“Dear Child”: Talking to Children in Victorian and Edwardian Children’s Books
To be published in Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 92 (autumn 2020)
The 92nd issue of the French peer-reviewed journal Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens (CVE) will address the question of communicating with children in Victorian and Edwardian children’s books.
Like the many (adult) novels analyzed by Stewart in Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, nineteenth-century children’s books are particularly aware of their audience. Yet if Stewart scrutinizes the prototypical address “Dear reader” that, he feels, is the symbol of “the relentless micromanagement of response in nineteenth-century narrative” (21), he does not see that address and its variations as instrumental in constructing a conversational tone. Children’s books, on the other hand, with their prototypical address, “Dear child” (rather than “Dear reader”), seem to rely on, and create conversations between the implied author and/or narrator and the implied reader and/or narratee, in keeping with the tone that Chambers (1978) says is usual for children’s books, “the tone of a friendly adult storyteller” (5).
Children’s books entertain a specific relationship with their audience. They are often said to be the product of conversations: as Grenby (2009) reminds us, children’s authors of all time have indeed frequently insisted that the books that they published grew from private conversations with children they knew. This is famously the case of 19th-century authors such as Lewis Carroll (who improvised some episodes of Alice’s Adventures under Ground, which then served as a basis for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while rowing a boat with Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell), J. M. Barrie (who entertained the Llewelyn Davies boys with tales of a boy who would not grow up and later published Peter Pan) and Kenneth Grahame (who told his son Alastair stories he subsequently developed for The Wind in the Willows). Many other children’s authors specify in the prefaces or dedications to their books that the stories they tell originated from conversations with children (for instance, Catherine Sinclair in Holiday House, Mary Molesworth in Four Winds Farm, or Rudyard Kipling in Just So Stories). As Grenby puts it (2006: 17), such assertions about the conversational geneses of children’s books endow child readers “with a flattering agency in the creation and conservation of stories,” and consequently may aim to incite child readers to actively respond to stories, and not merely receive them passively, becoming, in effect, participants in the conversation. Various strategies may be used to trigger responses: the narrator may address the child reader, or ask direct questions to him/her; the author may also leave what Iser (1972) and Chambers (1978) after him call “gaps” in order to “challenge the child reader to participate in making meaning of the book” (Chambers 10).
Conversing with children while elaborating stories may also alter the way children are depicted in children’s books, as well as the place and role of conversations with children in children’s books. For instance, as Gubar (2009) and Iché (2015) have shown, Alice is frequently talked to in the Alice books and is recurrently portrayed as an active collaborator in the meaning-making or even storytelling process. Though not explicitly endorsing the myth of the domestic origins of their books, some children’s authors, namely Dinah Craik, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Mary Louisa Molesworth and Edith Nesbit, who probably “had the chance to observe children’s development at close[…] range,” also decided to “help the young find their own voices” (Gubar 2009, 127). One way of giving pride of place to children is to show the role of children in shaping stories (see Rosing’s analysis of Ida’s role in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances) or to employ child narrators (as in Ewing’s Six to Sixteen or in Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers). Are the voices of these child narrators and child characters markedly dissimilar from the voices of adult narrators and child characters as portrayed by adult narrators? How thematically and stylistically different are the conversations led by these child figures?
Rose (1984), Nodelman (1992) and many other scholars have highlighted though the power imbalance between adult authors and child readers, with adult authors constructing children as other in order to constrain them and their reactions. Gubar, though deconstructing this vision of children as disabled and non-agential (2013), argues in Artful Dodgers that this is, in effect, one of the lessons of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, in which a manipulative storyteller circumscribes Jim’s actions under the guise of celebrating his power. Iché (2015) similarly argues that the Alice books (and in particular The Nursery Alice) give the impression of eliciting the implied child reader’s participation in the conversational construction of the story, while actually controlling his or her every reaction. Child narrators, who are but the product of (more or less) hidden adults (see Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult 2008), may also prove to be cunning manipulators, who engage in mock-two-way-conversations with the narratee in order to shape his or her mind—in keeping with the didactic origins of children’s literature.
This issue will thus examine the question of how children are talked to, and consequently ascribed a specific place and role in the conversation. Attention can be paid to characters, whether they are children or child stand-ins, narratees, implied and real-life readers. Venues of inquiry for this issue include (but are not limited to):
- the conversational geneses of 19th-century children’s books and their impact on the narrative structures and/or the role of the child reader
- the role and place of conversations with children in 19th-century children’s books
- the conversational relationship between child or adult narrators and child narratees
- the narrative and stylistic strategies to enhance / restrain child agency
- adult-led conversations and children’s responses
- the issue of child narrators
Please send abstracts (no longer than 400 words) with a short bio-bibliographical notice (no longer than 50 words) by January 10, 2019, to Virginie Iché (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, France): firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notifications of acceptance will be sent by February 15, 2019. Full articles will be due by June 20, 2019. Proposals in English or French will be considered.
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