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  • The Fictional Role of Childhood in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature
  • Anne Lundin (bio)
McCulloch, Fiona . The Fictional Role of Childhood in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature. Mellen Studies in Children’s Literature vol. 7 Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2004.

Ah, the hills and groves of the sunny isle of Sicily! Such pastoral bliss led many a poet to imagine a golden age shrouded in glory. The idea of an idyllic landscape, peopled by shepherds and goatherds, inspired the poetry of Theocritus (300–260 BC), whose Idylls encouraged Virgil's Eclogues, and from them the works of Romantic poets, Impressionist painters, and Victorian writers of children's literature. From archaic times, through antiquity, and into the modern age, successive generations have yearned to return to a state of original innocence: myths of the Golden Age, the Garden of Eden, and the Wordsworthian child. The ideological category of the "Golden Age of Children's Literature" enshrines a half-century of high-minded, highbrow authors idealizing children. A genre ostensibly for children but written by adults is ambiguous and revelatory of how a culture thinks about itself. Is there a Golden Age? Is there a golden child? How we wish it so.

Romancing the child and the literature of childhood persists as social critique if not sensational design. Two conceptualizations of children's literature in the second half of the twentieth century—Philippe Ariès "the invention of childhood" and Jacqueline Rose's "the impossibility of children's literature"—have disturbed secret gardens of literary history. No longer do critics see the concept of romanticized childhood as a state of grace, a singular Victorian gift from one generation to the other, but as a more conflicted landscape of privilege and possession, casting a certain tarnish to "the golden age of children's literature," making "age" more a "stage" for performance. And what do we mean by "children's literature"? Are its fictional children sentimental abstractions, subversive agents, or projections of psychosexual textual dynamics? Can texts as disparate as Alice in Wonderland and The Secret Garden be bookends to "the first golden age of children's literature"?

In Fiona McCulloch's critical study, these texts make sense within a continuum of adult fantasy over successive generations of cultural reproduction. Linking Victorian sexuality and Victorian politics, the author explores what she calls "textual paedophilia," a power imbalance beneath a facade of discursive innocence, "which is ultimately ruptured [End Page 442] by the adult palimpsest of a postlapsarian authorial presence" (7). Children's fiction becomes an adult masquerade where the child characters perform dimensions of an adult psyche; the fantasy makes the adult reader as much a product of mythologized childhood as the child protagonist. In a game of power, a mutually defining embrace, the adult scripts the child's performance that in turn holds the adult gaze of looking as well as being looked at: subjects, objects. Ultimately, the drama is playful in its subversion of the dominant cultural myths of childhood and purposeful in its exposure of the cultural politics of imperial capitalism and industrialism. Oppositionally, the child retains integrity despite the compromising position of child character and adult narrator. Contesting inevitable corruption, McCulloch struggles with the possibility of a children's literature that re-imagines adulthood from the perspective of the child.

The cultural discourse of Golden Age classics as inherently one-sided and child-centered is challenged by her close reading of critical texts: Alice in Wonderland, Coral Island, Treasure Island, The Princess and the Goblin, The Water Babies, The Secret Garden, and A Child's Garden of Verses. Why these texts, and why this order, the reader is left to wonder, as she progresses from Carroll's underground to Stevenson's "child of air" in self-contained readings of individual works.

As an adaptation of a dissertation, this theoretical work often needs deciphering for the common reader of Victorian scholarship. Perhaps that is not the intended reader of the Mellen series, which appear to be copy-ready texts of adapted dissertations. With assumed knowledge of Foucault, Gramsci, Althusser, Lacan, and Butler, McCulloch's parsing of "discursive transmogrification" and "interpellation" and passages...


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