- A New Salvo in the Literary Battle of the Sexes
In one of the most famous volleys in the war over the fairies—the literary battle over whether fairy tales and fantasy were proper fare for children—Charles Lamb called the books of female didactic writers "nonsense" that was dangerous to the imaginative development of children, and then he fired this denunciation: "Damn them! I mean the cursed Barbauld Crew, those Blights and Blasts of all that is Human in man and child" (1:326). Lamb's explosive curse succeeded. In Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century (1984), for example, Geoffrey Summerfield dismisses female didacticists as "morally shrill women" (188), saying that, "fortunately for the deeper health of young readers and listeners," the "Wordsworthian view" of reality will always have "the energy and the will to challenge" the empiricists' view (305). Most critics have credited Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) as the shot that made victorious this Romantic vision of childhood. Percy Muir, in English Children's Books, 1600-1900 (1954), thus approvingly notes that Alice "did not kill off all the namby-pamby writers. . . . But the mortality rate was high" (149). For Muir and like-minded critics, Alice altered literary history for the better by establishing the hegemony of a male tradition of fantasy. Later Victorian female authors, they believe, were little more than sentimentalists reproducing an outmoded, ineffective, and imaginatively debilitating didactic tradition.
Because criticism itself has become a literary battlefield where theorists launch mortars at every redoubt of conventional interpretation, it is startling that few critics have reassessed a history of children's literature that debases the efforts of women, who have traditionally been assigned the role of educating the young. Ventures into Childland, U. C. Knoepflmacher's "refiguring of literary history" (430), is therefore a welcome challenge to dominant opinions about the Golden Age [End Page 219] of children's literature. (In providing a critical overview for his history, Knoepflmacher quotes from Lamb's 23 October 1802 letter to Coleridge , including part of the sentence I cite above; he also includes part of the second of my two quotations from Summerfield ). Examining the work of four male and three female Victorians, this overlong volume blends literary history, biography, psychology, and close textual and graphical analysis to reassess literary battles that involved the very definition of childhood. Knoepflmacher argues that after Alice in Wonderland "completed the erosion of a didactic and empirical tradition of children's literature that had been dominated by female authors for over a century" (xi), female writers became subversive. In order to contest "male idealizations of a feminized innocence" (xii) that was passive, desexualized, and static, they wrote "fantasies that were covertly anti-fantastic" because they emphasized the "child's orderly progression towards maturity within a temporal world marked by boundaries and limits" (xi-xii).
Knoepflmacher begins with an introductory overview. This chapter and the brief epilogue are vital because of the complexity, abundant detail, and meandering method that he admits, in an amusing understatement, is "a bit circuitous" (xi). Essentially, he positions his book in opposition to James Kincaid's controversial Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (1992). He therefore argues that gender influenced Victorian representations of childhood. Male writers, he asserts, "turned to the child in order to find compensations for a middle-class culture's division of the sexes into separate spheres" (9). Customarily removed from their mothers and sent away to school, males identified the nursery with a "sustaining female imagination" (9) that they longed to recover. By representing "childland" as the realm of the prepubescent female, writers such as John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll could "resist the gender division that comes with sexual maturation" (11). At the same time, however, such males felt ambivalent about mothers. Longing for restoration of a lost union, but resenting the mother who expelled them from the undifferentiated Eden of childhood, male writers expressed their anger by representing matriarchal figures as powerful and cruel.
In contrast, Knoepflmacher argues, female...