- Childhood in Victorian Literature
- Oxford Bibliographies
- Victorian Literature
- Number of pages
- Document type
- Faculty of Humanities (FGw)
- Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA)
As the Victorian period began, literary depictions of childhood were influenced from two main directions. On the one hand, there was the figure of the idealized Romantic child, typically conceived as naturally innocent and close to God, most famously in Wordsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (1807), in which children arrive into the world “Trailing clouds of glory [. . .]/ From God who is our home.” On the other hand, there was the child of Evangelical tracts, thought to be naturally sinful and in need of constant discipline and vigilance. At the same time, the ongoing legacy of Rousseau’s conception of childhood as a space of natural freedom, as laid out most fully in his Émile, or On Education (1762), continued to exert an influence. As many critics have observed, the literature of the Victorian period not only registered and developed these dichotomous visions of childhood, but also added new perspectives of its own. Increasingly, scientific and evolutionary accounts of childhood emerged, driven by the new theories and discoveries of the age, such as the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Charles Kingsley, H. G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling were among the writers who explored these theories. Material factors also had an impact, including reductions in child mortality brought about by improvements in sanitation and disease prevention, although mortality rates for infants under age one remained stubbornly high in 1900 at over 15 percent, ensuring that childhood illness and death remained powerful themes throughout the period. Perhaps the most important development within Victorian fiction, though, was psychological in nature, as childhood came to be seen as a time of complex and unruly passions that formed, foreshadowed, and at times threatened the adult world. This tendency was particularly acute in the realist novel, where it contributed to the ongoing evolution of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, as a genre. For literary scholars, a relatively small group of novels and novelists have often been taken as emblematic of Victorian conceptions of childhood, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847); Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Dombey and Son (1848), and Great Expectations (1860); George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860); Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories (1865 and 1871); and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). More recently, critical interest has also turned to writers of children’s fiction and fantasy, such as Charlotte Yonge and George MacDonald, and to popular children’s periodicals, including the Boy’s Own Paper and the Girl’s Own Paper. For more information about the latter, the related Oxford Bibliographies article in Victorian Literature “Children’s Literature” is of interest. Probably the most influential line of modern criticism, inaugurated by scholars such as Philippe Ariès in the 1960s and Jacqueline Rose in the 1980s, has developed the idea that Victorian childhood was socially and discursively produced by and for adults, rather than being a preexisting natural state. Studies in this tradition continue to bear fruit and often intersect with issues of gender, sexuality, and family life or with major social changes, such as the growth of economic individualism, the expansion of the British Empire, and the development of the modern education system. By contrast, research on Victorian poetry and drama has been limited, leaving significant scope for original work in these fields.
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Moore Childhood in Victorian Literature (Embargo up to and including 25 May 2019)
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