- Precocious Children and Childish Adults: Age Inversion in Victorian Literature by Claudia Nelson
Children's literature abounds with precocious young protagonists, and Claudia Nelson examines the phenomenon of age inversion as particularly widespread in Victorian literature. In Precocious Children and Childish Adults, Nelson asserts that age inversion reflects cultural anxieties of the era, arising not only from the industrial-age hardships faced by fractured families but also from the development of opposing theories regarding human development and evolution. Precocious children, Nelson argues, call into question the nature of childhood and the distinct roles assigned to men, women, and children of Victorian households and society. As she contends in her introduction, "The dismantling of chronological age is frequently a way of tracking power or its loss, as child-men and child-women escape or are expelled from their assigned social categories" (4).
Because the range of Victorian variations on this device makes it difficult to demarcate categories, Nelson limits her analysis by focusing on British texts that explicitly describe characters as unnaturally aged or youthful. Nelson adopts an approach similar to that of Arthur Adrian in Dickens and the Parent-Child Relationship, beginning with works by Charles Dickens and expanding her analysis. She opens by examining domestic fiction's "old-fashioned child" as an uncanny figure, a double or mirror reflecting anxieties of the dominant middle-class male adult. Touchstone texts include Dickens' Dombey and Son, Juliana Ewing's Mary's Meadow, Jeanie Hering's Elf, Marie Corelli's The Mighty Atom, and Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Many of these texts feature sickly or changeling children whose strangeness—like Christopher's hydrocephaly in Mary's Meadow—lends them the appearance of having obscure wisdom and gives them an unsettling resemblance to much older people.
Nelson next invokes texts that distinguish between the childlike man, perceived as playful so long as he demonstrates growth, and the childish man, perceived as sinister and regressive; she finds that both figures, unless capable of change, represent threats to Victorian patriarchal constructs. She notes the common literary pairing of precocious or prematurely aged children, both [End Page 100] boys and girls, with childish or childlike men; she acknowledges a tendency to construct mirror-images that gauge the childish, criminal, or savage man against the gentleman who understands children and models civility. Criminal examples—including Dickens' Artful Dodger, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's dwarf Tonga (an amoral and exoticized sidekick to an aptly named crook, Jonathan Small), and Robert Louis Stevenson's Mr. Hyde—exemplify the public and disciplinary nature of the atavistic male's antisocial conduct in the Victorian novel. Comparatively, Victorian fiction also teems with boys who are cast into adult male roles, often as a result of economic hardship, and the pairing of these boys with childlike or childish men exposes growing Victorian ambivalence toward successful economic enterprise as the primary characteristic, which distinguishes men from boys.
Whereas Victorian literature's bad boys meet their destiny in public, these examples may be weighed against the private, sexualized, and secretive nature of the childish female's criminality, as represented by the homicidal and bigamous title character in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and by the doomed prostitute Nancy in Dickens' Oliver Twist. Nelson finds that while "the inability or refusal to grow is both tempting and horrifying in the adult male, Victorian society was often more comfortable with a corresponding stasis where women were concerned" (75), recommending the safety of the child- and family-friendly domestic space. The child-men of Victorian literature must develop, yet the child-women strive to maintain youthful stasis, at times driving their elders to distraction. Nelson cites examples from Dickens' Dora Copperfield (David Copperfield), the performer known as the Infant Phenomenon (Nicholas Nickelby), and even Ayesha of H. Rider Haggard's She, a precocious child-woman and an object of lust. She necessarily addresses pedophilia and the Victorian fascination with girls' erotic potential, contrasting sexually precocious young girls against those romantic heroines who devote themselves to a chosen adult male, and...