- Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction
Susan Honeyman's Elusive Childhood is an ambitious book that considers various representations of childhood within fiction and popular culture. Through investigating the problematic ways that adults define children and childhood, Honeyman implores readers to become proactive in their own modes of reading and to question preconceived assumptions on the nature of childhood. Any difficulties of her work arise from the sheer ambition of the undertaking, for when texts consulted span Freud to X-Men, Henry James to Charles Darwin and Arthur C. Clarke, at times the reader is left wishing for greater detail. However, as an overview encompassing impressively wide-ranging source texts, this book is exemplary. Honeyman challenges us to examine how representations of children and childhood in the modern episteme are inevitably touched by adult desires and needs. In addition to what Honey-man argues, how she goes about it is remarkable. By continual use of inclusive pronouns, Honeyman shares authority with her reader, encouraging us to interrogate [End Page 418] our own assumptions, to alter how we read, and, in so doing, to revise how we create discourse about childhood.
Although the subtitle, "Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction," situates the book within literary discourse, Honeyman also utilizes psychoanalysis, sociology, film, geography, and post-structuralist theory to further her argument. She explicitly situates her project within cultural studies, viewing childhood as a cultural construct created by adult desire. "My method is to approach childhood as portraiture in relief, reading adult desire in the 'empty spaces' created for hypothetical children in discourse" (17). Furthering Jacqueline Rose's famous argument about the "impossibility" of children's fiction, Honeyman posits that we must shift the "focus of our analysis from a supposed audience ('children') to authors (almost always adults), so that all child-focused writings can be read as constructing children" (11). She notes that courses in women's or African American literature "reflect the chosen or perceived identity of the authors, not the supposed identity of suitable readers" (8).
Honeyman moves from her general argument to a specific example in chapter 2, where she undertakes a close reading of Henry James's What Maisie Knew (1897). Honeyman lauds James's awareness of the "relativity inherent in an act of representation" and "his attempts to delineate children realistically" (32). She views James as one who "recognize[s] the impossibility of the task" of representing children, showing restraint when describing Maisie's thoughts (32). Honeyman finds an admirable authorial distance at work: "we see what Maisie sees, but cannot know what Maisie knew" (34).
Chapter 3 discusses how space, landscape, and place function as representations of childhood. Neverland and Mary Lennox's secret garden are prime examples of spaces for children that are "clearly bound and inaccessible to adults" (51). Yet they are created by that most powerful of adult figures-the author. Therefore they can be read as adults' attempts to describe the impossible through spatial metaphor. In addition, the popularity of maps in fiction does not derive from the aid they provide to children; instead it represents an attempt by adults to know (literally "map") the unknowable landscape of childhood.
In the fourth chapter Honeyman uses developmental sciences to show how a "rationalist bias of developmental discourse" operates (25). She notes that a majority of texts place "development [as] a linear process, whether an ascension to knowledge or a descent from intuitive wisdom," failing to recognize the power of social constructedness in creating identity (81). This is shown in how critics read Lord of the Flies (1954) as allegory but never as about children themselves, for Lord of the Flies challenges "the security of adults who insist on an oversimplified construction of childhood innocence" (84). Because "Jack Merridew is a monster; he cannot be a kid" (83). In addition, Honeyman [End Page 419] argues that science fiction is a useful site for the exploration of children as possessing powerful potential, as they have "less to unlearn" (101).
Using Toni Morrison's discussions of her trouble in voicing the...