Never Seen a Violet

Dinah Birch

  • Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman by Catherine Robson
    Princeton, 250 pp, £19.95, June 2001, ISBN 0 691 00422 6

Freud takes it for granted that masculinity is the defining human condition, that all children begin life by imagining themselves as little men. When girls get round to noticing their lack of a penis and have to abandon fantasies of maleness, they feel envy and a lasting sense of alienation. Catherine Robson acknowledges and dismisses Freud and Lacan as forming ‘part of the continuing mythology of the creation of interiorised selves, a mythology to which this book aims to contribute one particular narrative’. In the story Robson tells, it’s the boys who are estranged. They respond to their dislocation by creating a compensating vision of ideal girlhood.

The early childhood of the Victorian middle classes was spent in nurseries run by women. Small boys traditionally wore frocks like those of their sisters: in ‘Frost at Midnight’ Coleridge remembers ‘when we both were clothed alike’. Only later, at the start of their formal education, did boys enter a more markedly masculine sphere – an experience finely dramatised in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The growing boy is removed from the inadequate female guidance of mother, sisters and nursery-maid, and socialised in the exclusively masculine institution of a public school. Girls, by contrast, remained where they had always been, in the female world of home and family.

What is new about Robson’s argument is her contention that for many well-to-do men the image of perfect childhood, lost and desired, remained feminine. The image of the girl came to embody a longing for their own primary selves, before the competitive and materialistic values of the Victorian gentleman contaminated their lives. It became a pervasive fantasy, not universal, but influential because so deeply rooted in the ideologies of affluence: ‘middle class, religious, paternalist, nostalgic and conservative’. Understood in this way, the idealisation of little girls in Victorian culture is an attempt to repossess the remembered self rather than a wish for sexual possession of the other. Though Robson concedes that elements of sexual exploitation are present in all this, she moves away from the assumption that repressed sexuality was a dominant impulse in Victorian culture, and one which sought outlets in transgressive desire – the ‘hydraulic’ account of the 19th-century imagination, as she describes it. Her approach enables her to relate girl-loving to broader cultural interests. One of these is social reform, for the radiant idea of the little girl was often dismally incompatible with the real lives of little girls, particularly poor ones. Robson shows that outrage and dismay at the condition in which young girls lived, and died, was often responsible for campaigns for better working conditions in factories and mines.

This was an uneasiness that showed itself early in the century. When Charles Lamb thinks about childhood poverty in his ‘Popular Fallacies’ of 1826, it is of little girls that he writes:

It makes the very heart bleed to overhear the casual street-talk between a poor woman and her little girl … It is not of toys, of nursery books, of summer holidays (fitting that age); of the promised sight, or play; of praised sufficiency at school. It is of mangling and clear-starching, of the price of coals, or of potatoes.

It takes money to provide the exuberant childhood that Wordsworth celebrates in his ‘Immortality Ode’:

glorious in the might

Of untamed pleasures

That factory boys and young mill-hands should be denied this was bad enough: that little girls should also be set to work seemed insupportable.

The working girls encountered by social reformers often displayed a disconcertingly knowing sexuality. The term ‘working girl’ was as ambiguous then as it is now, hinting at prostitution. Campaigns for change focused on the exploitation of these girls and assumed that the preservation of their innocence was a priority. It was agreed that England’s competitive advantage could not be allowed to depend on their labour. William Cobbett spoke with an ironic edge in the House of Commons in 1833:

A most surprising discovery has been made, namely, that all our greatness and prosperity, that our superiority over other nations, is owing to 300,000 little girls in Lancashire. We had made the notable discovery, that if these little girls work two hours less in a day than they do now, it would occasion the ruin of the country.

Such arguments were influenced by the publication of distressing interviews with these guarantors of national prosperity. A ragged girl in a Midlands nail factory was interviewed by Richard Henry Horne. She did not, he reported, ‘know what a country dance is, was never at a dance in her life; never saw a dance; never heard of Harlequin and Columbine; has no idea what they are like.’ Horne, peculiarly, is recalling pantomime conventions that were already old-fashioned in the 1830s but his moral indignation at the girl’s diminished life is, like Lamb’s, prompted by a glowing sense of what her existence should be. ‘You will find poor girls who had never sang or danced; never seen a dance; never read a book that made them laugh; never seen a violet, or a primrose, and other flowers; and whose only idea of a green field was derived from having been stung by a nettle.’ Literary sentiments lie behind Horne’s rhetoric, but they blend with the middle-class reforming politics of the Monthly Repository, of which he had become an editor, and with the Nonconformist zeal that shaped the writing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her protest poem ‘The Cry of the Children’, whose sensational success helped to prepare the ground for the Factory Act of 1844, was influenced by Horne’s investigative work. Here, only death can make a girl happy:

If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,

With your ear down, little Alice never cries.

Could we see her face, be sure we should not

know her,

For the smile has time for growing in her eyes.

And merry go her moments, lulled and

stilled in

The shroud by the kirk-chime!

