking-glass world she prepares herself for each coming move, standing "on tiptoe in hopes of being able to see a little further." She is hardly fazed even when told that her railway carriage will jump a brook, because "it'll take us into the Fourth Square, that's some comfort!" (Ch. 3), and she is anxious for the White Knight to be gone so that she can continue her progess. After that, she runs downhill and bounds across another brook to win her crown at last. Alice's optimism is fully justified in the end: at the banquet in which the food and soup-ladle come to menacingly to life, she takes the tablecloth in her hands and gives "one good pull" (Ch. 9) to exert her authority over her extraordinary world. The narrative closes with her scolding her kitten for purring: "You woke me out of--oh! such a nice dream!" (Ch. 12). Surely Humphrey Carpenter is mistaken when he sees her as "the victim of a mindless, Godless universe" (67)? Indeed, as the dreamer of her own dreams, Alice can be said to shape, not simply to confront her fate.
As a genre, children’s literature is far more important than many people think. The best of it (that is, the most alive, the most gripping, the most profoundly humane) makes a huge impact on the developing mind, and is never forgotten. Works for young readers have always "crossed over" in this way into the mainstream. On future writers, the influence of their childhood reading is sometimes quite incalculable. The Alice books themselves provide an example, for Lewis Carroll’s subversion of received (adult) notions, and the dizzying disjunctions of reality in Alice’s world, helped to inspire a whole new age of radical experimentation in the novel (see Dusineberre 5 and passim).
Be that as it may, Carroll and his contemporaries have been criticized as well as praised for responding to their age’s new interest in and understanding of childhood. See next section ("Issues in Children’s Literature").
The Relation of Children's Literature to Victorian Conceptions of Childhood
- The Child as Innocent
- The Child as Sinful
- Orphans, Outcasts and Rebels
- Issues in Children’s Literature
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age in Children’s Literature. London: Unwin Hyman, 1985.
Carroll, Lewis. Adventures of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. London: Heirloom, 1949.
Cassell’s Household Guide: Being a Complete Encyclopoedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and Forming a Guide to Every Department of of Practical Life. 4 Vols. London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1873-74.
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Harmondsworth: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. Art and Literature. The Pelican Freud Library: 14. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Lubbock, Sybil. The Child in the Crystal. London: Cape, 1939.
Mare, Margaret and Alicia C. Percival. Victorian Best-Seller: The World of Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Harrap, 1947.
Mintz, Steven. A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture. New York: New York Univ.Press, 1983.
Shaw, Flora. Castle Blair: A Story of Young Days. Masterworks of Children’s Literature, Part 2, Vol.5. 1837-1900. The Victorian Age. Ed. Robert Lee Wolff. New York: Stonehill and Chelsea House, 1985.
Sinclair, Catherine. Holiday House. Masterworks of Children’s Literature. Part 1. Vol. 5. 1837-1900: The Victorian Age. Ed. Robert Lee Wolff. New York: Stonehill & Chelsea House, 1985. Also available here (but not very easy to read in short snatches).
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, pbk ed. 1990.
Yonge, Charlotte. The Daisy Chain or Aspirations: A Family Chronicle. London: Virago, 1988. Also on Project Gutenberg.
Last modified 7 September 2007