HISTORY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CHILD IN EARLY BRITISH CHILDREN'S LITERATURE by Jackie C. Horne, Reviewed by J. Jennifer Jones
 

HISTORY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CHILD IN EARLY BRITISH CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
By Jackie C. Horne
(Ashgate 2011) xiii + 283 pp.
Reviewed by J. Jennifer Jones on 2011-08-11.

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A principal goal of Enlightenment juvenile fiction was to provide its young readers with moral exemplars. But at a certain moment in literary history, the exemplary characters that had traditionally populated juvenile fiction were suddenly pressed and changed by emergent literary techniques bent on evoking common sympathy rather than modeling elite moral good. Just as the emergence of historicism in the late eighteenth century brought the concept of historical process to bear on classical exemplum history, this book argues, an analogous claim may be made on behalf of juvenile fiction's exemplary characters. In both cases, the sense of pedagogical purpose that had once been foundational, namely "to train us up to private and public virtue" (1), foundered in an historical moment when reading was increasingly valued for entertainment rather than moral instruction.

At first, this book seems bent on mapping a key transition in juvenile fiction: the shift from techniques designed to elicit readerly emulation of ideal fictional characters, and toward those that elicit readers' identification with flawed, emotionally-complex characters that act and feel more fully human. What turns out to occupy Horne, however, is something less general and more interesting, which is the continuing influence of the model of emulation. According to Horne, the movement from exemplary characters (outwardly legible as good or bad) to what she terms "ordinary" characters (inwardly complex and flawed) began in the eighteenth century but "did not become the norm" (30) in juvenile fiction until well into the nineteenth century. This period of slow transition thus invites us to see how the classical model of precept persevered right beside the emergent model of sympathetic identification. At the contact point of the two readerly models, Horne argues, comes a hybrid genre defined by the simultaneous presence of didacticism and interiority. Writers working in this hybrid genre "were still centrally concerned with exemplarity; they just changed the means by which they hoped to achieve it. By making their child protagonists less ideal, more 'ordinary,' juvenile writers believed they would create a sense of identification in their readers . . . which would in turn foster a stronger reader desire to accept the text's moral messages than the older, ideal model could in a period increasingly characterized by the importance of sympathetic engagement with the other" (33). Around 1800, Horne claims, literary texts developed a form of sympathetic identification that directly served moral instruction.

In its deliberate re-evaluation of the moral exemplar, this book cultivates a critical resistance to the progressivist narrative that celebrates the ascendency of Romanticism at the expense of an earlier Enlightenment tradition. Horne finds such narratives ultimately self-serving and therefore inimical to responsible historical study. Since they set aside or suppress texts that do not conform to the progressive model, they have also occluded careful study of a great portion of juvenile literature written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps even more significantly, critics have not been trained to value novels in which characters are "flat" rather than "round" in E.M. Forster's well-known dyad from Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster's dyad is itself a vestige, Horne suggests, of a teleology that automatically celebrates Romantic sympathy at the expense of Enlightenment precept. As a result, a substantial body of important juvenile fiction has remained unread and unconsidered. Reckoning with this lost tradition requires that we reassess traditional narratives about the shift from preceptual to sympathetic literature.

Working with energy and care, Horne examines no less than twelve works of adolescent fiction written between 1800 and 1840. While doing so, she avoids classifying them as either Romantic or Victorian, a move that sometimes inhibits her work but nonetheless gives her freedom to pursue her provocative argument. Scrutinizing in the first chapter the juvenile 'robinsonade' (a 'desert island story' after Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe of 1719), she convincingly describes it as a hybrid genre that uses elements of both the fantastic and the domestic novel. To illustrate this genre, she reads David Wyss's The Family Robinson Crusoe (1812-13, 1814) in the context of lesser-known works, including Jeanne Sylvie Mallès de Beaulieu's Le robinson de douze ans (1818, 1825), Barbara Hofland's The Young Crusoe (1829), and Ann Fraser Tytler's Leila, or the Island (1839). In the second chapter, Horne deepens the study of the robinsonade with novels of that genre which thematize child death: Frederick Marryat's Masterman Ready (1841-42) and Jefferys Taylor's The Young Islanders (1841). Chapter three highlights a group of works that hybridize the genres of history and juvenile fiction, including Jefferys Taylor's The Little Historians (1824), Agnes Strickland's Historical Tales of Illustrious British Children (1833), and Harriet Martineau's The Peasant and the Prince (1841). Finally, chapter four probes gender in juvenile fiction, with readings of the anonymously published The Beautiful Page (1802), Barbara Hofland's Adelaide, or, The Intrepid Daughter (1823), and Agnes Strickland's Alda, The British Captive (1841).