Religion mattered as much as poetry in the formation of these visions of the lost girl. The force and complexity of religious thought in the earlier decades of the Victorian period have been obscured by a wish to secularise 19th-century culture, but the importance of religion and religious thinking is now being recognised as scholars grow less anxious about being identified with piety. The Evangelical movement made the individual’s place within the family central to religious identity, which led to a new emphasis on children’s spiritual growth. Puritan notions of the inherent wickedness of children lingered, but were increasingly softened: children, girls especially, could now be seen as offering glimpses of heavenly innocence. But Christian belief includes the conviction that human innocence cannot last. The small boy, sheltered within the fragile security of the nursery, suffers a metaphoric death when taken from his domestic Eden. De Quincey, who writes obsessively of such processes of bereavement, is inclined to make a fact of the metaphor: ‘The rules of Eton require that a boy on the foundation should be there twelve years: he is superannuated at eighteen, consequently he must come at six. Children torn away from their mothers and sisters at that age not unfrequently die.’ Paul Dombey, withering into the tomb once separated from Florence, plays out this melancholy story. But girls die, too, and fictional girls die often. In an alternative drama, Little Nell represents unspoiled happiness and grace corrupted by male cupidity. In this narrative, the perfect child must be a girl. Nell’s beauty is unchanging and redemptive: ‘to the old man’s vision, Nell was still the same … there was his young companion with the same smile for him, the same earnest words, the same merry laugh, the same love and care that sinking deep into his soul seemed to have been present to him through his whole life.’ Her death confirms what the novel has repeatedly suggested: Nell is not only angelic, she becomes an angel. The fact that the characteristic Victorian angel is a gentle female, rather than the frighteningly stern male figures we encounter in the New Testament or the writings of the Church Fathers, fits into the pattern Robson is tracing. Nell’s ‘mild lovely look’, Dickens tells us, is the look of the ‘angels in their majesty’.

This is a persistent preoccupation. Girls are beautiful, innocent, loving; and then they are lost. Wordsworth, who helped to establish this ideal, gave it a central expression in his Lucy poems. Lucy is evidently associated with his feelings for his sister, and with the elegiac sentiment which underlies all Wordsworth’s strongest poetry:

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her Grave, and Oh!

The difference to me.

The death of this imagined child was followed by the loss of real children: his three-year-old daughter Catharine and her six-year-old brother Thomas died within months of each other in 1812. Wordsworth mourned both children deeply, but it was Catharine’s death that stirred him into poetry. Catharine, like Little Nell, is the child of a departed paradise, leaving her father to confront the fact that

neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

These are the concluding lines to a sonnet that begins with a moment of elation: ‘Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind’. Catharine’s death is the ‘most grievous loss’ because she is part of the creativity born of happiness, something that the mature poet can now locate only in the past.

Romantic and religious thought interlock in the construction of the ideal girl throughout the mid-Victorian period. Robson discusses two especially notorious girl-idolators: Ruskin and Lewis Carroll. Ruskin said that the first virtue of girls ‘is to be intensely happy; – so happy that they don’t know what to do with themselves for happiness, – and dance instead of walking’. There is of course no reason why girls should be happier than boys, or more fond of dancing. The girls written about by Victorian women (the young Jane Eyre, or Maggie Tulliver, or Aurora Leigh) are not notably joyful, but Ruskin feels that happiness is characteristic not just of a girl’s nature, but of her virtue. The feeling is echoed by Nell’s grandfather, speaking immediately after her death: ‘She was always cheerful – very cheerful … there was ever something mild and quiet about her, I remember, from the first; but she was of a happy nature.’

Lewis Carroll’s sultry photographs of small girls, including the notorious nude studies, are suffused with eroticism. But there is no evidence that he had any wish for an actively sexual relationship with the girls he photographed. His faith in their innocence allowed him to project a cultural fantasy, while at the same time erasing his own presence as fantasist. The adult male is out of the frame; the girls he photographs are captured but untouchable, caught within a vanished moment. Golden images of the past haunt Carroll’s Alice stories. At the end of Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s older sister thinks that the little girl will recollect her own innocent childish self with pleasure, ‘remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days’. But this is Carroll’s notion, not Alice’s, and it is his readers who are invited to think back to their own childish happiness. In fact, the popularity of the fictional idealisation of Alice Liddell’s girlhood did much to spoil her memories of childhood, and complicated and darkened her life as an adult. Carroll’s later fairytale Sylvie and Bruno takes the idealisation of the little girl a step further. Sylvie lacks the tactless and unruly intelligence of the fictional Alice. She is pure girlish sweetness, brought into being by a willed act of the imagination: ‘the face seemed to grow more childish and innocent: and, when I had at last thought the veil entirely away, it was, unmistakably, the sweet face of little Sylvie!’ The conclusion of the tale enacts the loss that shadows all these images of flawless little girls. The old man who narrates the story loses Sylvie at the moment he sees her most clearly: ‘Sylvie’s sweet lips shaped themselves to reply, but her voice sounded faint and very far away. The vision was fast slipping from my eager gaze: but it seemed to me, in that last bewildering moment, that not Sylvie but an angel was looking out through those trustful brown eyes’.

Carroll published Sylvie and Bruno in 1889, when this cherished vision was indeed beginning to slip away. It was harder to dream of perfect little girls, partly because the growing cultural freedom and articulacy of bigger girls constantly qualified the myth of original feminine simplicity. Still more upsetting were the public scandals, like those resulting from W.T. Stead’s enjoyably lurid exposure of child prostitution, conducted in the Pall Mall Gazette. The consoling fantasy that relations between gentlemen and little girls were naturally chaste was irrevocably damaged. Carroll lamented the influence of Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ in a letter to the St James’s Gazette. He conceded the need to address the abuse; but he also saw that the prurience that accompanied Stead’s anger would be fatal to the ideals that meant most to him. ‘May I not plead with those, who have not yet lost their heads in the whirl and din of this popular Maelstrom, to consider whither the stream is really carrying us?’ It has carried us a great deal further than Carroll could ever have imagined.