[The following essay is Part IV of the author's "Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction." Text links bring you to discussions of the works mentioned. Links in the following form "(text)" connect to the full work, which is most often located outside the Victorian web.]

1. Regression, sentimentality and morbidity in depicting children

decorated initial 'M'any critics have queried the Victorians’ great interest in the child, and tried to find out what deeper psychological reasons might have lain behind it. Did it, for example, indicate a desire to regress? In other words, do such unrealistically drawn child characters as Charles Kingsley’s little chimney-sweep/water-baby function as empty spaces in which the writers could play out their fantasies of being helpless children again? Look at Tom, falling “fast asleep for pure love" in the arms of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, in Chapter 5 of The Water-Babies (text). Consider the role of the several mother figures in this novel. Other young heroes to look at are George MacDonald’s Diamond in The Back of the North Wind (text ), who is guided by a particularly important mother figure, and Peter Pan (text), who seeks for one in Wendy (note that ideas for the play can be traced back to the novels James Barrie wrote at the end of the Victorian period, Sentimental Tommy, 1896, and and Tommy and Grizel, 1900). Is it significant that these are all heroes rather than heroines? See also U. C. Knoepflmacher’s often-quoted article, “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children."

Read the section on “Childhood and Sentiment" in Lionel Lambourne’s Victorian Painting (Ch. 8) to get an overview of the subject as it appears in art as well. In talking of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Eric, or Little by Little, specifically, Lambourne writes:

The criticism of ‘sentimentality’ which can be levelled at these literary depictions of childhood is also invariably applied to contemporary paintings of childhood themes. In both cases this criticism is over-simplistic, for it was precisely in their tendency to sentimentalize, or rather to demand the response of compassion, that such works afforded powerful incentives to public humanitarianism. (177)

What other explanations can you give for the sometimes excessive sentimentality and morbidity surrounding these and other child characters?

2. Eroticizing childhood

decorated initial 'T'he most unsavoury motives imputed to Victorian writers preoccupied with childhood are voyeurism and paedophilia. Do you agree with James Kincaid’s idea that the child is eroticized in Victorian culture? Consider the child deathbed scenes in the Evangelical tales, Lewis Carroll’s exploits as a child-photographer, and the contemporary vogue for showing sleeping and dying children both in photography and paintings. The Rev. Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would regularly take safety-pins with him to the beach at Eastbourne, so that his child-friends could pin up their skirts while paddling, and talked cheerfully of hunting out nice little victims to photograph. But before reaching quick conclusions, look up Katherine Leach’s discussions of Carroll, and Hugues Lebailly’s “Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s Infatuation with the Weaker and More Aesthetic Sex Re-examined."

What does Kincaid mean by saying that his own aim is to “assist in exposing our discourse and its compulsions" and even “to help [the Victorians] in reading us" (4, emphases added)?

3. The entrapment of children

decorated initial 'I't is well known that “the instinct to teach, to improve, to warn and rebuke is one of the most striking features of a great many books for Victorian children" (Roe 91). But Jacqueline Rose seems to be suggesting something more than this when she asks, “what is it that adults, through literature, want or demand of the child?" (137), and answers that they want to secure the child for their own purposes. Rose, like Coveney, is especially interested in Peter Pan, a work which she feels is typical in having inherited a “fully colonialist concept of the child" (57). What exactly might this mean? Does it mean essentially the same as Germaine Greer’s remarks about adult attitudes towards the child? How does it match up with Judith Plotz’s ideas? To what other children’s works might it apply? Look at the values embodied in Mrs Gatty’s Parables from Nature (1855; text), boarding-school and adventure stories for boys, like Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (text), and any books by G. A.Henty (True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence (1885; text) might be an interesting place to start); also at girls’ family stories, like Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (text), or books that were enjoyed by both boys and girls, like Mrs Ewing’s Jackanapes (1879; text). Is it inevitable that these kinds of children’s books should reflect and seek to pass on the values of the time? If so, why? And if not, why not?

What other kinds of Victorian children’s literature, besides those mentioned above, gave children more freedom? Look at Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River (text). How far do you think Ruskin was able to fulfil the aim expressed in his lecture (No. 4 in The Art of England) on “Fairy Land" (text) — “to entertain with grace" (126)? Don’t forget annuals and story collections like Aunt Judy’s Tales (1859; text) and yarns for boys like Jack Harkaway’s rip-roaring turn-of-the-century Boy Tinker Among the Turks (text).


Coveney, Peter.The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1967.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children." Nineteenth Century Fiction. 37 (4): 497-530.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London & New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Roe, F. Gordon. The Victorian Child. London: Phoenix, 1959.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Victorian Web Overview Genre, Technique, and Style Children's Literature

Last modified 7 September 2007