It is through character analysis that Horne most effectively demonstrates what the texts of her alternative archive share with the familiar works of sentimental fiction. The idealized characters of didactic fiction and the ordinary characters of sentimental fiction, she argues, work contiguously insofar as both aimed "to convince their child readers to model their behavior after the characters about whom they read" (24). Most critics have assumed that the development of ordinary characters was a culmination of the post-Enlightenment Romantic movement: the interiority of individuals thus won out over the stodgy didacticism of the outmoded exemplary characters they replaced. But Horne argues that juvenile fiction which experimented with ordinary characters was "entirely compatible with the goal of teaching children moral lessons" (24). In short, early juvenile fiction could offer sentiment and character interiority while also teaching moral lessons.

But here we must pause to inspect Horne's own lessons. Just as her resistance to period-specific specialization generates some of the book's most original insights, it also accounts for its greatest weakness (aside from the distraction caused by frequent typographical errors). In Horne's account of it, Romanticism is a "refreshing breeze . . . liberating child readers from repressively didactic eighteenth-century moral tales by way of imaginative fantasy novels" (19), and she seems to think that she can contest the modernity of Romanticism simply by showing that sentimental fiction preserved--to some degree at least--the pedagogy of virtue ordinarily attributed to Enlightenment-era didacticism. But Horne's conception of Romanticism is not rigorously conceived. She clearly reveals the weakness of her assumptions when she turns to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile; or, On Education (1762) and Wordsworth's poem "We are Seven" (Lyrical Ballads 1798). Rousseau's tract and Wordsworth's poem portray what Horne refers to as "the Romantic child." Relying heavily on Judith Plotz, from whom she borrows the term, Horne writes, "The early Romantic poets drew upon and expanded Rousseau's construction of the inherently virtuous child of nature. . . . [T]his new 'Romantic child' became the 'sanctuary of valuable but socially endangered psychic powers -- idealism, holism, vision, animism, faith, and isolated self-sufficiency'" (Plotz, Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood [2001], qtd. 95). Further on, quoting the words of Alan Richardson, she defines the Romantic child as "[e]denic, natural, and asocial" ([from Richardson, "Childhood and Romanticism" [1992] 95). And furthermore, she claims, "the Romantic child that appeared in much of the adult poetry by men did not change, did not grow . . . The child of Romanticism . . . does not die" (95).

Horne's definition of the Romantic child is reasonably clear. What remains unclear is the critical relationship between this child and the Romantic literature that supposedly exemplifies it. In particular, Horne fails to distinguish in a meaningful way between Rousseau and Wordsworth, to recognize that they wrote in different genres, for different ends, and in different historical moments. Arguably, to treat either Emile or "We are Seven" as representational is problematic, given their figurative complexity and the fact that both are self-conscious hybrids of multiple genres. According to Horne, Rousseau believed that "no child should be formally educated before the age of 14" and that "a child was born with innate talents and abilities that would emerge naturally, without any prodding by adults" (11). But Emile is carefully managed from birth by his Rousseauvian tutor. In chapter 1, for example, and in keeping with the educational philosophy of John Locke, the tutor advocates habituating the infant to cold water by carefully dropping the temperature of his bath each day in a "slow, successive, and imperceptible" manner until it finally turns ice cold (Emile, trans. Alan Bloom [1979] 60). The tutor thus aims to make Emile resilient and flexible enough to face elements beyond his control later in life, such as inclement weather; if he can be trained to bear the discomforts of cold water in winter and hot water in summer, then he will eventually be able to bear cold weather without even the benefit of coat or hat, if necessary. So while Emile shows how to cultivate self-sufficiency, its agenda is neither Edenic nor natural. It is part of a wider prescription for enabling human beings to live safely in society.

