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

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