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The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf
Christine Alexander & Juliet McMaster eds.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
Hardback, 53.00
. ISBN-13: 9780521812931 | ISBN-10: 0521812933.

Reviewed by Claire Bazin

 

This 312-page book, with a 7-page introduction and some illustrations, is divided into two parts: the first is a general survey of the childhood writings of famous or less famous English language writers from the 19th and 20th c. authors, whereas the second deals with 10 particular writers among whom Jane Austen, Byron, E. Barrett Browning, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Augusta Ward and Amy Levy. The book ends with a 34-page commented bibliography and an 8-page ad nominem index. The distinguishing feature of this volume is the parallel it establishes between authors of different periods and different countries, writing in different literary genres, their common point being that they are all under the age of 20.

The first part is divided into five chapters. The first is a survey of 19th century juvenilia, in which the author, Christine Alexander, traces the social position of the writers, their creation of a fantasy world (with the famous example of the Brontës) based on both fiction (Walter Scott as a model) and fact (newspapers reports). Collaborative play in the Brontës, for example, encouraged a blurring of gender boundaries: the young author’s authority established itself regardless of sex. And the “audacity and humour” we find in the works of child authors are often absent from their adult productions.
In the following chapter, Christine Alexander insists on the role family magazines played in the children’s productions. The Brontës read Blackwood’s and later Fraser’s, two periodicals which provided them with geographical and political knowledge and contributed to the development of their writing habits. In Lewis Carroll’s family, but also in Virginia Woolf’s later on, it is the writing of magazines that had become a ritual in which all the children assumed different roles: “the germs of Virginia Woolf’s later work also originated in communal play, in the storytelling, reading and writing of the Stephen family” [42].

In Chapter 4,  entitled “What Daisy knew: the epistemology of the child writer,” Juliet Mc Master, through this parodic intertextual reference, analyses the position of the child as observer of the adult world, in quest of knowledge which the Victorian adult is usually unwilling to provide (especially regarding the taboo topics of “sex, death, class difference”). Juliet Mc Master gives us the examples of Daisy Ashford who wrote a novel, The Young Visitors, at the age of 9, though it was only published three decades later. The critics, indifferent to her artistic talents, could not believe that such a young child could know so much. Only Katherine Mansfield was perceptive enough to recognize the literary influences upon the child writer. The other two examples are the diaries of the American Opal Whiteley and of the South African Iris Vaughan, which also reveal how much such young children (the two of them were only 6 when they wrote them) could know.

The last chapter in this first part focuses on “Defining and representing literary juvenilia” and proposes to reinstate the “juvenilia” which were (and still are) often considered as immature writings by viewing them as “a process of development” or a “rite of passage” instead, and certainly not as an inferior form of literature. One of the characteristics of youthful writings is imitation, in its positive sense of fostering creation.

The second part of the book deals with ten individual authors (7 female and 3 male writers) who appear in chronological order and who are seen in a new interesting or surprising light which contributes to tracing their evolution. Jane Austen, for example, is called “the disconcerting, unchildlike child” whose early writings resembled Dickens’s or even Rabelais’s, an Austen “who is already astonishingly sophisticated about sexual relations and social mores” [106]. She is even coupled with Byron in the following essay because their use of irony and debunking of romance are quite similar. If Austen and Byron both appear as ironical authors in their childhood writings, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot are definitely more serious, the first being politically conscious to the point that she saw art as indissolubly linked with politics, which her mature poems will amply demonstrate, whereas the second set her novel Edward Neville during theEnglish civil war. For her, being a novelist meant being a historical novelist, a path she will not follow in her mature works that focus more on individual lives.

The two following essays are dedicated to Charlotte and Branwell Brontë. Christine Alexander analyses the structure of Charlotte’s juvenilia, and the adoption by the author of different narrative selves. There is no unified writing self in these juvenilia, an intuition that will find its realization in her later fiction and could even foreshadow the fascination of the modernists for a fragmented subject. As for Branwell Brontë, he was influenced by Pope, as well as by the Romantics, Wordsworth in particular—hence the parodic title of the essay: “The child is parent to the author”—but also by Keats and Shelley. Not only did he write poems, but also an essay on Bewick (which Jane Eyre reads in the eponymous novel), which he—unsuccessfully—tried to get published. His criticism of his three sisters’ works might reveal a certain rivalry and jealousy since he himself never became famous. The essay on John Ruskin introduces him as a very precocious child, almost a genius in his parents’ eyes who however thought excessive precocity should be thwarted. In Ruskin, the “evangelical self” was to counterbalance the threateningly “monstrous” self.
For Louisa May Alcott, writing was both a source of pleasure and profit. She wrote a poem, followed by stories and a book of fairy-tales. Among her favourite authors were Walter Scott, Bunyan and Goethe. She always turned to her juvenilia for inspiration.

The last two authors included in this volume are far less known to the 21st century reading public: the juvenilia of Mary Augusta Ward demonstrates a taste for experimentation in writing ranging from romantic prose to domestic realism. She wrote six fictional narratives. The heroine of one of her fragments bears some resemblance with Mrs Dalloway. Amy Levy, an early feminist, is the last of the list. She was friends with Olive Schreiner, Vernon Lee, Eleanor Marx, among others. Her works include poems, short fiction and literary criticism.

The interest of this volume lies in its originality, even its uniqueness, as it sheds a new, fascinating light on well-known authors while at the same time recovering some more obscure ones from unjustifiable oblivion. The aim of the volume is to demonstrate the importance and interest of juvenilia in their own right, as literary texts, but also in the significance they have in the later writings of their authors—which is best evidenced in the case of those writers who became and have remained famous. Each article, ending on a summary, is a source of knowledge but also of pleasure: humour is not absent from the pages of this excellent book. Childhood writings are indeed, as Christine Alexander writes, “a worthy site of academic study” and there is no better illustration of that point than this book itself.

 

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