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

By Marah Gubar | Go to book overview

1
“OUR FIELD”
The Rise of the Child Narrator

The Victorian age was marked by a new interest in the child’s perspective and voice. For the first time, as Hugh Cunningham notes, children’s testimony was sought out and recorded; disseminated in government reports and journalistic accounts of city life; it helped drive reform on a variety of fronts and affected literary representations of children.1Oliver Twist (1837–39), which Peter Coveney identifies as the first English novel centered around a child (127), was followed by a host of fictions, such as Jane Eyre (1847) and David Copperfield (1849–50), in which characters reflect back on their earliest memories, as well as books like The Mill on the Floss (1860) and What Maisie Knew (1897), in which omniscient narrators describe a young protagonist’s reaction to the surrounding world. For their part, authors of children’s fiction began routinely to employ child narrators. The use of this technique is now so ubiquitous in literature for children and young adults that it is difficult to imagine a time when it was not utterly conventional. But in the 1850s and 1860s, the act of chronicling events from a child’s point of view was still daringly experimental.

Early efforts on the part of Victorian children’s authors to speak from the position of childhood or early adolescence have received virtually no critical attention. In part, this is because commentators are working with a radically incomplete genealogy. On the infrequent occasions that literary critics and historians discuss the rise of the child narrator, they generally identify Dickens’s Holiday Romance (1868) as the first piece of prose to employ this technique, and then jump directly to Nesbit, who has young Oswald Bastable chronicle The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and its sequels. Thus, as Anita Moss

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