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"You Know Very Well You're Not Real": Victorian Children's Fantasy Literature and the Problem of Writing the Child

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:26 authored by Turner, Beatrice

This thesis examines eight "Golden Age"children's fantasy narratives and uncovers their engagement with the "impossibility" of writing the child. Only recently has children's literature criticism recognised that the child in the text and the implied child reader cannot stand in for the "real" child reader. This is an issue which other literary criticism has been at pains to acknowledge, but which children's literature critics have neglected. I have based my reading on critics such as Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Jacqueline Rose and Perry Nodelman, all of whom are concerned to expose the term "child" as an adult cultural construction, one which becomes problematic when it is made to stand in for real children. I read the child in the text as an entity which contains and is tainted by the trace of the adult who writes it; it is therefore impossible for a pure, innocent child to exist in language, the province of the adult. Using Derrida's conception of the trace and his famous statement that "there is nothing outside of the text," I demonstrate that the idea of the innocent child, which was central to Rousseau's Emile and the Romantic Child which is supposed to have been authored by Wordsworth and inherited wholesale by his Victorian audience, is possible only as a theory beyond language. The Victorian texts I read, which include Lewis Carroll's Alice texts, George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind and the Princess texts, Kingsley's The Water Babies and Mrs. Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock and The Tapestry Room, all explore different ways in which the child might be successfully articulated: in language, in death, and through the return journey into fantasy. While all the texts attempt to reach the child, all ultimately foreground the failure of this enterprise. When a language is created which is child-authored, it fails as communication and meaning breaks down; when the adult ceases to write the narrative, the child within it ceases to exist.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Ricketts, Harry; Jackson, Anna