- Time of Beauty, Time of Fear: The Romantic Legacy in the Literature of Childhood ed. by James Holt McGavran
This collection of critical essays invites readers to explore the Wordsworthian influence on children’s culture. The introduction, coauthored by editor James Holt McGavran, Jr. and his research assistant Jennifer Smith Daniel, focuses on pedagogy and child development, opening with a summary of Sam Mendes’s 2009 “sleeper hit film” Away We Go. The authors conclude that “the Wordsworthian connections involving landscape, memory, and self-fashioning are clearly made” in the film (xiii). McGavran and Daniel discuss various critical theories of childhood development, including the concept of the child as other, and express concern that many recent critics fail to recognize “how deeply the sense of crisis . . . is embedded in the romantic concept itself; to phrase it alternatively, carefree childhood is a myth, and not one promulgated by Wordsworth, at least not intentionally” (xv). Each contributor to this collection aspires to illustrate how Wordsworth’s concept of the child’s relationship to nature, along with the acquisition of the “two consciousnesses” adumbrated in The Prelude and elsewhere, enable the child/adult to negotiate those transitional spaces that help his or her self-formation. All twelve essays make worthwhile points, but seven of them struck me as being particularly interesting.
Claudia Mills’s “Rousseau Redux: Romantic Re-Visions of Nature and Freedom in Recent Children’s Literature about Homeschooling” re-members Rousseau’s natural child. Mills’s close readings of passages from Émile and Second Discourse illustrate how they unwittingly inform the four homeschooling stories she analyzes. If one deletes “recent” and replaces the specificity of Rousseau with Romantic thinkers, Mills’s conclusion contextualizes all twelve contributors’ interrogation of texts:
Thus these recent children’s texts show how we continue to struggle with the fundamental questions Rousseau posed two and a half centuries ago. Does our integration into society corrupt our fundamental nature or help us to realize it? Under what conditions are we most truly ourselves? And they show that Rousseau continues to provide the framework within which children’s literature offers answers to these questions, answers lying in educating children to live freely in harmony with their essential nature.(182)
Prevalent thematic discourses informing selected essays serve as segue to my discussion. These include: pedagogical methodology (as the introduction prepares us to expect); transitioning from innocence to experience; the effects of imperialism and a market economy on the family unit; parent/child relationships; moral instruction versus experiential learning; and the process of self-development. The confluence of these themes leads to some startling revelations. [End Page 174]
Elizabeth Gargano’s essay, “The Innocent Child in the House of History: Storytelling and the Sensibility of Loss in Molesworth’s The Tapestry Room,” clarifies the seeming dichotomy in the innocence-versus-experience debate. Gargano validates the interdependence of childhood innocence and experience in what she terms “contradictory longings for innocence and experience” in The Tapestry Room, which lead to closing doorways as children grow up (73).
Gargano offers a comparative analysis of Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock and her later, less regarded novel, The Tapestry Room. Her reading of the latter leads one to appreciate Moles-worth’s achievement in this work that offers readers a “striking variation” on “the static house tradition” (75). Rather than the “other world” of fairy tales, Gargano suggests the tapestry room adventures take the children to a “complementary world” (73). Dudu the raven becomes storyteller counselor to both Jeanne, the lonely child in her parents’ home, and her cousin Hugh who becomes part of the family after his parents’ deaths. Gargano decodes the three embedded narratives, insisting that “the interpolated stories serve important structural and thematic purposes in The Tapestry Room: they reinforce the narrative’s movement from fairytale to history, along with the children’s conversion from a state of isolated innocence to sympathetic experience” (78). “In fact,” she asserts, “the novel celebrates two contradictory impulses, the preservation of childhood innocence and...