How are children represented in Victorian literature? How can contemporary psychology help to understand the role of the child in literature? In light of her recently published article on Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, READ interviewed Roisín McCloskey on the role of the child in fin-de-siècle literature. Roisín explores the different ways in which these charismatic children reflect issues such as class, gender, and colonialism.
What does your research focus on?
I’m looking at representations of precocious children in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature and psychology.
What inspired you to study the role of children in fin-de-siècle literature in particular?
I find that children in nineteenth-century literature can be very disruptive, both as trouble-makers within the story and in that stories about children seem difficult to end; either the end isn’t quite reached, or it’s reached in the same morbid way.
On a very basic level, I find that children in nineteenth-century literature can be very disruptive, both as trouble-makers within the story (think of the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, for example) and in that stories about children seem difficult to end; either the end isn’t quite reached (we don’t quite find out What Maisie Knew), or it’s reached in the same morbid way – The Turn of the Screw is probably the most famous example of this. The fin-de-siècle coincided with what’s now called the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature, as well as with a more widespread interest in youth, innocence, and children in, for example, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Child’s Play’. It also saw the emergence of child psychology as a separate discipline, so it seemed a particularly productive historical moment for further research into children and their effects in texts.
That sounds intriguing. Your research also draws upon contemporary psychology to assess the literary image of the child. How does child psychology help us to understand the representation of the child in literature?
In the nineteenth century the idea that a scientific discourse might inform – and be informed by – a literary discourse was more self-evident than it is today. Authors and child psychologists openly shared ideas about children and I find that looking at this dialogue, rather than focusing on just one part of it, gives a clearer picture of the significance of certain themes across texts. For example, to know that many child psychologists thought lying was a sign of ‘moral insanity’ surely changes how we read representations of children telling lies in fiction from the same period.
What other nineteenth-century beliefs can children in literature reveal to us?
In Kim, Kipling uses the character of Kim to examine colonial ideology in ways that I think are profoundly and productively critical of it, but it also represents colonial India as a cheerful, peaceful, prosperous place, a misrepresentation (to say the least) which is consistent with colonial ideology. There’s no one way to interpret this or any other narrative, but I think it’s important not to think that because Kim is enjoyable, it’s either harmless, or easily compatible with a post-colonial world-view. It has to be read with distrust, but I think the character of Kim himself really invites and enables this way of reading.
Kim is part adventure story as well, but it’s not just a harmless kid’s adventure story, is it?
I’d suggest instead that Kim’s adventures make Kim great fun to read, without attributing all the fun to the Empire; Kim has narrative authority, without necessarily embodying colonial authority.
The adventure story is often about a white boy’s escapades in a hostile foreign environment, which he, of course, masters through sheer Englishness. This often produces a story with narrative appeal – adventures are fun to read about – but the white boy’s mastery implicitly justifies British colonialism, so adventure stories often promote colonial ideology. Kim has been read as another white boy performing colonial authority, but he’s not English, and it’s not clear to me that he’s white either, so his mastery isn’t a straightforward reiteration of this ideology. I’d suggest instead that Kim’s adventures make Kim great fun to read, without attributing all the fun to the Empire; Kim has narrative authority, without necessarily embodying colonial authority. So, unlike lots of other adventure stories from the time, Kim suggests that you can have an adventure without being a white English boy in a foreign country.
Kim’s charismatic adolescence reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s character Peter Pan, who remains an adolescent eternally. How do these portraits differ?
Yes – in the century or so since he first appeared, Peter Pan has been the hero of countless plays, novels, and films, by J. M. Barrie and many other authors. I think this testifies to some sort of prolonged desire for him, far beyond anything Kim produced. The most obvious difference between the two is that unlike Kim, Peter Pan can’t even be imagined to grow up. So while Kim’s adulthood – and the end of his story – is a certainty (whether it’s represented in the text or not), there’s no possible end to Peter Pan’s story. This is why he produces so many re-tellings, but it’s also why, while Kim is broadly an enjoyable, satisfying, ‘happy’ novel, Peter Pan is very sad. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens we’re told that, despite his endless youth and his crowing, all Peter Pan really wants is ‘his mother to blow his nose’.
