In This Article Childhood in Victorian Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Websites and Databases
  • Childhood and the Family
  • Childhood in Dickens
  • Childhood and Gender
  • Childhood and Sexuality
  • Ideal, Mythical, and Impossible Children
  • Uncanny and Marginal Children
  • Poetry, Drama, and Aesthetics

Victorian Literature Childhood in Victorian Literature
by
Ben Moore
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0144

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

Two classic studies of modern childhood are Ariès 1962 and Coveney 1967, both of which place the Victorian period within the wider context of the longue durée of post-medieval Western culture. Of the two, Coveney’s book devotes more time to literature. Boas 1966 also helped to frame the terms of contemporary debate, which defines childhood as a modern-day cult that seeks a symbolic return to nature. Fass 2013 and Roberts 2002 are helpful short introductions to the current state of the field, whereas Banerjee 1996 and Frost 2009 are longer overviews of childhood in Victorian literature and culture. For those interested in literature aimed at children, McCulloch 2004 is particularly important, though its discussion of the ideological production of childhood also gives it a wider appeal. Berry 1999 is one of the best treatments of canonical Victorian novels in relation to childhood, laying out a convincing narrative around the transformations effected during the period. Locke 2011 considers Victorian childhood in the context of analyzing ten self-selected “great novels” but his text is less focused than those by Banerjee, Frost, or Berry.

  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Translated by Robert Baldick. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962.

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    Originally published in French, this classic text lays out the argument that European childhood was invented or “discovered” in the 17th century, rather than being a natural state. Very influential within literary studies, including Victorian studies, but remains controversial as a historical account.

  • Banerjee, Jacqueline. Through the Northern Gate: Childhood and Growing Up in British Fiction, 1719–1901. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

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    Argues both that childhood was a major literary concern before the Romantic period and that children in Victorian literature should be considered as psychologically complex. A good introduction to the field. Writers considered include Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

  • Berry, Laura. The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

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    Significant account of how cultural conceptions of childhood shifted in the Victorian period to reposition children as victims, driven partly by growing secular individualism. Uses Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Adam Bede as reference points.

  • Boas, George. The Cult of Childhood. Studies of the Warburg Institute 29. London: Warburg Institute, 1966.

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    Opposes two different models of history—the progressive “millenary” conception and the regressive “Golden Age” conception—arguing that although childhood engages with both, it predominantly represents the dream of a return to nature. Tends to make broad generalizations, but is impressive in its range of scholarship.

  • Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1967.

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    Classic account of childhood and literature, revised and updated following its initial publication as Poor Monkey (London: Rockliff, 1957). Tracks society’s view of the child from the time of Wordsworth and Blake into the early 20th century. Proposes that childhood gained an unparalleled symbolic significance in this period, initially standing as a symbol for social renewal before degenerating into an image of social stasis and malaise, as represented by Peter Pan. An important starting point for many scholars.

  • Fass, Paula, ed. The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. London: Routledge, 2013.

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    A very broad historical overview of Western childhood that seeks to update and supersede Philippe Ariès’s groundbreaking work. Part 2, “Creating Childhoods in the Western World since 1500 (pp. 101–328), covers material relevant to the Victorian period. Aimed toward undergraduate students.

  • Frost, Ginger. Victorian Childhoods. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

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    Social history text that gives useful context for those working on literary topics. Aims for breadth of coverage rather than putting forward a particular agenda.

  • Locke, Richard. Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7312/lock15782E-mail Citation »

    Considers canonical depictions of children in ten major novels from the 18th to the 20th century, with the Victorian novel represented by Great Expectations and The Turn of the Screw. Does little to challenge existing accounts of the texts, but is worth consulting for those studying Dickens or James.

  • McCulloch, Fiona. The Fictional Role of Childhood in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2004.

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    Theoretically informed study of the ideological construction of childhood within Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature, with chapters on Lewis Carroll, R. M. Ballantyne, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, and Charles Kingsley.

  • Roberts, Lewis. “Children’s Fiction.” In A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William Thesing, 353–369. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

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    Provides a general introduction to Victorian children’s literature and its relation to developing conceptions of childhood. Takes Carroll’s “Alice” as its starting point and traces the origins of Victorian ideas on childhood in 18th-century debates involving Locke and Rousseau, as well as Romantic writers. Offers students a good place to start on fairy tales, moral stories, adventure tales, and family narratives.

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