- “Stories by Bits”:The Serial Family in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances
Jane eyre declares to Mrs. Reed, “I will never call you aunt again” (30). David Copperfield is even more direct, simply biting his cruel stepfather Mr. Murdstone. These children, two of the most famous in Victorian literature, have relationships with their extended families that are troubled, to say the least. Even if neglected children such as Jane and David are eventually welcomed into more nurturing extended families, their inclusion usually depends on a chance encounter or the discovery of a biological relationship. A host of once popular but now obscure Victorian children’s texts, however—including Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances (1866–68)—present children who actively create nurturing extended families for themselves through a process of storytelling that is modelled on the content and form of the periodical.
Ida, the child heroine of Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances, seems very like the classic neglected children of Victorian literature. An orphan whose mother has died years ago and whose sailor father has recently been lost at sea, Ida is living in the home of her uncle, who seldom speaks to her. She becomes absorbed in watching the elderly neighbour across the road, whom she names “Mrs. Over-the-way.” When Ida finally meets Mrs. Overtheway, she begs her to tell stories; the woman obligingly shares what she calls a “strong remembrance of my childhood” (17) and continues this storytelling over the course of several days. This episodic storytelling mirrors the text’s original serialization in eleven instalments in the children’s periodical Aunt Judy’s Magazine between May 1866 and October 1868.1 Ewing published nearly all her fiction serially in Aunt Judy’s Magazine, and critics like Marghanita Laski have blamed the constraints of serialization for a “lack of balance” in Ewing’s text (38).2 Rather than being the incidental cause of stylistic errors, however, the structural demands of writing for serialization closely shape Ewing’s conception of the familial bond between Mrs. Overtheway and Ida. I term their relationship a serial family, because Mrs. Overtheway and Ida form their attachment using three practices that also structure the periodical form: collaborating on shaping a story, telling episodic yet interconnected serial stories, and leaving these stories unfinished and extendable.3
Ewing’s remarkable depictions of collaborative siblings, mentoring aunts, bachelor uncles, and foster families show that the fragments of a so-called [End Page 147] broken family need not be remade into a traditional family unit but can instead be linked to one another to form a flexible extended family.4 Ewing’s work, and that of women writers such as Dinah Mulock Craik, Jean Ingelow, Harriet Martineau, Mary Louisa Molesworth, Christina Rossetti, and Charlotte Yonge, demonstrates that Victorian conceptions of extended families were far more complex and positive than the familiar stories of neglected orphans would suggest. Over the past decade or so, increased critical attention to children’s texts by these and other women writers has contributed to our understanding of Victorian depictions of families, but studies of Ewing’s work have been relatively rare.5 A brief examination of Ewing’s texts by Laski appeared in 1950 and another by Gillian Avery in 1961; more recently, Marah Gubar discusses several Ewing texts in Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (2009), arguing for a reassessment of the collaborative relationships between adults and children in texts by Ewing and several other Victorian children’s writers.6 These studies illuminate Ewing’s sensitive depictions of realistic children with complex anxieties and aspirations. I will draw in particular on Gubar’s conception of collaborative adult/child relationships, but I will focus on how the periodical itself helps to construct new ideas of the extended family, both on the level of content—by depicting extended families in the stories that appear in the periodicals—and on the level of form—by creating a familial relationship between the periodical and its readers that in turn models how serial families get created.7
Working from Kirsten Drotner’s assertion that juvenile magazines “must be understood and interpreted as...