- Quixotes, Orphans, and Subjectivity:Maria Edgeworth's Georgian Heroinism and the (En)Gendering of Young Adult Fiction
"How . . . difficult is it, to construct stories suited to the early years of youth, and, at the same time, conformable to the complicate [sic] relations of modern society—fictions, that shall display examples of virtue, without initiating the young reader into the ways of vice—and narratives, written in a style level to his capacity, without tedious detail, or vulgar idiom!"Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Preface to Moral Tales for Young People, 1801 (l:v)
The hidden agenda behind this lengthy title is a reassessment of the heroisms available to young adult protagonists (and by extension a revaluation of the young adult genre itself). Such a reassessment entails contextualizing the historical adolescent hero, especially of female gender and especially by women writers. Maria Edgeworth's Angelina; or, L'Amie Inconnue in the multi-volume Moral Tales for Young People, an early example of fiction self-consciously tailored for a teen audience, offers rich material for a more detailed explication than this essay allows.1 Perhaps even more important for the present purpose is to outline why such a story's heroism is important and how numerous such studies might assist us in rethinking cultural and literary issues now being hotly contested. Considering the history of young adult heroism illuminates the cultural construction of Anglo-American adolescence over the last few centuries; it links historical young adult literature with its descendants and forces us to acknowledge less a teleological progress toward what we have now than parallels and continuities with what we had before, if in a very different style. Rethinking this material also, I suggest, ties into current critical debate over where the novel came from, what function it performs in society, what kinds of contributions women and their daughter heroines made to its traditions and development, and, in turn, what kinds of influence narrative exerted on the cultural formation of feminine subjectivity. The heroic modes available to female protagonists and the literary [End Page 21] innovations pioneered by women writers have been as devalued in young adult fiction as in the novel proper, if indeed precise separation of age-graded storying is possible. Historical young adult literature, like the popular novel with which it is conterminous, helps us interrogate the relationship between elite and popular art forms as well as the low canonical status of contemporary adolescent fiction. Stories that a culture brands popular, juvenile, and gender-linked, like fictions for adolescents and children, are triply disadvantaged, even though the heroic models they offer girls may be more pertinent and positive that what elite adult culture affords.2
But first I need to establish briefly that my object of inquiry exists, for many seeming authorities still deny both historical adolescence and a specific literature for it. Introducing a recent anthology of essays on the subject, Harvey J. Graff asserts that "'the history of growing up' is a historical orphan" and that disciplinary fragmentation obscures our understanding of childhood, adolescence, and youth. A historian investigating childhood and a psychologist analyzing adolescence exist in "segregated and balkanized research fields," and not only do the twain never meet, but neither engages the myriad other scholars also exploring the "critical early phases of the human life course" (1987 xi). Moreover, despite the burgeoning of family and childhood studies since the path-breaking publication of Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood some decades back, Graff's argument implies that the history of adolescence or young adulthood remains the proverbial ugly duckling. Historical studies of the teenage years are much rarer than considerations of childhood; the few recent examples are also, I might add, almost exclusively devoted to male adolescence.3
Oddly enough, Graff does not extend his useful insight to include adolescent and young adult literature, which is surely as conspicuously orphaned as that cultural experience of adolescence which generates it—or which it helps construct, depending on one's critical stance regarding the production and reproduction of literature. If children's literature has advanced beyond marginality as a field of scholarly inquiry, adolescent literature remains many leagues behind. Readers of this and similar journals...