When was the last time you thought of reading as "absorbing and voluptuous" or felt "rapt clean out of yourself" by the process? When was the last time "a story repeated itself in a thousand coloured pictures to (your) eye"? The phrases come from Robert Louis Stevenson's 1882 essay A Gossip on Romance and describe the sensations he believed accounted for the fact that "we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood" or rather, childhood, to use the less gender-specific diction of our own time. Perhaps this attitude to fiction explains why the Victorian golden age of children's literature yielded a variety of classics that remain required reading for the literate child - or adult, for that matter. Treasure Island, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan - all have continued to attract new generations of young readers in the many decades since their initial publication.
More recently, however, such touchstones of juvenile fiction have also attracted the criticism of academics who point to their role in popularising a variety of suspect ideologies: Stevenson's delicious romance of buried treasure and pirates is now most frequently read through the critical lens of empire and colonisation, while the worlds of Alice and Peter Pan have been inundated by a deluge of studies examining the erotic valences of the relationships - both real and textual - with the children who inspired the works of both Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie. What most critical reassessments of Victorian children's classics have in common is a belief that the child is a victim of adult political interests and desires - often of the sexual variety. This critique of the form and content of 19th-century British children's fiction - and by extension of Victorian culture - meets with a refreshing challenge in Marah Gubar's Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature.
Gubar begins from a different premise: she imagines Victorian children - real and fictional, readers and characters - who are collaborators rather than victims, and who are canny participants in their own cultural milieu. Adopting the term "Artful Dodger" from the young but knowing thief in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist to describe children who defy the stereotype of universal naivety and innocence, she explores the Victorian fascination with all forms of precocity and in the process reveals a culture that shares many of our own contemporary anxieties regarding childhood, sexuality and public performance. And yes, gentle reader, she knows she's playing with fire in suggesting the possibility of autonomous complicity in the child.
Take, for example, her re-examination of the now-infamous semi-nude photographs taken by Alice author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Commenting "though he has been widely attacked for his voyeurism, Carroll declines to objectify these girls, preferring to evoke a sense of charged complicity between viewer and viewed", Gubar asserts what is arguably a far more provocative thesis than the usual debate over whether these images constitute innocent art or child pornography.
She argues instead that the child may not be simply the unaware or unwilling participant in an adult fantasy of either innocence or desire, but rather a knowing and complicit collaborator in their production: "To say that the Victorians eroticised innocence ... represents an effort to acknowledge the contradictoriness of the discourse surrounding children during this time. But the most titillating figures are those who vacillate between innocence and experience, blurring the line between child and adult and allowing those who interact with them to avoid being pinned down to one side of this binary as well."
Her discussion of what she describes as "a cultural phenomenon that reflected competing - and incompatible - conceptions of childhood" could equally apply to our own confused cultural messages concerning children and sexuality. The promotional description on the website of US cable TV network TLC (formerly The Learning Channel) says it all: "On stages across the country, little girls and boys parade around wearing make-up, false eyelashes, spray tans and fake hair to be judged on their beauty, personality and costumes. Toddlers & Tiaras follows families on their quest for sparkly crowns, big titles and lots of cash."
It's not clear whether the American passion for child beauty pageants was fuelled or merely revealed by the press coverage of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado in December 1996, but the repeated airings of footage of the six-year-old strutting her moves with big blonde hair and skin-tight, spangled costumes sparked a public debate on the contemporary sexualisation of the child. On one side, defending such pageants, were the champions of innate innocence who contended that any interpretation of the make-up and costumes as erotically charged reflected the sexual perversion of the observer; on the other side, roundly condemning what they regarded as the sexual exploitation of the contestants, were the critics who found the pageant culture a failure of adult responsibility to protect children.
Similarly provocative are programmes such as Britain's Got Talent, where precocious child performers take the stage against their elders and often more than hold their own.
Specialists in Victorian studies will have recognised by now that Artful Dodgers both extends and challenges the work of James Kincaid in his influential Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (1992), a book that brought interest in the Victorian "cult of the child" to a whole new level. Specialists in children's literature will be equally interested to learn that Gubar similarly challenges another discipline-changing work: Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan: or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction.
While taking note of the salutary points established by Rose's insistence on acknowledging what is at stake for adults in the production of children's literature, Gubar suggests that Rose's characterisation of golden age fiction for children downplays both the complexity of the adult author/child reader relationship constructed in these novels and the range of ways in which childhood was characterised and understood in the period. Perhaps the most compelling evidence offered for questioning the assumption that children's literature colonises childhood both in form and content comes from Gubar's examination of the development of the child narrator in writers such as E. Nesbit and Stevenson. Far from offering children a parade of model protagonists designed to encourage imperial destinies and docile obedience to adult authority, Victorian authors also provided them with strategies of empowerment and resistance through encouraging a critical distance between character and reader.
Artful Dodgers is an engaging and provocative analysis of the 20th-century critical construction of Victorian childhood. In going back to the often contradictory but always fascinating documentary evidence from the period, Gubar asks us to take a clearer look at what Victorian children's literature really has to offer, and through a combination of close attention to the historical evidence and a steadfast refusal to simplify the data, she offers a compelling argument that late 19th-century children's fiction is both more sophisticated and more various than has been widely assumed.
As a child, Marah Gubar exhibited a theatrical side. Now, she says of her acting experience: "precocious as a child, my talent began to seem less and less impressive as I aged, as in the case of some of the Victorian child actors I study".
Her first job was as a singing waitress on a Lake Michigan cruise ship. She was, she admits, "a terrible waitress". Having abandoned her ambition to be a stage actor, she studied at Princeton University, which led to her career in academia.
Although now assistant professor of English and director of the children's literature programme at the University at Pittsburgh, Gubar still indulges her theatrical interest. She hopes to base her next book on children's drama - "a neglected field". She's also toying with the idea of writing a book of children's poetry titled Binkaholic (Binky is the name of a brand of dummy, or pacifier).
Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature
By Marah Gubar
Oxford University Press
Published 19 March 2009