The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture
Images of toys, literature, clothes, and school supplies aimed at the child consumer occupy a significant space in our contemporary consumer culture. To imagine a society without this child-centered market is, as the essays in The Nineteenth-Century Child and the Consumer Culture assert, to imagine a society without a concept of childhood. As editor Dennis Denisoff notes, the rise of consumer culture occurred at "roughly the same time and place" as the evolution of "dominant modern concepts of the child" in nineteenth-century Britain (2). Thus the twelve essays of this collection address the intersections of these identity-shaping phenomena and the complicated webs of influence and exchange surrounding the white, middle-class Victorian child. The essays trace the "processes by which youngsters became producers, distributors, purchasers, users and products of consumer culture," and the ways in which children interacted with parents, teachers, child advocacy groups, toy makers, [End Page 185] theatrical companies, and writers (2). Many of the essays also reveal the anxieties of Victorian middle-class adults in relation to their class, status, and education, and the ways in which those anxieties played out vis-à-vis their children. While individual essays touch on working class childhood issues, the collection as a whole focuses on the visions of childhood cultivated and encouraged in the ruling and middle classes of nineteenth-century Britain.
Denisoff organizes the collection's first section, "Play Things: Toys and Theater," like a Russian nesting doll, moving from a broad overview on toys to children's toy theaters to actual children's roles in theatrical productions. In "Experiments Before Breakfast: Toys, Education and Middle-Class Childhood," Teresa Michals traces the rise in manufactured toys for the middle-class, and explores the ways that specialized play spaces and practical toys, such as "microscopes, pencils, paper, chemistry kits, modeling clay and paste-board construction kits" (39) were advertised as the means of better rearing and educating one's children. Michals notes the rise of board games advertised to "teach industry and competition" (33) and science kits encouraging children to experiment and learn scientific principles (36). "[Maria] Edgeworth's rational child was a resource-intensive project" (36), says Michals, and toy makers capitalized on middle class parents' desires to provide their children with every educational opportunity.
The immensely popular toy theater is more fully examined in Liz Farr's "Paper Dreams and Romantic Projections: The Nineteenth-Century Toy Theater, Boyhood and Aesthetic Play." Farr explains how toy theaters encouraged consumerism by offering souvenir prints or collectable sets in enticing window displays. (For instance, penny sheets were sold blank, so children could color them in, cut them out, then use them to stage small plays. Many writers noted that the process was the fun part, so they eagerly awaited the newest set of prints based on popular productions.) Farr also discusses how they framed (at times literally, through the proscenium) the imagination and development of artists like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Farr contends that both Dickens and Stevenson projected their daydreams onto the material objects in the toy theater, learning to operate "within a mode of desire between art and life, and between the perfected pleasures of his dreams and the imperfect dreams of reality" (49). Consumer goods, then, helped many British artists to develop their imaginations. Marah Gubar's "The Drama of Precocity: Child Performers on the Victorian Stage" expands the allure of the toy proscenium to life size by investigating actual children in Victorian theater, considering metaphors of children as playthings for adult theater-goers. Gubar provides a refreshing counter-argument to Jacqueline Rose's claim that Victorian children were "animated stage props," put on display as "passive objects of the adult gaze," to embody pure innocence [End Page 186] (63). Anticipating her arguments in Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature, Gubar proposes that child actors were not static representations of innocence, but were highly valued for their ability to "blur the line between child and adult, innocence and experience" (64). While acknowledging the reality of the "child as spectacle" (Rose, qtd in Gubar 64), Gubar cites the "precocious competence" (76) of child actors; multiple writers of the time, including Charles Dodgson and John Coleman, noted that child actors required maturity, professionalism, and skill in their craft. One such performer was Master Joseph Burke, who "would not only take on adult roles such as Shylock, Richard III or Sir Peter Teazle, but also would conduct the orchestra in the playing of an elaborate overture, and perform a violin solo" (64). Gubar notes that scholars often cite writers such as Dickens, who "grossly exaggerated the dangers faced by child performers, while downplaying any potential benefits to the children and their families" in a partisan attempt to "save" the child from corruption, abuse, and exploitation (74). Gubar argues that scholars should reexamine the writings of Victorian activists who respected the child actor—among them Ellen Barlee, Millicent Garret Fawcett, Mrs. O. F. Walton, and Dodgson—and who fought against the description of these actors as mere adult playthings (74).
Part Two, "Consuming Desires," places the child as a consumable, and consuming, subject and object in Victorian commodity culture, including the child's role in the Victorian erotic economy. Michèle Mendelssohn's "'I'm not the least bit expensive': Henry James and the Sexualization of the Victorian Girl" examines the economics and sexual capital of the Victorian marriage market as depicted in James's novels. Mendelssohn proposes that marriage transactions in these novels exemplify how "the Victorians saw marriage and prostitution as part of a commercial continuum, indicating either side of a socio-sexual economy" (85). She argues that James's authorial detachment, a position of objectivity that avoids moralization, allows readers to discover their own stances on taboo themes of incest, pleasure and pain, and the economics of marriage (90).
