The Victorian cult of the child

Laszivität trifft auf Märchen. Wer sich den Geburtsstunden der britischen Fotokunst Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts widmet, kommt nicht umher dem Motiv des Kindes zu begegnen. Berühmtestes Beispiel ist wohl Alice Liddell, Tochter des einstigen Christ-Church-Dekans in Oxford und Mustervorbild für die weltbekannte Helding aus Carrolls Alice in Wonderland. Die Fotografien von Kindern, vor allem mit Einbezug von Märchenmotiven, waren zu damaligen Zeiten kein Einzelfall und wirbeln bis heute in wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten das Thema Pädophilie bei Carroll, Barrie und Co. auf. Die kontroverse Thematik wird zwar, lösgelöst von der vorurteilshaften Gegenwart und vor die  Kulisse vom UnschuldpreisendenVictorian England gesetzt, nicht immer vollkommen getilgt, verliert aber gehörig an Durchschlagskraft und macht den Kinderkult sowie dessen Einfluss auf die Kinderbuchautoren im viktorianischen England zu einer vielschichtigen Materie. Auszug aus dem englischsprachigen Essay The Victorian cult of children and girls.

The Victorian and Edwardian upper class in society often put children in an uplifted and even glorified position. Most likely this notion was based on the childish status of innocence and purity, which many famous writers of this time envied for their whole lives and often allegorized in their stories. The depiction of children as divine already emerged long before Carroll’s Alice. “The Child is the father of the Man” [1] wrote Wordsworth in his lines of My heart leaps up in 1802. The “emergence of the cult of the little girl”[2] at the end of the 19th century seemed to be a distinctive offshoot of the Victorian “cult of the child”.[3] For many children’s book writers at that time, such as James M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll, the ‘cult of the child’ was a major theme and likewise a part of their attitude towards life. Due to an utter dedication to childhood and a frank expression of their fondness for children, their fantastical narrations were always completely devoted to children and seemed to unfold their engrained desire to be an innocent child. Peter Hunt even relates to childhood as a “different culture – possibly an anti-culture or counter-culture.”[4] Children more or less represented their own values and standards within their “counter-culture”, probably to protect themselves from the “fixed schemas”[5] of adults and the severe process of adolescence.

In the 19th century, photography was the most sensational and new art form. For many Victorian artists, the exciting invention offered a brand-new possibility of depicting reality. After all, most “visual and literary art seemed to engage directly with the ‘real’ world”.[6] Among many photographers at that time were also John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll. Their pictures of Victorian children, especially girls, have lead to reams of scholarly examination, which frequently factored paedophilia as a substantial aspect into discussion. Carroll’s preference for spending time with girls rather than with boys or women was surely due many reasons. There was, for instance, the memory of his male schoolmates who mocked him due to his lingual titubation. Nevertheless, he had not only difficulties getting involved with female adults, but with grown-ups in general.[7] As soon as boys grew out of their infant “girlish”[8] daintiness or girls turned into young women, Carroll lost a good portion of his interest in them.[9] This process of selection certainly indicated an utter adoration and, at the same time, an obsession with “girlish” children but also the angelic purity of children in general. Carroll’s “diary reveals no sign of sexual torment in him”[10], and it is assumed that his intentions were limited to plain attention, playfulness, mawkishness and childish friendship.[11] At any rate, photographers and visionaries like Carroll made an immense contribution to the literature and art world and also to the ‘cult of the little girl’.

One can only guess how strong the spirit of childhood inspired Carroll, but he definitely “gave us Alice in his writings as an abstraction from his feelings towards little girls.” However, our “sophisticated century […] considers the fantasies to be quite sexual”[12], but often ignores the aspect of innocence, which is concealed in the pictures of Victorian girls. Children were basically considered gender-neutral for a long period in the 19th century.[13] Apparently, Barrie’s Peter Pan embodies asexuality within his character. Barrie concentrates on the theme of childish purity and innocence in his novel, just like Carroll dealt with the depiction of innocent girls and boys. He too seemed to recognize the childish purity only in girlishness. Moreover, both writers were known for their unlucky childhood or even deprived of it[14], which makes their examination of childish innocence in their work even more interesting. Preadolescent girls or boys in nightgowns, costumes or simply sitting on a chair were the recurring subjects of Carroll’s or Ruskin’s photography, but the formations in the images always seemed to suggest a deeper matter. Victorian artists constituted “an apparently sexless valuation of girls in an ideal form.”[15] The aspect of sexual suspension was already a considerable issue in the Victorian culture. Concerning this matter, Jordan Thomas describes the Victorian attitude as an “arrested state of development”[16], which became noticeable through a certain reserve when one was confronted with sexuality. Contemporary photography and art prevalently centred on little girls and boys to allude to the innocent and unaffected spirit of childhood and uninhibited naturalness. As for Carroll, he also comprised the theme of fairy tales or the escape of the nursery within pictures, such as Little Red Riding-Hood or The Elopement. The latter has been compared to a “dream sequence, like Alice’s adventures”.[17] To some extent, it appears that he depicted the girl escaping from her nursery room in order to indicate the end of her childhood or possibly her escape from the real world into a fantasy land. Carroll considered children pure and admirable[18] and his true dedication, as also of many other writers, constituted within the cult of childhood. Like Carroll, many writers dedicated their stories mainly to children or even had a real model for their heroes.

Text: Eni Elisa Hausmann
Bild: Lewis Carroll

[1] William Wordsworth, “My heart leaps up,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt  (New York: Norton, 2006) 306.
Thomas E. Jordan, Victorian Childhood. Themes and Variations (New York, Albany: State U of New York P, 1987) 65.
Alexandra Warwick, “Key Critical Concepts and Topics,” The Victorian Literature Handbook, Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis, eds. (London: Continuum, 2008) 147.
Peter Hunt, Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991) 58.
Hunt, Criticism 57.
Maureen Moran, Victorian Literature and Culture  (London: Continuum, 2006) 19.
Cf. Wolfgang Günther, Wege ins Wunderland. Von Peter Pan bis Harry Potter. (Frankfurt: Martin Gold, 2006) 16/17.
Helmut Gernsheim, Lewis Carroll: Photographer (New York: Dover, 1969) 18.
Cf. Roger Sale, Fairy Tales and after: from Snow white to E.B. White (Cambrigde, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1978) 107.
Sale, Fairy Tales and after 107.
Cf. Sale, Fairy Tales and after 107/108.
Jordan, Victorian Childhood 65.
Cf. Günther, Wege ins Wunderland 15.
Cf. Günther, Wege ins Wunderland 56.
Jordan, Victorian Childhood 65.
Jordan, Victorian Childhood 65.
Jo Elwyn Jones and J. Francis Gladstone, The Alice Companion: a guide to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1998) 83.
Cf. Gernsheim, Lewis Carroll 21.