It seems that neither Kim nor Peter Pan are innocent blank slates, but the authors are not necessarily aware (or even control) the way they have been perceived in terms of psychology, innocence, and class. In her novel The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett further explores ideas of class and gender through the characterisation of children. How do these ideas manifest in the novel?
The Secret Garden does better with gender: its central and most powerful character is a girl, and a refreshingly charmless, ‘ugly’, and self-assured girl at that. In fact, for her highly enjoyable contrariness and its potent effect within the novel, I think Mary Lennox might be described as charismatic in some ways, which seems an important comment on the supposed limitations of femaleness.
Burnett wasn’t always particularly class-conscious, but in The Secret Garden, working-class characters are essential in enabling Mary Lennox to develop, and, through that, they facilitate the transformation of Misselthwaite Manor. However, compared with Kim, which is all about an exuberantly powerful street urchin, the representation of the working class in The Secret Garden leaves a lot to be desired. Working-class characters aren’t represented as having the same range and complexity of emotions as Mary has, and there’s no interrogation of the connection between the Sowerbys’ poverty and the wealth of the estate they live on. But The Secret Garden does better with gender: its central and most powerful character is a girl, and a refreshingly charmless, ‘ugly’, and self-assured girl at that. In fact, for her highly enjoyable contrariness and its potent effect within the novel, I think Mary Lennox might be described as charismatic in some ways, which seems an important comment on the supposed limitations of femaleness.
How does the secret garden link to the themes of adolescence and growth?
The garden is a place for transformation, and particularly for the transformation of growth. In the story, Mary discovers Colin, a supposed cripple, who lives in seclusion in a nearby house. Eventually, Mary brings him to the garden, where he discovers he is not crippled after all. The Secret Garden has been read as a metaphorical representation of Mary’s sexual awakening, but I think this is part of a more fundamental representation of growth – which includes sexual development and, eventually, adulthood – as a positive process.
Madelon S. Gohlke argues that The Secret Garden ‘begins with death’, which establishes the tone for Mary’s beliefs in the world. For example, when she initially thinks about the garden, her thoughts reflect death and lack of life. How is death linked to the child?
Mary and Colin are both associated with death at the start of the novel, through dead parents, and through their own sickly joylessness. The garden enables and symbolises their growth, and therefore disrupts this association with death. I suppose in this way The Secret Garden makes a good anti-Peter Pan: for him, ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’, but for Mary and Colin, to grow is the adventure. Kim, of course, is growing while he’s adventuring, so it could be argued that in Kim and in The Secret Garden, adventure goes hand-in-hand with growth, and therefore with life, while because Peter Pan doesn’t grow, the only real adventure he can have is death.
Thinking about death and the child, Henry James explores this relationship in The Turn of the Screw. James depicts Miles, whose parents have recently died, as an abnormal child, one who is quite possibly demonic. How does his role in the story impact the narrative?
The whole story of The Turn of the Screw is about whether Miles knows something he shouldn’t know, whether he has some sort of inappropriate (and implicitly sexual) knowledge. The tension around this question builds because it’s impossible to find out what Miles knows without imparting that knowledge to him: Miles is the embodiment of innocence because he is either already or imminently corrupted. So the problem in The Turn of the Screw is that innocence is inevitably corrupted; the child inevitably becomes the adult.
The sadness of Peter Pan, the celebration of growth in The Secret Garden, and the painful tension in The Turn of the Screw all in different ways ask the same question: why is the corruption of innocence such a bad thing? Or to put this another way, why is it that in so much literature of the fin-de-siècle it is seemingly better for children to be dead than to grow up?
This certainty can only be avoided in one of two ways; either in Neverland, where children never grow up, or in death. Miles is the version of Peter Pan which can exist outside the fantasy world of Neverland, because he dies before he can reach adulthood. Of course, the sadness of Peter Pan, the celebration of growth in The Secret Garden, and the painful tension in The Turn of the Screw all in different ways ask the same question: why is the corruption of innocence such a bad thing? Or to put this another way, why is it that in so much literature of the fin-de-siècle it is seemingly better for children to be dead than to grow up?
You can access Roisin’s article ‘Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Charisma in the British Empire’ here. Or listen to her podcast ‘Fantasies of Childhood in Peter Pan‘ below: