- Victorian Children's Literature: Experiencing Abjection, Empathy, and the Power of Love by Ruth Y. Jenkins
From its title, Victorian Children's Literature led me to expect an argument about nineteenth-century culture and society. I might be forgiven this assumption, since the book jacket promises revelations about "social, economic, religious, and national energies" and Jenkins's earlier book, Reclaiming [End Page 406] Myths of Power: Women Writers and the Victorian Spiritual Crisis (1995), had examined gender roles and the Victorian crisis of faith.
Astute readers of Jenkins's subtitle—those drawn to the term "abjection"—might have more accurate expectations, for the book ultimately has less to do with the Victorian period than with Julia Kristeva. Though Jenkins discusses texts published between 1858 and 1911, Kristeva's writings, rather than anything particularly Victorian, provide the foundation holding the chapters together. She reads Victorian-era texts "through Julia Kristeva's theories of abjection, the beloved authority, and Herethics" (173). Citing the chapter on the "Adolescent Novel" in Kristeva's New Maladies of the Soul, Jenkins explains Kristeva's concept of subjects-in-process who, through literature, "can experiment with alternative constructs of self without the risk of sanction." For young readers, "the open psychic structure enables experimentation with personalities that endorse or challenge, test or develop responses to cultural values" (7). Jenkins explores how texts for adolescents challenge those values and allow for the reader's psychic development.
Jenkins's approach is perhaps best revealed in the verb most often used in her claims: "illustrate." In chapter 2, the metaphor of bathing in The Water-Babies "illustrates a return to the Semiotic state for Tom" (25). In chapter 4, the experiences of Ralph, the narrator of The Coral Island, "illustrate what is at the heart of Kristeva's theories of the signifying process" (71) while Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers "illustrates a variety of opportunities for a beloved authority to acknowledge the emerging self" (83). In chapter 5, which is about animal narrators, Rambles of a Rat "illustrates the process Kristeva posits as necessary for the emergent self" (103) while "Black Beauty illustrates a reassessment of the inevitability or appeal of binaried constructs" (108). In each case, a Victorian text "illustrates" a concept from Kristeva (such as the signifying process, beloved authority, the emergent self, or binary constructs).
Those readings are convincing, as far as they go, but in my view the most insightful and compelling readings come in the last two chapters. In chapter 6 Jenkins responds to interpretations of The Secret Garden as a restoration story that, in shifting attention from Mary to Colin, privileges male energy and re-establishes traditional social patterns. Jenkins instead reads the novel as offering "an alternative model of social interaction" that challenges the "Victorian discourse of competition," even though its 1911 publication puts it slightly outside the period (120–21). The chapter is framed by readings of Friedrich Fröebel's and Herbert Spencer's educational theories, claiming that "Fröebel's description of mother-love anticipates" a Kristevan dynamic that challenges Spencer's model of "competitive struggle" (123). In Jenkins's view, "Burnett is not just replacing one cultural model with another; she is [End Page 407] blurring the boundaries between them … dismantling the binary oppositions and offering a non-competitive, companion image in its stead" (131). So any interpretation that reads the novel's return to Colin as re-establishing traditional social patterns "falls into a trap built from binary constructs—that it is either Mary's or Colin's story, that theirs is a competitive relationship" (137). Jenkins's application of Kristeva offers an alternative interpretation, based in compassion rather than competition.
Chapter 7 applies Kristeva's "maternal thinking" and Herethics to one of Christina Rossetti's less famous works, Speaking Likenesses. Jenkins shows how "Speaking Likenesses illustrates the dynamic relationship of abjection's sublime, empathy, and love central to Herethics" (145). Jenkins situates her reading within the critical reception of Rossetti's text, which since its publication has been criticized...