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  • From Alice to Algernon: The Evolution of Child Consciousness in the Novel by Holly Blackford
  • Margaret R. Higonnet (bio)
From Alice to Algernon: The Evolution of Child Consciousness in the Novel, by Holly Blackford; pp. 296. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2018, $50.00.

Holly Blackford’s From Alice to Algernon: The Evolution of Child Consciousness in the Novel grows out of the seed planted in her 2013 essay about “Child Study” as a legacy of Darwinian thought and the rise of child psychology. Charles Darwin, she argued, “drove forward the Child Study movement in the late Victorian period, framing questions about development in terms of evolution, adaptation to environment, and the relationship between atavistic instinct and human will” (“Raw Shok and Modern Method: Child Consciousness in Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 38 [2003], 287). Blackford’s book sums up her thesis that Victorian child psychologists were “studying the ascent of man” in the aphorism that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (68). This phrase suggests that the individual child’s growing consciousness and mental control follow an arc drawn by Darwinians from so-called primitive peoples to a supposedly civilized modern race. Blackford traces a Victorian reconceptualization of the child as representation not of the future (the image projected in the age of revolution by many Romantic writers), but of the past. In an application of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, Victorians postulated that a child’s consciousness would develop from a so-called savage mentality, rooted in folklore and myth, to civilized adult self-control and a capacity for detached study. Darwin himself juxtaposed his study of evolution with an 1839 diary that he kept about his infant child and published in 1877; Hippolyte Taine likewise studied the language development of his daughter in order to access her actions by instinct or choice. The goal of the scientific community, Blackford argues, was to use the child to understand the adult, both by differentiating the two and by examining how reflective consciousness and creative imagination were integrated in child and adult.

Blackford connects scholarship about the mental development of children to the dynamic of child consciousness depicted in novels that served as sources for thinkers from the fin-de-siècle to the mid-twentieth century. Her close readings, particularly of the first pages of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), sharpen our vision of the meandering path taken by Alice’s reflections: as she slips back and forth between two worlds, in her projective observation of her kitten, her imitation of others, and in her critique of adult authority as nonsense. The child’s playful imagination imitates the internal and external worlds at the same time as it reads them, while also recombining fragmentary observations. Blackford compares Alice to Henry James’s Maisie to consider James’s complex depictions of a child’s observation and performance as Maisie acquires a capacity to conceal herself. Although Blackford does not argue that these particular texts influenced scientific theories, she does draw a general causal connection. The key role of literature for the scientific community reflects the difficulty of gaining access to childhood mental processes by detached adult observation. Accordingly, in this book the broad panorama of theories about mental development by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists is animated by detailed analyses of selected literary passages that evoke a young character’s mental operations from perception to growing consciousness. The Victorian British authors examined are Carroll, James, Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray [1890]), and J. M. Barrie (Peter [End Page 670] and Wendy [1911]), and they all offer openings onto themes of alienation and divided consciousness.

Blackford’s title, From Alice to Algernon, she tells us, could be translated as “from Darwin to Freud,” continuing to thinkers such as Franz Boas, Jean Piaget, and B. F. Skinner, who grapple with cultural differences and social conditioning (2). In a rich web of references to different thinkers, Blackford underscores their interest in child study, but she does not apply her own analytic tools to close readings of their philosophic and scientific texts. Over...


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pp. 670-672
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