Stuchebrukhov, Olga. Sept. 2006 [sub ser, highbeam].
Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature. Rev. Ed. Baltimore: Penguin books, 1967.
, by John L. Colle. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.
The novels of Charles Dickens, the most popular author of the Victorian era, also reveal an intense concern about the vulnerability of children. When Dickens was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking factory, an incident that haunted him his whole life. His novels are full of neglected, exploited, or abused children: the orphaned Oliver Twist, the crippled Tiny Tim, the stunted Smike, and doomed tykes like Paul Dombey and Little Nell. Like Barrett Browning, Dickens was galvanized by revelations of real-life horrors facing the poor. Oliver Twist (1837) was written in response to the draconian New Poor Law of 1834, which had been inspired by the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This law relegated the needy to prison-like institutions called workhouses, splitting up families and subjecting them to repugnant living conditions and hard labor.
But although adherents to the cult of the child described their appreciation in religious and/or aesthetic terms, the art they produced reveals a disturbing tendency to conceive of the child as the ideal romantic partner. In novels like Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and J. M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird (1902), besotted bachelors pursue children rather than women, while Dowson wrote a sonnet sequence celebrating the charms “Of a Little Girl.” Dowson also fell in love with an eleven-year-old named Adelaide Foltinowicz, proposing to her when she was fourteen. He was not alone; eminent Victorians like John Ruskin and the Archbishop of Canterbury also wooed young girls, and child prostitution was an accepted if deplored fact of London life.
Together they had 10 children before they separated in 1858.
What explains the sluggish pace of reform? The rise of industrial capitalism created a huge demand for cheap labor, which children certainly were. Responding to this boom, Victorian economists and politicians embraced a laissez-faire approach which involved keeping state interference to a minimum. Forced to fend for themselves, many families endured such extreme poverty that their children’s wages were indeed crucial to their survival. And although the Romantic belief in childhood innocence was spreading, many clung to the Calvinist notion of original sin, which held that work was good for children, since “Satan finds mischief for idle hands to do.”
Over 75 feature films have been made based on his novels.
With its rollicking depiction of nursery life, Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839) is often regarded as a landmark text that shifted the focus of children’s fiction from instruction to delight. Classics like Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense (1846) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) carried on this tradition. Mixing fantasy and realism, authors like Juliana Ewing, Mary Louisa Molesworth, and E. Nesbit painted a vivid picture of the middle-class nursery as a hotbed of hobbies: private theatricals, elaborate games, gardening, the composition of family magazines, and so on.
was published in monthly parts from April 1836 to November 1837.
After living briefly abroad in Italy (1844) and Switzerland (1846) Dickens continued his success with (1848), the largely autobiographical (1849-50), (1852-53), (1854), (1857), (1859), and (1861).
In all, Dickens performed more than 400 times.
Ironically, though, even as the Victorians represented children as opposed by nature to the materialistic world of trade and profit, the figure of the child was commodified and put on display as never before. For example, the Pears Soap Company bought reproduction rights to Millais’ paintings Cherry Ripe (1879) and Bubbles (1886), and placed the images in advertisements and calendars (see ). When Cherry Ripe was featured as a color centerfold in a Christmas annual, the magazine quickly sold 500,000 copies. Kate Greenaway also took advantage of the increased public appetite for images of childhood; her watercolors of children playing appeared not just in her wildly popular books but on tea towels, wallpaper, stationary, soaps, and clothes.