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  • Romanticism:A Variety of Views
  • C. Anita Tarr (bio)
James Holt McGavran, Jr. , ed. Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Editor James Holt McGavran, Jr., claims in his introduction that the first five essays in this volume "focus on writings of the Romantic period," while the last six "explore Victorian literature and document further development and complication of the Romantic conflict over childhood" (3). I believe a more appropriate categorization would be this: the first four reexamine the Romantics' (primarily Wordsworth's and Coleridge's) image of the child; the next two present a solid defense of the nineteenth-century moral tale; the next three deal with individual Victorian children's writers; and the remaining two with twentieth-century children's writers, ostensibly to show their connections to Romanticism.

I offer this new classification because the essays in this volume are themselves contradictory. This collection illustrates a common problem: What the prophet wrote is static, but how it is interpreted fluctuates. Therefore, some of the essays challenge traditional precepts about Romanticism—which suggests that we have been lured into easy generalizations about the Romantics and that their views on children are actually complex. Other of these essays reaffirm traditional ideas attributed to the Romantics by showing how Romanticism bloomed anew in the works of children's writers that followed. Of course, our question as readers of this volume is, How do we attest to Romanticism's influence on children's literature when we cannot agree on what Romanticism is?

Roderick McGillis's "Childhood and Growth: George MacDonald and William Wordsworth" probably best captures the volume's intention, for it elucidates both Romantic and Victorian writers. McGillis compares Wordsworth and MacDonald point by point and states how MacDonald followed Wordsworth and also how he departed from Wordsworth's philosophies. For example, "For Wordsworth childhood is bound by time; [End Page 227] it passes. For MacDonald, the opposite is true; childhood is a state of being which everyone must aspire to" (152).

However, some of the essays are far afield of the volume's title, notwithstanding its Catholicity. Michael Hancher's "Alice's Audiences" is an excellent analysis identifying the readers and listeners of Alice—including Alice's sister in the book, John Tenniel, Alice Liddell, Carroll himself, and the double audience of children and adults—but there is very little connection to Romanticism, in spite of a reference to McGavran's introduction and Coleridge's "limber elf" poem, written about his son. Conversely, Phyllis Bixler's "Gardens, Houses, and Nurturant Power in The Secret Garden" reaffirms Burnett's nod to Wordsworth, but The Secret Garden is a twentieth-century novel. Following Bixler's essay, to serve as the volume's culmination, Anita Moss's "E. Nesbit's Romantic Child in Modern Dress" maintains that Nesbit's characters break free of Victorian conventions and establish child-centered worlds of social equality; any influence of Romanticism appears to have been mediated through such Victorian writers as George MacDonald.

In spite of this problem of inclusion, there are real jewels to be found here, and "Alice's Audiences" and "Gardens, Houses, and Nurturant Power" are two such essays, from McGavran's post-Romantic grouping, that bring valuable reflections to novels that have been the subject of much analysis. Bixler argues that the garden itself represents female nurturing power, and thus the switch in focus from Mary to Colin is not injurious, only superficial. Judith Plotz's "A Victorian Comfort Book: Juliana Ewing's The Story of a Short Life" is also outstanding, especially for its examination of the transformation of society's feelings toward infant death due to the influence of Romanticism's emphasis on the child: "The increasing seriousness imputed to childhood death in the nineteenth century grows partly from the increasing perceptions of the ordinary child as the living embodiment of that most powerful of Romantic abstractions, Nature" (174). Plotz's essay is perhaps the most cogent of the whole volume, as the focus on the child is maintained throughout her discussion of the Romantics and later writers of comfort books.

Of the first five essays that speak directly of the Romantics, four...


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