In "For-getting to Eat: Alice's Mouthing Metonymy," Carol Mavor's skillful manipulation of language and associative style defies simple summary. In her discussion of Alice's Wonderland eating habits, Mavor playfully connects topics as varied as anorexia, Proust's madeleine, memory, cats, kissing, Dodgson's photography, licensed Alice merchandise, and Charles Dodgson's own complicated relationship with food (Mavor claims Dodgson had an "obsessive orderliness" when it came to his meals and other daily behavior) (103). Mavor weaves a lyrical picture of "consumption based on withholding" as depicted in the relationships between eating, reading, consuming, and desiring in Wonderland (97). [End Page 187]
Part Three, "Adulthood and Nationhood," is comprised of three essays exploring the common trope of children's texts as a means of acculturating children with a nationalistic and patriotic identity. However, a more specific title might have better highlighted the interrelated arguments of these pieces, such as the recurring notion that the consumption of popular books by families created a standardized, idealized vision of nineteenth-century British citizenship, childhood, and domestic life. Claudia Nelson's "Adult Children's Literature in Victorian Britain" examines the "possible influence of children's fiction on Victorian literature for adults" (138). Nelson argues that many texts for upwardly mobile working-class adults adapted the strategies of didactic children's literature in order to accomplish aims of social betterment. Texts like Florence Montgomery's Misunderstood and Samuel Smiles's Self-Help modeled gentlemanly qualities for ambitious working-class men (141), and proposed to form a particular kind of national citizen who is "sensible, industrious, kind, responsible . . . and obedient to authority" (144). Like Nelson's essay, Ymitri Mathison's "Maps, Pirates and Treasure: The Commodification of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century Boys' Adventure Fiction" expands on adulthood and nationhood, addressing child citizenship and class-based relationships in Victorian Britain. Whereas Nelson asserts that the middle class viewed the working classes as "undisciplined, dirty, poorly educated and unrestrained in their appetites—in short, as childish, in the most negative sense of the word" (145), Mathison points out that treasure-seeking narratives provide a space for "middle-class characters [to] displace naked greed and the terrors of distrust, betrayal and death onto criminals, pirates and the lower classes" (180). Read together, Nelson's and Mathison's essays shed light on the commonalities between nineteenth-century class relations and adult/child relations.
Part Four, "Children and the Terrors of Cultural Consumption," addresses some of the more horrific scenes of Victorian childhood, including the sensationalism of orphan stories and the horrors of Lucy Clifford's Anyhow Stories. Monica Flegel's contribution, "'And now Tom being killed, and all spent and eaten': Children, Consumption and Commerce in Nineteenth-Century Child-Protection Discourse," provides the collection's most striking perspective on visions of childhood and class divisions of Victorian England. Flegel highlights the mostly working-class practice of purchasing life insurance for children, and the subsequent middle-class fear that impoverished parents would, out of desperation, kill their own children to collect the insurance money and spend it on food, thus consuming their own children. Flegel examines the fascinating rhetoric of child protection agencies, notably the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which condemned the child-life-insurance industry as a conspiracy of child abuse. [End Page 188] To counter charges of class bias, these agencies cast their argument in moral, ethical, and religious terms rather than in terms of social science (220). In pamphlets and petitions to Parliament, anti-child-insurance crusaders accused working-class parents of "immorality and the failure to feel proper affection for children" and said these parents violated "universal standards of child-rearing (based on middle-class values and standards of living)" (222-23). Yet, although NSPCC documents contain testimonies from doctors, police officers, and coroners, the "NSPCC's case studies failed to offer conclusive evidence that parents were 'Doing children to death for money'" (226) and betrayed a middle-class fear of working-class "hungers" and reproductive abilities (224). Flegel articulates the perception of working-class neglect and illuminates how accusations of immorality were visited upon the children of "bad" parents; she shows how this fiction operated alongside economic realities that often did lead to the suffering, starvation, and death of real working-class children in Victorian Britain.
The Nineteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture covers a wide breadth of topics. While the latter three sections of Denisoff's collection do not match the exceptional unfolding of the first section on toys and theater, each set of essays presents interconnected arguments about the modes of influence and economic forces shaping nineteenth-century concepts of the child. Narrative cohesion is enhanced throughout the text when several essayists join in conversation with one another's contributions. To their credit, many of the authors connect their individual contributions to the project's framework and acknowledge the value of other contributors' research. Any of these essays alone might expand readers' understanding of the period, but the impressive interweaving of arguments and citations makes this collection a harmonic, satisfying, and instructive read.
Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Florida. In addition to her concentration in children's literature, her interests include cultural studies, canonicity, American literature, and science fiction.