- Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature by Jessica Straley
Jessica Straley's Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature is an important, impressively cross-disciplinary, and highly readable book. It brings together the history of education, children's literature and culture, and the rise and fall of Darwinism in a study that sheds startling and significant light on all three subjects. Straley is perhaps most impressive for the ways in which she threads together these three stories, revealing [End Page 311] how imbricated they are and how understanding them in terms of each other changes (and corrects) our sense of all three. She builds on landmark studies by Gillian Beer, George Levine, Jacqueline Rose, U. C. Knoepflmacher, and Marah Gubar, while also complementing and extending recent work by Dinah Birch and Teresa Michals. In so doing Straley offers the structure for a comprehensive seminar in children's literature and its so-called Golden Age.
Straley's thesis is a corrective one, and it depends on an understanding of the ways in which evolution's impact on Victorian culture—and, more specifically, on the elementary school curriculum—and the increasing standardization and secularization of the educational system shaped children's literature and the understanding of childhood from 1860 to 1920. The Golden Age of children's literature is not, she argues, "a mythological period of primordial perfection before a fall," but rather "a wildly successful reaction to cultural pressures placing the genre at its most vulnerable" (26, 9). Linking the theory of recapitulation (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) to the status and nature of children, Straley reveals that evolutionary theory not only raised questions about childhood and child development, but also that those questions were "exacerbated by contemporary debates about elementary education" (7). "Victorian writers and publishers were," in fact, "organizing the genre of children's literature around recapitulation," she asserts (22). To name just one striking example of this organization, an 1897 children's edition of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837–39) "instructs readers to analyze the initial period of Oliver's life in term of 'The Struggle for Existence' because that is the first phase of all life" (22).
This revelation of the imbricated relationship between the genre and the science changes not only our sense of Golden Age children's literature, but also what we might call Golden Age children, as well as our understanding of the role of children's literature in Victorian culture. Golden Age children's literature is not, Straley insists, "the straightforward declension of Romanticism, but a response to scientific constructions of the animal child recapitulating the course of human evolution" (26). It is not a "retreat from reality into fantasy," but instead an "encounter with evolutionary science's relocation of the human"; it is thus a species of "imaginative literature [that] provides singular opportunities for the reader to evolve" from "bestial child" to human (9). Specifically, Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1862–63), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Rudyard Kipling's TheJungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1910–11) plot the evolution of the child from animal to human. These authors engaged directly with contemporary scientific debates, thereby revealing children's literature's engagement with science and, further, the surprising degree to which its target audience was conversant with that science. The literature itself, Straley argues, is doubly involved in the Darwinian debate in that it both considers the ramifications of the recapitulation thesis for its target audience ("the not-quite-human reader") and assumes that that reader is informed about the debate (27). Golden Age children's literature also, Straley reveals, responds directly to the contemporary debate over the role of science and literature in the elementary school curriculum. These classics of children's literature seek "to carve out a more formidable role for the literary in human evolution and childhood development"; they insist on the importance...