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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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Chapter Seven: Disclosing Children: Seen and Heard in Victorian Fiction 179


Chapter Seven Disclosing Children: Seen and Heard in Victorian Fiction ... she has simply to wonder, as I say, about them, and they begin to have meanings, aspects, solidities, connexions . . . that they could scarce have hoped for. Henry James, What Maisie Knew, Preface 8. The Victorians' ever-increasing fascination with childhood is shown by the way children proliferate in the Punch cartoons of the period. Rather than attracting sentiment, these jaunty little figures are liable to explode it. Amusing in themselves, they are often, also, amusing at the expense of adults. The comedy runs the gamut from light-hearted fun (fig. 1) and sympathetic humour (fig. 8) to brisk put-downs of adult 'superiority' (fig. 16). Children's frankness and egotism are noted by one cartoonist (fig. 7); they may therefore say things which cut through the preciousness or pretensions of their elders. An example here is the small girl who finds nothing at all melancholy in the seaside sunset in figure 15. The child's mind is a newly opened territory from which the novelists too peer uneasily at adult foibles, and sometimes at the very absurdity of human existence. I argue here that even minor child characters can be vital to the narra- tive discourse (and even in a work of such measured perception as Middle march); that their acuteness yields new insights; and that in encouraging experiment (as Juliet Dusinberre has noted in connection with children's fiction), they not only grow up themselves, but also bring the novel right to the threshold of...

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