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297 15. Two Telling Tales: Didacticism as a Means of Feminine Empowerment in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House and Dinah Mulock Craik’s Alice Learmont LINDA CLARIDGE MIDDUP Mingled and strange were all her religious forms; but there was one thing that could not err, the intensity of devotion in her heart.1 The subtitle of Dinah Mulock Craik’s Alice Learmont (1851) is A Mother’s Love. It is Marion Learmont’s love, coupled with an ‘intensity of devotion in her heart’, that overcomes a terrifying and hellish onslaught by a swarm of angry fairies against her and daughter Alice. This mixture of sense and nonsense, of didacticism and fantasy has, at its heart, the domestic realm of home and hearth. Similarly, in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House: A Book for the Young (1839), despite the inclusion of ‘Uncle David’s nonsensical story’, the narrative is firmly situated in the domestic sphere. Yet, as Marah Gubar argues, ‘the popular genre of the family story still tends to get left out when commentators commend the accomplishments of children’s authors from this era’, and she cites Holiday House as being among that number.2 What is also overlooked is the part that fantasy and didacticism play in the promotion of positive images of femininity as a counterpoint to patriarchal opposition. As seen in Craik’s protagonist, Marion, there is an intensity of devotion in the heart of many influential Victorian women writers to transform the limited, and all too limiting, aspects of patriarchal and societal expectation into something far more dynamic. In embracing Christ-like qualities and rejecting culturally-acquired ones, femininity can be refined, or purified, and so become an indicator of a woman’s true worth as a human being rather than embodying her use-value. With this in mind, this chapter explores how Holiday House and Alice Learmont actively focus on similar Christian and moral values, seeing them as the antidote to cultural ‘temptation’ – the love of self, love of fine living, IV. MORAL AND SPIRITUAL FICTIONS 298 linda claridge middup love of praise and flattery and so on – in presenting a strongly religious view of the ‘truly feminine’ woman as the disciple of Christ. Although appearing to have little in common (Sinclair writes about a middle- to upper-class family who live a life of ease and comfort and Craik writes about a poor Lowland family), both texts have strong female characters at the centre of their narratives – characters who possess the kind of beauty built on what Sinclair calls the ‘solid foundation’ of faith and ‘sound morality’.3 Strength (of mind and of body) and beauty (of character and of form) are concepts which were seldom, if ever in Victorian literature, used in conjunction with each other when describing femininity; these narratives go some way to redressing the balance. That each narrative is set partly in a fairyland or fantasyland is also important because it permits the investigation of new and possibly subversive ways of thinking about femininity without censure. Not only that but the otherworldly nature of fairyland enables them to explore what Nina Auerbach and U. C. Knoepflmacher call the ‘broken visions of a forbidden completion’ inherent in much Victorian women’s writing: although ‘female energies are released, they remain elliptical, subversive, open-ended. They convey not so much triumph as rage against the constraints that distort them’.4 * Both Sinclair (1800–64) and Craik (1826–87) were leading nineteenthcentury writers who utilised the appeal of fairy tales to enhance their own religious and moral teaching, and who thus wrote stories for children and young people which managed to be both popular and educational. Sinclair produced novels and travel books as well as several children’s books, and is particularly remembered for Holiday House, her domestic story about the well-to-do Graham family set in Edinburgh around 1815. This is one of the few texts by a Scottish writer from the first half of the nineteenth century to be included in mainstream histories of children’s literature, and Maureen Farrell has argued for the importance of ‘the novel’s Scottish setting and context and its place within the Scottish literary tradition’.5 Within this story Sinclair incorporates a curiously didactic 299 feminine empowerment in holiday house and alice learmont fairy tale which serves to break the tension that is slowly building in the narrative but which delivers an unexpectedly strong moral and Christian lesson to her young readers.6 Critics are divided...


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