The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf

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In this highly original collection leading scholars address the largely overlooked genre of childhood writings by major authors, and explore the genesis of genius. The book includes essays on the first writings of Jane Austen, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. All began writing for pleasure as children, and later developed their professional ambitions. In bursts of creative energy, these young authors, as well as those like Daisy Ashford, who wrote only as a child, produced prose, verse, imitation and parody, wild romance and down-to-earth daily records. Their juvenile writings are fascinating both in themselves, and for the promise of greater works to come. The volume includes an invaluable and thorough annotated bibliography of juvenilia, and will stimulate many directions for research in this lively and fascinating topic.

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Editorial Reviews

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"This book may be the start of a new area of study. Summing Up: Highly recommended."

"This ambitious book is remarkable as a look at the potential of juvenilia scholarship, particularly the potential of shattering traditional assumptions about the literary merit of child writing."

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Christine Alexander is Professor of English at the University of New South Wales.

Juliet McMaster is University Professor Emerita of English at the University of Alberta.

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Cambridge University Press
0521812933 - The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf - Edited by Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster



Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster

It has been an anomaly in recent literary criticism that whereas we expect, say, 'women's literature' to be by women, we have understood 'children's literature' to be not by children but only for them - and to be written by almost anyone but children. Just as a child could have no rights until his or her status as 'person' was established, so the child as creator of culture has been subsumed within the child as mere consumer. And yet for centuries children have been taking the pen into their hands, and writing (as David Copperfield says of his childhood reading) 'as if for life'. The child's expression of his or her own subjectivity is there and available for us, if we will only take the time to pay attention.

'Children's literature', or literature for children, is a vast and ever-growing body of texts, which received increasing critical attention in the twentieth century. Perhaps now, in the twenty-first century, the time has come to listen to the authentic literary voice of the child - to the extent that we can identify such a thing - or children's literature properly so called: that is, literature by children. In the vast mass of writings about children - those beings we all once were, and whom many of us produce - there should be a place for what children have to tell us of themselves.

This collection on childhood writings is intended to recognize the child's own authentic voice and authority, and to explore a category of literature that has been largely neglected.

For such an enterprise the work of young writers of the nineteenth century, which opened with Wordsworth and closed with Freud, is perhaps the best place to start. We begin with Jane Austen, who as a child writer in the eighteenth century fed off and took her impulse from the novels of her day, and came to artistic maturity in the Regency, bringing her sharp consciousness of the traditions of one century to invigorate the next. We end, more or less, with Virginia Stephen, who with her siblings penned their weekly family periodical in the 1890s. In between come great names firmly located within the nineteenth century: the Brontë children, secretly filling tiny volumes with grand sagas of love and epics of nationhood; George Eliot working out a transition from Scott's mode to her own; Louisa May Alcott, famous as the chronicler of good New England girlhood, turning out tales of blood, thunder, and steamy passion; John Ruskin, determined to find his own literary voice in the teeth of parental opposition; and other post-Wordsworthians too, trailing their clouds of glory, and busily with their blessedness at strife. The emphasis of this volume is on those scribbling children who achieved greatness as adults, because a new study of juvenilia must begin somewhere. But alongside these child incarnations of adult authors are some whose writing is also full of percipience and zest, but who did not become adult writers: Marjory Fleming, who died when she was only eight, but who makes it to the DNB and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; Daisy Ashford, who wrote her immortal novel The Young Visiters at nine, and as an adult laid down her pen; and Iris Vaughan and Opal Whiteley, whose remarkable childhood diaries written at the turn of the century are forerunners of Anne Frank's.

If the nineteenth century, when what we know as 'childhood' came into its own, provides the best material for a study of the child writer, now is a good time to do it. The recovery, publication, and critical exploration of childhood writings is under way on a number of fronts. The juvenilia of Charlotte and Branwell Brontë are emerging in accessible scholarly editions, largely edited by one of the present editors and one of the present contributors. The juvenilia of Jane Austen are being published in a variety of formats, and another contributor is the co-editor of the latest Oxford University Press edition. The Juvenilia Press (founded by one co-editor of this volume, and now run by the other), a small venture that is nevertheless making its mark, specializes in publishing scholarly editions of works written by known authors when they were under twenty. And scholars newly interested in the evolution of creativity and the history of the book are increasingly uncovering early writings of both canonical and non-canonical authors, and investigating the creation and preservation of early forays in bookmaking. In such youthful productions, as we increasingly discover, we can trace the child's process of self-construction as author.