Equally questionable are Horne's claims that Wordsworth "expanded" Rousseau and that Rousseau influenced the pedagogical forms and ideas developed in Wordsworth's poetry. Rather than sharing with Rousseau a conception of the Romantic child, Wordsworth strongly distrusted his pedagogical model--especially as re-activated by Thomas Wedgewood. In his "Nursery of Genius," which was directly inspired by Rousseau's Emile, Wedgewood aimed to cultivate super powers in a chosen child by carefully controlling its education from infancy to adulthood. But this "Nursery" was a source of alternating humor and horror for Wordsworth and Coleridge, whom Wedgwood tapped to be "instructors of Genius" for the cause. David Erdman has argued that Wedgwood's Rousseauvian ideas about systematic growth provided a polemical target and a suggestive source for much of Wordsworth's subsequent writing. As James Chandler has influentially argued, "Rousseau's educational theory, camouflaging an elaborate set of controls beneath a surface appearance of freedom and spontaneity, would have appeared to Wordsworth the most subtle and insidious of plans. There is an illusion of liberty, but it merely hides the most rigid of limitations. Everything is calculated" (England in 1819 [1998] 96). As so many critics have helped us to see, forms of calculation are certainly present in Wordsworth's poetry, particularly in "We are Seven," but not in ways that one associates with the hidden but profound pedagogical coercions of Rousseau's Emile. In fact, "We are Seven" models a debate between a child and a gentleman in which the child arguably prevails. Frances Ferguson reads the gentleman's abandonment of the dialogue at the end as his acknowledgement and understanding, finally, of what the child has said (Solitude and the Sublime [1992]). Neither does this poem support generalizations about the Romantic child and death. As Ferguson shows, the child speaker figures death by counting it. Seizing on the complex work of personification in the poem, Ferguson writes, "The child can know that one sister and one brother are dead and can also claim the opposite--that they still live and therefore count" by counting to personify, figuring a betwixtness that neither dispenses with nor fully acknowledges death (Ferguson 165).

The flatness with which this book treats Romanticism is also palpable in its account of William Godwin. In Chapter 1, I was fascinated to learn that as M.J. Godwin and Company, Godwin and his second wife published the first English translation of Wyss's The Family Robinson Crusoe; or, Journal of a Father Shipwrecked, with his Wife and Children, on an Uninhabited Island in 1814. But in chapter 3, Godwin is conspicuously absent from a discussion of the tense relationship between the novel and history in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. When Horne contrasts the suspect standing of the novel with the "high status" and "acceptability" of history, she fails to reckon with Godwin's 1797 essay "Of History and Romance," which convincingly argues that history can fully realize itself and justify its claims to power and truthfulness only through recourse to the imaginative work of fiction. As it stands, Horne fails to acknowledge the complexity with which Godwin or any other writer--Mary Robinson's revisionary history in Letter to the Women of England (1799) is another strong example--defined the relationship of fiction and history.

Its treatment of Romanticism notwithstanding, chapter 3 is particularly strong in its archival contribution and critical engagement. Examining three texts that blend adolescent fiction and history, Horne suggestively argues that this subgenre of "fictionalized history" (132) pushed ahead of the curve of adult history. "It was not until the late 1840s," she writes, "with the popular acclaim given to the first volume of Thomas Macaulay's History of England (1848-1861) that what is today known as 'historicism' became the norm . . . Yet changes in historiographical practice register in several works of history for children written during the period 1820-1840" (132).

Furthermore, the readings Horne offers to support this claim are quite convincing. For example, she shows with poignancy how Taylor's The Little Historians combines didactic and sentimental forms, highlighting a rich constellation of adolescent-specific issues. To teach his sons the difference between history and fiction, the character named Father asks them to write on paper what they know of history so that he can mark in red ink what he finds wrong. Yet while the father thus seeks to keep history and fiction distinct, the larger text, Horne argues, "suggests that the project of crafting engaging juvenile history may depend on deploying certain elements more commonly associated with fictional discourse" (142). Furthermore, Horne finely glosses moments in which Father recognizes that he cannot with integrity defend positions of affiliation or disaffiliation (with such historical figures as Charles I or Oliver Cromwell) that he nevertheless demands of his children as English subjects. Thus Horne demonstrates not only the status of juvenile fiction as an avant-garde subgenre but also its wider significance for literary history.

Ultimately, the scholarly work of archival recovery in this book is stronger than the critical work it undertakes, but Horne has undertaken a great deal. To redefine the span 1800-1840 outside the confines of prevailing period, field, and generic logic, she had to work across at least three literary-historical periods and numerous disciplinary fields, genres, and subgenres. To its great credit, this book richly explains the pleasures--both casual and formal--of pedagogical literature. It also makes two major points about adolescent fiction: it can prompt us to identify with ordinary characters even while delivering moral lessons, and it can trump its status as a subgenre to become significant as literature. Lionel Trilling wrote of E.M. Forster that he was "the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something" (Trilling, E.M. Forster: A Study [1943]). Given his defense of the novel as a vehicle for both pleasure and instruction, I think Trilling would have appreciated Horne's work a great deal.

J. Jennifer Jones is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Rhode Island.


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