A Viable Category of Literature
Child Writer from Austen to Woolf
Reviewed by Christine Roth.
In her discussion of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia in The Lion and the Unicorn 25.2 (2001), Juliet McMaster writes, “Perhaps we can update our view of the child’s writing and accept some juvenilia not just as a half-baked preparation for the adult work, but as a viable category of literature in itself.” In their recent collection, The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf, McMaster and co-editor Christine Alexander take up this task by compiling a wide-ranging volume of sixteen essays that provide insight into this largely overlooked body of work. While the book discusses writers who went on to find their places in the literary canon as adults— Austen, Byron, Bramwell and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Ruskin, Alcott, Mary Arnold (Mrs. Humphrey Ward), and Amy Levy—it also challenges scholarship that might treat child writing as “apprentice work” or experiments on “the writer’s route to maturity” by insisting on juvenilia as a distinct genre and including essays on figures like nine-year-old novelist Daisy Ashford and seven-year-old diarist Opal Whitely, who wrote only as children.
While most essays in the volume explore juvenilia by specific authors, the majority of whom went on to shape the nineteenthcentury literary scene, the five essays in the first section of the book, all of which are written by the two co-editors, interweave literary issues (definitions, epistemologies, and editing strategies) with some of the social and psychic complexities of child writers in general. Christine Alexander, in “Play and Apprenticeship: The Culture of Family Magazines” and “Defining and Representing Literary Juvenilia,” provides a critical framework for understanding the creative processes in juvenilia, especially the often misunderstood process of imitation, a subject that most of the contributors address in one way or another. Her essays look closely at the sociopolitical position of both the child writer and child writing, and her argument—that the stylistic characteristics that mark early writing as “outside the corpus of respectable material for study” may also provide the key to recognizing the child writer’s authentic voice and authority—comes through the early letters, journals, family periodicals, and fiction of key figures in juvenilia studies. Her arguments here are echoed later in the book, when she points out that juvenilia may often be dismissed as immature, derivative, or fragmented but that it is both reflexive and empowering for the young authors. Alexander explains that “the empowering act of writing defines the child’s self in relation to the adult world” and thereby enables him or her to overcome “the position of ‘social nullity’ and inferiority that the culturally specific concept of ‘child’ implies.” Likewise, Juliet McMaster’s essay “What Daisy Knew: The Epistemology of the Child Writer” explores what she calls the powerless child’s “urgent need for knowledge in the face of knowledge denied,” even if the knowledge of subjects like death and what seven-year-old Iris Vaughan called “seeks life” could only be gained surreptitiously.
In her essay “Nineteenth-century Juvenilia: A Survey,” Christine Alexander notes that many novelists owed their “sense of literary assurance” to “early collaborative play” and that literary play provided children “with the license both to act out adult roles and to satirize them.” The essays in the second section of the collection develop this introductory argument nicely in their attention to the ways in which child writers collaborated with and imitated other writers, as well as the way in which child-authored texts anticipated later literary trends and innovations. Margaret Anne Doody’s “Jane Austen, that disconcerting ‘child’” explores the notion that Austen’s early writing displays a polished and disconcertingly sophisticated but offbeat, sharp, and less constrained wit than we find in the six novels of her main oeuvre. In a story of “Miss Jane,” for example, Austen breaks the conventions of morality and courtship novels with a heroine who has three children outside of official wedlock, refuses to take the last name of her love, and keeps the entire union a secret from her father; however, as Doody argues, the author had to “give up a good deal of her own ruthless and exuberant style of comic vision in order to be published” as an adult. Rachel Brownstein in “Endless Imitation: Austen’s and Byron’s Juvenilia” offers a related reading of Austen’s early writing, claiming that she “started out mimicking fiction to show up its mindless falseness, and learned in the process how to mimic the minds of whole neighborhoods so as to make them seem ridiculous and real.” And, like Byron, Austen’s sometimes iconoclastic works rely on “the reader in the know to delight in getting the reference that will escape the uninitiated.”
Gillian E. Boughton, David C. Hanson, Victor A. Neufeldt, and Daniel Shealy add to the discussion of collaboration and imitation by exploring the advantages and disadvantages of family influence for the child-writer. Boughton, for instance, observes Mary Arnold eagerly training herself for the Arnold family occupation of authorship by reading and imitating her grandfather (Dr. Arnold) and her uncle (Matthew Arnold), while David Hanson highlights Ruskin’s early struggles with and resistance to his mother’s evangelical anxieties that “uncontrolled, precocious activities would feed the self-will of a ‘monster for temper and cleverness.’” Similarly, Naomi Hetherington and Beverly Taylor also focus on the precocity of child writers, particularly Amy Levy and Elizabeth Barrett, and note their “single feminist intellect” and “mature engagement with both psychological and political issues.”
In short, this ambitious book is remarkable as a look at the potential of juvenilia scholarship, particularly the potential of shattering traditional assumptions about the literary merit of child writing. The heavy presence of the two editors, who contribute almost half of the sixteen essays, occasionally slows down the pace, especially since Alexander and McMaster make very similar arguments on topics like the implication of aesthetic immaturity in early writing in their previous scholarship. Still, the collection sheds significant new light on the meaning and parameters of child writing and emphasizes ways in which juvenilia crossed and blurred the boundaries of entertainment, education, and literary craft. Together with Lesley Peterson and Leslie Robertson’s annotated bibliography, the essays initiate a serious investigation of this body of literature from a number of critical perspectives.
Christine Roth is an Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She recently edited John Ruskin’s The Two Paths and a forthcoming anthology of Romantic landscape and literature. She is currently completing a monograph The Cult of the Little Girl in Late-Victorian Britain.
JASNA News v.22, no. 2, Summer 2006, p. 17
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