There is something odd about the way scholars treat the Golden Age of children’s literature. On the one hand, the unprecedented explosion of children’s literature that took place from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century has been accorded immense respect, as the “Golden Age” moniker indicates. Indeed, it would be difficult to deny the importance of an era when writers such as Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie penned famous fantasies that continue to be read and recycled into new forms to this day. Yet the same authors who have been given the most credit for making the Golden Age golden have simultaneously been censured for producing escapist literature that failed to engage with the complexities of contemporary life and promoted a static, highly idealized picture of childhood as a time of primitive simplicity.
This familiar (and still circulating) critical account underestimates the richness and complexity of Golden Age children’s literature. To be sure, like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and other Victorians writing primarily for adult audiences, children’s writers from this era sometimes invoke an ideal of innocence inherited from the Romantics. But far from being the worst offenders in this regard, they frequently complicate, challenge, ironize, or interrogate the artless “Child of Nature” paradigm. It is time, in other words, to let go of the idea that Carroll and company failed to conceive of children as complex, acculturated human beings in their own right by regarding them either as lost selves or alien Others. On the contrary, celebrated children’s authors from this era frequently characterize the child as a collaborator who is caught up in the constraints of the culture he inhabits—just as older people are—and yet not inevitably victimized as a result of this contact with adults and their world. By