Roisín Laing, ‘Victorian Childhood Beyond the Canon’

Roisín Laing recently completed her PhD with the English Studies department at Durham University. She will be a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sydney during 2017.

This post accompanies Roisín Laing’s article ‘Candid Lying and Precocious Storytelling in Victorian Literature and Psychology’. Published here.

Virginia M. Prall, ‘Frances Hodgson Burnett, full-length portrait, seated, reading at a table’, photograph, c. 1908, Library of Congress Prints and Online Photographs Catalog <> [accessed 5 January 2017
In my recently published Journal of Victorian Culture article, I argue that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) responds to Victorian fears about the child liar. Burnett’s precocious protagonist, Sara Crewe, suggests that childhood lies are no worse than adult lies, and, perhaps just as radically, that lying is not inherently immoral. In this respect, Burnett’s novel—which was written for children—differs from contemporary child psychology, and from more canonical fiction of the Victorian period. This raises some broad questions about the range and type of evidence Victorianists might draw on in studies of nineteenth-century childhood.

The first and most obvious question raised by my analysis of Burnett’s A Little Princess is how other works of so-called ‘children’s literature’ responded to ideas about childhood being developed in other discourses in the Victorian period.

Those influential practitioners of Child Study discussed in my article did not focus exclusively on children’s lies. They were also interested in an attribute that is particularly associated with childhood, even today: the imagination. Children were (and still are) thought to have particularly active imaginations. For Victorian psychologists, this was the reason for many disorders specific to childhood, even though it was also a source of Romanticised ideas about children.[1]  

  1. Nesbit was more influential even than Burnett as an author for children, particularly because of her innovative use of a child-narrator—the unforgettable Oswald Bastable—in her three-part Treasure Seekers series (1899-1904). Oswald’s version of imaginative play makes a clear and entertaining contrast with the version offered in contemporary psychology. His account of the Bastables’ imaginative games ridicules both the Romanticised imagination, and the pathologized imagination, which emerge in contemporary psychology.

More significantly, however, in the Treasure Seekers series, the imagination is a primary characteristic not of a child, but of a competent reader: any reader who enjoys the series identifies with the imaginative child who narrates it. Consequently, the Treasure Seekers series not only undermines the nineteenth-century association between the imagination and mental pathology, but also challenges that related, and more enduring, association between the imagination and childhood.

Nesbit, like Burnett, evidently responded critically and inventively to contemporary ideas about childhood when writing literature for children. Both authors also wrote autobiographies of their own childhoods. This points to a second question raised by a study of the role of children’s literature in Victorian ideas about childhood: how did the authors of children’s literature contribute to these ideas when writing about themselves? Autobiographical work by Burnett or Nesbit might be productively compared with contemporary psychology, to examine how far the children of autobiography, like the children of fiction, contradict scientific discourse.[2]

Child psychology of the Victorian period often affirmed the teleology of individual growth. A teleological model seems also to inform Burnett’s and Nesbit’s autobiographies. In these texts, as in Child Study, the remembered child affirms the meaning of the adult self. Thus, Burnett’s autobiography, The One I Knew the Best of All (1893) ends with an account of her first publication. This account of ‘A Memory of the Mind of a Child’ ends when the child ‘crossed the delicate, impalpable dividing line’ between childhood self and adult self, between child and author. After the first publication, ‘Life itself began, and memories of her lose the meaning which attaches itself to the memories of the Mind of a Child’.[3] The child is presented as a story which ends in the adult author.

Comparably, Nesbit’s autobiographical essays for the Girl’s Own Paper (1896-1897) end by affirming the adult self, and differentiating that self from the remembered child. Most directly, these essays affirm the difference between the child and the writing adult by their context. Terri Doughty suggests that the Girl’s Own Paper ‘increasingly [featured] information on new educational and professional opportunities for women’.[4] Nesbit was therefore writing explicitly as a successful and well-known professional author when she contributed her recollections of the childhood which preceded this adult.

Through their fictional precocious children, Sara Crewe and Oswald Bastable, Burnett and Nesbit contest adult ideas about childhood through their precocious storytelling. When writing about the remembered children of autobiography, by contrast, neither author seems to present such an energetic challenge to the idea of childhood progress, and adult end, which is evident in so much scientific and canonical literary discourse of the period.

One final question is raised in any discussion of Victorian ‘children’s literature’. Although the genre is almost always understood as literature for children, it could be taken to refer to literature by children instead. Neither literature for children nor autobiography of childhood experience have received sufficient attention in studies of Victorian childhood, but literature by children has been neglected almost entirely. Victorian interest in children inevitably extended to works produced by children themselves. These works are an essential but, as yet, ignored part of the picture of childhood in the Victorian period.

Bain News Service, ‘Daisy Ashford’, photograph, n.d., Library of Congress Prints and Online Photographs Catalog <> [accessed 5 January 2017].
The diaries of Marjory Fleming and the fiction of Daisy Ashford (pictured here as an adult) are two highly entertaining examples of such work. The works of both authors significantly complicate current understandings of Victorian childhood. The editorial practices with which these works have been treated, and the adult-authored commentary about them from the Victorian period to the present day, reveal the tenacity of certain ideas and assumptions about childhood. The works themselves—which are explicit and even, at times, profane, on the very subjects about which an innocent child should know nothing—reveal the extent of the disjunction between those powerful ideas about children, and children themselves.

Ideologies are not genre-specific, so an analysis the ideology of childhood in the Victorian period requires an analysis of a range of the genres in which that ideology was produced. Increasingly, scholars analyse scientific and canonical literary discourses about childhood in dialogue rather than in isolation. However, autobiographical accounts of childhood have not yet been fully integrated into the study of Victorian childhood, while so-called ‘children’s literature’ is still, generally, treated as a separate discourse. The contribution to Victorian ideas about children made by children themselves, meanwhile, has barely been registered.

The study of Victorian childhood has already uncovered much about the Victorian period, and about our own debt to that era. By broadening our textual base to include non-canonical authors and texts, scholars of Victorian childhood might further enrich this productive area of research.


[1] See Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 60-74. 

[2] See Shuttleworth, ‘Inventing a Discipline: Autobiography and the Science of Child Study in the 1890s’, Comparative Critical Studies, 2/2 (2005), 143-63, for a comparison of psychology with Burnett’s and other autobiography of the period.

[3]The One I Knew the Best of All: A Memory of the Mind of a Child (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1893), p. 325.

[4]‘Introduction’, in Selections from The Girl’s Own Paper, 1880-1907, ed. by Terri Doughty (Plymouth: Broadview Reprint Edition, 2004), pp. 7-14 (p.7).

Bain News Service, ‘Daisy Ashford’, photograph, n.d., Library of Congress Prints and Online Photographs Catalog <> [accessed 5 January 2017].

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