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Book Reviews Breaking the Angelic Image Edith Lazaros Honig. Breaking the Angelic Image: Woman Power in Victorian Children's Fantasy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988. 156 pp. $39.95 THE STEREOTYPE OF THE VICTORIAN wife and mother as "the Angel in the House," so mordantly described in Woolfs A Room of One's Own by way of Coventry Patmore's mid-Victorian poems of married love, has undergone a good deal of revisionary discussion in the past decade or so. Feminist Victorianists, among them Nina Auerbach, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and now Edith Lazaros Honig, demonstrate that Victorian writers, male and female, did present attractive, strong women who do not fit the Angel mold. Not all "good" female characters are passive, perfect Angels, nor are their independent sisters necessarily "mad and bad." HOnIg1S Breaking the Angelic Image implies that the liberated woman of twentiethcentury British fiction sprang directly from the subversive presentation of women in one Victorian genre, that of book-length children's fantasy: "the child readers of Victorian fantasy would, after all, be not only the future adult readers, but also the adult writers." Moving beyond the common wisdom that reading fantasy teaches us about reality, Honig proposes that Victorian writers of children's fantasy, male and female, seized "the freedom to project [their] own conceptions of what females were really like, or at least what they had the potential to be, in a freer, less repressed society." Focusing on sixteen books by Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Mary Louisa Molesworth, Ford Madox Ford, Edith Nesbit, and J. M. Barrie, Breaking the Angelic Image comprises a discussion of the four types of female characters Victorian child readers saw in their fantasy books— mothers, spinsters, girls, and magical women—and the ways these four types subvert conventional expectations of female behavior. HOnIg1S comprehensive discussion of the first group notes the similarities of mothers in children's fantasy with mothers in adult fiction. In both genres mothers tend to be absent, distant, bad, or not really mothers (nannies, governesses, or other surrogates): almost none are ideal Angels, pure, pious, watchful and industrious, loving and devoted confidantes to their children. The protagonists of Victorian children's fantasies are children themselves, on quests of maturation and individuation that require separation from the mother, and the perfect Victorian mother, powerful in her home, certainly would not allow her children to embark on fantastic, danger233 ELT: Volume 33:2, 1990 ous, and liberating adventures, falling down rabbit-holes or flying off to Neverland. Thus, for the sake of the children's autonomy, "Victorian fantasy had introduced a subversive message: Mothers are not always ideal." Adventurous children of Victorian fantasy are usually not completely self-sufficient, however; most have surrogate mothers for their everyday care. These governesses, nursemaids, elderly aunts, and teachers—all childless spinsters, often distracted by other tasks—are never as attentive as real mothers would be; thus their charges are free to enter fantastic worlds. At the same time, many spinster mother-surrogates are devoted to their charges and, contrary to the Victorian definition of women solely in their familial relation to men, they are seen as independent, cheerful, useful, and fulfilled. As "assertive, adventurous, independent, and even aggressive as any male hero," Lewis Carroll's Alice (1865) certainly broke the mold of the ideal Victorian Angel-in-training. Honig focuses on four of Alice's successors to show the contrast between the womanly Girl of the Period and the androgynous fantasy girl hero, including Nesbit's ingenious Mabel (The Enchanted Castle, 1908) and Barrie's Wendy, introduced in the play Peter Pan (1904) and represented in his novelization , Peter and Wendy (1911). The choice of Wendy as an androgynous girl hero is, Honig admits, a questionable one, as Wendy's adventure in flying to Neverland with her brothers and Peter Pan degenerates into a game of "house," with her playing the traditional role of housewife and mother to the Lost Boys until she returns home to play the role in earnest as a grown woman. In attempting to prove Wendy's essential subversiveness, Honig might have made more of Barrie's obviously ironic tone and his mockery of Victorian and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 233-236
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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