Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Holiday House: Grist to the Mill on the Floss, or Childhood as Text

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Holiday House: Grist to the Mill on the Floss, or Childhood as Text

Article excerpt

In his 1814 review of Wordsworth's `The Excursion', Charles Lamb wrote: `[Wordsworth's] verses shall be censured as infantile by critics who confound poetry "having children for its subject" with poetry that is "childish"', (1) and almost two hundred years later attitudes of this kind, overt or implicit, can still widely be found both in literary criticism in general and in children's literature criticism. This volume of the Yearbook of English Studies aims to challenge that view of childhood as either an isolated, special topic within literary studies, of little relevance to wider issues of critical approach or established areas of study about texts, or as simply too obvious and self-evident to write about at any length or with much complexity. The articles in this volume, whether on children's literature or `adult' literature, differ in their focus and method, but they are similar in that they all argue and demonstrate ways in which considerations of childhood are complex in and of themselves, and also how they raise, or join in with, challenges to a whole range of much wider critical assumptions and practices.

At issue here is the way childhood has hardly been conceived of in the humanities as a construction of identity. (2) There are already available in other areas critical approaches hinging on theories of identity (feminist, postcolonial, and queer theory) which are not just widely circulated, but are, to a greater or less extent, seen as having a relevance to questions and issues beyond any narrow concept of `special interest' groups. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests with regard to her use of queer theory, `modern homo/ heterosexual definition has become so exacerbated a cultural site because of an enduring incoherence about whether it is to be thought of as an issue only for a minority of (distinctly lesbian or gay) individuals, or instead as an issue that cuts across every locus of agency and subjectivity in the culture'. (3) Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires, similarly, argue with reference to developments in feminist theory: `The categories of "man" and "woman" (in all their complexity and multiplicity) currently remain constitutive of our identities, and in hierarchically inscribed ways. [...] It would seem unlikely that any disciplinary division between "feminism" (which excludes men) and "gender" (which does not) will be sustainable.' (4)

Even if, then, these theories of identity are seen to raise general problems around, for instance, cultural meanings, hierarchies and consciousness, perspectives and politics, childhood, meanwhile, as Charles Lamb feared, usually remains a field regarded with anything from mild amusement to derision, judged either too simple to be serious, or too pure to be touched. The studies that have been devoted to it have equally been seen, and often see themselves, as strictly specialized and local, if not positively marginal. Children's literature criticism is hardly related, and hardly relates itself, to `adult' literary criticism or theory, (5) and children or childhood are largely written of as a `separate' focus or topic among a more encompassing `adult' literary thematics. (6) In fact, childhood seems in many ways not to be registered as a `subject' as such at all: it may be noted as an instance of this that `childhood' or the `child' are rarely included as a `topic' or `subject' in indices, even when discussed in some way in a text.

I want here to look further at the dynamics and implications of several of the claims I have sketched above concerning both a separate status of the `child' in literary studies, and some of the fundamental challenges this area may be argued as raising, in defiance of its critical marginalization or isolation. In order to do this I will turn to discussing the `childhood' sections of George Eliot's 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss. (7) For if there is anything critics seem to agree on, and that therefore directs much of the criticism of these sections of the novel, it is that Eliot, in The Mill on the Floss, was preeminently successful in describing childhood, the girl Maggie Tulliver and her relationship with her brother Tom, and that this success moreover is the result of these episodes being autobiographical and of intense personal significance to George Eliot herself. …

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