The Awkward Age in Women's Popular Fiction, 1850-1900: Girls and the Transition to Womanhood

The Awkward Age in Women's Popular Fiction, 1850-1900: Girls and the Transition to Womanhood

The Awkward Age in Women's Popular Fiction, 1850-1900: Girls and the Transition to Womanhood

The Awkward Age in Women's Popular Fiction, 1850-1900: Girls and the Transition to Womanhood

Synopsis

This book demonstrates that 'the awkward age' formed a fault-line in Victorian female experience, an unusual phase in which restlessness, self-interest, and rebellion were possible. Tracing evolving treatments of female adolescence though a host of long-forgotten women's fictions, the bookreveals that representations of the girl in popular women's literature importantly anticipated depictions of the feminist in the fin de siecle New Woman writing; conservative portrayals of girls' hopes, dreams, and subsequent frustrations helped clear a literary and cultural space for the NewWoman's 'awakening' to disaffected consciousness. The book thus both historicises the evolution and mythic appeal of the female adolescent and works to receive suggestive exchanges between apparently diverse female literary traditions.

Excerpt

Long before Henry James's 1899 novel, 'the awkward age' was tentatively used to describe the 'interval' between childhood and womanhood in Victorian literature. Different writers called attention to different aspects of the experience. Juliana Horatia Ewing's Six to Sixteen (1876), a story for girls, describes 'the awkward age' as essentially the period of puberty, stressing the mid-teen girl's 'uncomfortable self-consciousness' of her developing body: 'the size of one's hands and feet prematurely foreshadow the future growth of one's figure … the simple dresses of the unintroduced young lady seem to be perpetually receding from one's bony wrists above, and shrinking towards the calves of one's legs below …' This is a stage in which a girl feels painfully divorced from adult women, Ewing suggests, noticing how girls 'contrast with the assured manners and flowing draperies of Mamma's lady friends in the drawing-room'. Fifteen years later, Christabel Coleridge's novel Amethyst (1891) describes the awkward age as less a physical experience and more a period in which girls become accountable for their actions. One of the characters warns his wayward sister Una that she is about to lose the freedom of childhood: ' [You're getting to the awkward age, and you won't have a little girl's privileges much longer. You'd better look out] ' (Amethyst, i. 42). L. H. M. Soulsby's advice text, Stray Thoughts for Girls (1893), meanwhile, provides a reading of the term that anticipates James's own. Soulsby suggests that the awkwardness of the experience stems from the lack of an obvious social space for the young girl: 'Most girls on growing up pass through an

L. H. M. Soulsby, Stray Thoughts for Girls (1893; London: Longmans, Green,
1907), p. v.

Juliana Horatia Ewing, Six to Sixteen: a Story for Girls (1876; London: spck,
n.d.), 124.

Una has a lover and a worldly cynicism because her mother, like Mrs Brooken
ham, exposes her daughters to 'talk': ' [I always make a point of having the children
about. That is why they have been so much in the drawing-room, and lost their school
ing, poor dears!] ' Christabel Coleridge, Amethyst: the Story of a Beauty, 2 vols.
(London: A. D. Innes, 1891), i. 106.

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