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

By Marah Gubar | Go to book overview

4
PARTNERS IN CRIME
E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving

“Suppose,” Matthew Sweet has recently enjoined us, “that everything we think we know about the Victorians is wrong” (ix). In his compelling book Inventing the Victorians (2001), Sweet inveighs against the time-honored tradition— inaugurated by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918)—of condescending to the Victorians, characterizing them as sentimental, prudish, hypocritical, and generally unsophisticated “in order to satisfy our sense of ourselves as liberated Moderns” (ix).1 With a showman’s flourish, Sweet reveals that many of the anecdotes critics use to encapsulate the spirit of the age are specious: the oftenrepeated notion that the Victorians were so modest that they felt compelled to cover up their piano legs was fabricated by a radio commentator in 1947, while the first documented appearance of the motherly recommendation “Lie back and think of England”—often attributed to Queen Victoria—is in a private diary from 1912 (xii–xv).

The idea that Golden Age children’s authors such as Carroll, Stevenson, and Barrie were frozen in eternal childhood is an equally condescending canard. Indeed, we inherit this line of thinking from Strachey’s contemporaries: Max Beerbohm’s first review of Peter Pan was entitled “The Child Barrie” (1905); G. K. Chesterton declared in 1928 that Stevenson had “barricaded himself in the nursery and almost tried to creep into the dolls’-house” (159); and Virginia Woolf characterized Carroll as having an “impediment in the centre of his being … [a] hard block of pure childhood [that] starved the mature man of nourishment” (82). This habit of infantilizing authors who wrote for an audience that included children also manifested itself on the other side of the Atlantic. As Beverly Lyon Clark has noted, Van Wyck Brooks made “constant

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