Hard to let go of girlish fantasy

Men in Wonderland
March 1, 2002

The Victorian fascination for small girls continues to be amply replicated in the works of modern scholars themselves fascinated by the phenomenon. This can lead to some weariness of spirit on the part of the reader as the usual male suspects are once again wheeled out for inspection and as often as not a certain amount of self-righteous, academic scolding.

But Men in Wonderland offers something different, by virtue of the neatness of its main concept. This runs as follows: many comfortably off Victorian men, dressed and brought up very much as girls in their first seven years, often came to regret the lost happiness of a once feminised nursery that was frequently replaced by a brutish boarding-school regime. Their later, often excessively flirtatious reactions to idealised young girls in art, fiction or real life often represented nostalgia for the forbidden girlish side of their former lives. Such sentimental fantasies were eventually driven out by an increasing unavoidable awareness of the sexual potential of small girls, from the first worrying reports of sexual abuse of children in the workplace to W. T. Stead's journalistic revelations about under-age female prostitution. Henceforth, it would be the British boy who would become childhood's supreme representative for the 20th century, symbolised by Alfred Gilbert's statue of Eros, unveiled in Piccadilly Circus in 1893.

The most convincing argument for this thesis is contained in an excellent final chapter, in which Catherine Robson examines the case of the late Victorian poet Ernest Dowson. After coming across newspaper stories about the abduction and sexual abuse of a 16-year-old girl, Dowson was forced to admit in a letter that they "read like a sort of foul and abominable travesty" of some of his own poetry. Although he insists his own motives were pure when it came to the various young girls he worshipped in print as well as in life, the prospect of putting up with "all the comments and analogies which one's kind friends will draw" was altogether too much.

Robson guesses that Lewis Carroll and John Ruskin may have faced moments of similarly worrying self-examination. But Karoline Leach's recent book on Carroll, which suggests that much of his apparent penchant for small girls was a cover for his interest in mature women, offers a compelling alternative explanation.

Robson's analysis of Carroll's photographs of Alice Liddell also repeats the usual accusation of "knowingness" on the face of the child. A comparison with Victor-ian pornography would surely reveal that the photographic appearance of genuine sexual knowingness on the part of a child model was a very different matter.

An age that could warm to Mayne Reid's bestselling novel The Child Wife in 1868, about his own marriage to a young girl, certainly had a complicated relationship with sexuality and the young. This book can be recommended for throwing at least some new light on this troubled topic.

Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in cultural and community studies, University of Sussex.

Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman

Author - Catherine Robson
ISBN - 0 691 00422 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 250

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