Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature

By Marah Gubar | Go to book overview

5
THE CULT OF THE CHILD
AND THE CONTROVERSY
OVER CHILD ACTORS

Just how different did the Victorians think children were (or should be) from adults? Recent commentators have suggested that “in this period, ideal childhood is generally imagined as a wholly separate estate from adulthood,” an Edenic realm that offers a means of detachment and retreat from the painful complexities of adult life (C. Robson 136). In keeping with George Boas’s argument in The Cult of Childhood, child-loving authors such as Ruskin, Carroll, and Barrie are held especially culpable for erecting “a barrier of nostalgia and regret” between childhood and adulthood by associating youth with an innocence and spontaneity that adults have lost as a result of their worldly experience (Coveney 240). In other words, the cult and the children’s literature penned by some of its members are viewed as the most pronounced manifestation of a widespread tendency to regard the child as a primitive Other and childhood as an idyllic separate sphere, a sort of escape hatch from the artificiality of contemporary culture and the complications of engaging in intimate relationships with other adults.

There are a number of serious problems with this account. To begin with, very few Golden Age children’s classics wholeheartedly embrace the Child of Nature paradigm, as even Humphrey Carpenter—a key advocate of this critical story—is forced to admit.1 For this reason, as I showed in my introduction, nineteenth-century proponents of primitivism objected to the work of many prominent children’s authors on the grounds that they had failed to differentiate clearly between innocence and experience. Moreover, the same sort of criticism was leveled at the cult of the child, which the Victorians recognized was partly responsible for the “excessive elaboration of … toys, books, pictures, and literature” aimed at children (“Worship” 1298).

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