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Through the Northern Gate

Childhood and Growing Up in British Fiction, 1719-1901


Jacqueline Banerjee

This study challenges critical orthodoxy by showing that childhood became a focus of interest in British fiction well before the Romantic period. It also argues that children in the Victorian novel, far from being sentimental figures, are psychologically unique and contribute positively and significantly to the narrative discourse. Contemporary ideology, the novelists' autobiographical and humanitarian impulses, and gender issues, are all examined as factors in this development. Works by the major authors are analysed alongside others by non-canonical and children's writers.


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Preface xvii


Preface In The Book of Thel, written at the end of the eighteenth century, William Blake shows the unformed soul Thel passing under the "northern bar" in search of fulfilment in this mortal world. (The reference is to Homer's Cave of the Nymphs, in Book XIII of The Odyssey, where tissue is woven on great stone looms.) To Blake, a "land of sorrows & of tears" lies on this side of the gate, a land in which the physical body and its delicate senses are vulnerable to corruption and subject to intolerable restraints: horror-stricken, Thel retreats hastily. Few child char- acters in the Victorian novel, however, are given the luxury of choice. Uncompromising as the world beyond the 'northern gate' may be, they must take up its challenges; impelled by the demands of the narrative, and supported by the Victorian advo- cacy of strenuous effort, the vast majority do so with courage and determination, and with a large degree of success. Surprisingly, this idea runs quite counter to received opinion. It credits the Victorian novelists with a commitment to child- hood as a time of growth and development, which critics in this area seem curiously reluctant to accord them. The common critical premise which underlies, for instance, the Leavises' discussions of Dickens's child characters in Dickens the Novelist is that the Victorians appropriated and sentimentalized a concept of childhood derived from recent poetry. Wordsworth's Prelude was not published until 1850; but, while recalling his own early years gratefully in "Tintern Abbey"...

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