- Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature
"Suppose that everything we think we know about the Victorians is wrong," Matthew Sweet writes as his first line of Inventing the Victorians (2001), a social history of nineteenth-century British culture. Working with a rich array of letters, diaries, newspapers, novels, and plays, Sweet, a scholar and film critic, sets out to debunk many of the straitlaced stereotypes and specious stories about the Victorian age. By rebutting the received image of Victorian lives, the author paints a grayer landscape that invites comparison. Could it be that we look back on Victorian culture as repressive and hypocritical so that we appear in our own mirror decidedly better: more enlightened, modern? Do we define ourselves by what the Victorians are not?
Marah Gubar draws upon Matthew Sweet's supposition in her brilliant new work, Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature. Echoing John Updike's touchstone for criticism as "a fervent relation with the world" (xviii), here is a significant book, an exhilarating book that infuses new energy into conceptions of childhood, the narrative voice of fiction, the emergence of child actors and children's theater and, above all, the complex issue of the agency of the child. As Gubar writes, "given their status as dependent, acculturated beings, how much power and autonomy can young people actually have?" (4–5). This is the heart of the matter for the writers of the Golden Age: "acknowledging the pervasive and potentially coercive power of adult influence while nevertheless entertaining the possibility that children can be enabled and inspired by their inevitable inheritance" (5). That inevitable inheritance is what female authors often passed on through their socialized characters rooted in the domestic and school realms. We miss that nuance when we miss their contributions.
Gubar, associate professor of English and director of the children's literature program at the University of Pittsburgh, reveals the sense and sensibilities of her legendary mother, Susan Gubar, who co-authored with Sandra Gilbert the revolutionary feminist classic, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), exploring the representations of women and women writers in the works of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. While Gubar and Gilbert uncover the aesthetics of "angel" or "monster" embedded in the nineteenth-century literary imagination, the younger Gubar shows her own deft touch in the image of the "artful dodgers," [End Page 248] exploring the representations of the child in the classic works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as championing beneficent female authors like Catherine Sinclair, Mary Howitt, Harriet Mozley, Juliana Ewing, Charlotte Yonge, Mary Louisa Molesworth, and Dinah Mulock Craik. Additionally, Gubar raises the stage of children's theater to be explored alongside texts. The canvas is wide, the cast large, the tone celebrative of tropes of collaboration, their sensational designs.
The book is organized in a series of chapters focusing on the representation of the child in classic works of Golden Age fiction and in the field of children's theater. The introduction provocatively opens with the image of Dickens's "artful dodger," with its disturbing image of precocity, suggesting the otherness of the child, a race apart, a "paralyzing form of primitivism" (4). She relates this polarized perspective to the critique of Jacqueline Rose and company with their essentialized Romantic discourse, casting the child as a vulnerable being prey to adult desires. Critiquing this line of thinking, Gubar offers an alternative vision, one shaped by the contributions of influential women writers of the era, who promoted the dense domestic relations of the child, the socially saturated context of childhood. Gubar finds in the works of Carroll, Stevenson, Nesbit, and J. M. Barrie a similar refusal to characterize child protagonists as children of nature. Separate chapters on these major writers offer close readings of classic works that presuppose the existence of knowing, acculturated readers, a departure from the "artless beings devoid of agency" (32) that Rose pictures in her highly charged...