What are juvenilia? There is no firm answer, since youth and age are necessarily relative concepts; and some writers graduate to 'maturity' before others. Likewise 'childhood' has no firm limits: seen from the point of view of a parent, a child may never reach adulthood. Jane Austen in Catharine refers to work done in the early teens as 'infant labours', and Branwell Brontë's massive body of early writings, even those he wrote when he was thirty-one, are commonly referred to as 'juvenilia'. We have chosen to consider works by writers up to twenty as our province, with some leeway beyond, though many of our writers are much younger. Likewise the 'nineteenth century' of our concern may extend a little before and after the eighteen-hundreds. On genre we place no limits, and this collection includes treatment of poetry, fiction, drama, journals, and letters, though perhaps fiction predominates. The many quotations from juvenilia included in this volume have, by their nature, a number of misspellings; it would be cumbersome and irritating to use 'sic' on every occasion. The editors have chosen to include 'sic' only when the misspelling is from a 'professional' adult writer. We have also italicised titles of juvenilia only when these have been published as separate volumes. Thus Charlotte Brontë's Albion and Marina is italicised but not 'Young Men's Magazine'; and Volume the First and Lesley Castle are both italicised.

Of such work as has been done on childhood writings, much has been by specialists on a given writer, with a view to examining 'apprentice work', and the writer's route to maturity. And indeed discovering the relation of an author's early work to the same author's adult work is one major reason for the study of juvenilia, though certainly not the only one. However, we have also been concerned to examine childhood writings as a body of literature, almost a genre, in their own right, and for this purpose we want to consider them not just in relation to the adult works of the same author, but in relation to each other. The first section of the collection, therefore, consists of general essays: on juvenilia as a genre, the epistemology of the child writer, childhood conceptions of gender and of authorship, and the editing of juvenilia. Recurring genres within childhood writings are also discussed here - for instance the diary, the homemade family journal, and the letter home.

In her wide-ranging introductory essay on nineteenth-century juvenilia, Christine Alexander notes the necessarily middle-class status of children who take the pen into their own hands: they must be literate and they must have access to writing materials. She explores the early letters boys like Thackeray, Kingsley, and Kipling wrote home from boarding school, the self-conscious journals of Emily Shore and Marjory Fleming, the imaginary worlds that the Brontës, the Dodgsons, and Virginia Stephen and her siblings created through their appropriation of adults' fictions and journals, and the ways in which these tyro authors tested the gender boundaries of their day, and found means of self-expression, despite their largely marginalized position in a world run by adults.

In her succeeding essay on 'Play and apprenticeship' Alexander develops her examination of the collaborative literary games played among siblings, especially in their creation of their own periodicals, such as the Brontës' 'Young Men's Magazine', the Dodgsons' Rectory Umbrella (precursor of the Alice books), and the Stephens' 'Hyde Park Gate News', all family appropriations of adult journals.

In her essay on 'What Daisy knew', Juliet McMaster addresses the child author's quest for forbidden knowledge, especially sexual knowledge: a motif that recurs in many representations of the child writer by adults, as well as those by children themselves. Like Henry James's Maisie in What Maisie Knew, the disempowered child finds in spying and ocular possession an exciting access of knowledge and power. McMaster's principal examples are three child authors who had already completed their best-known work before they grew to adulthood: the diarists Iris Vaughan and Opal Whiteley, writing near the turn of the century, respectively in South Africa and the logging camps of Oregon; and the most famous nineteenth-century child author of them all, Daisy Ashford, whose classic The Young Visiters has been reprinted dozens of times, and often adapted for stage and screen.

For her essay on defining and representing juvenilia, Christine Alexander draws on her considerable experience in editing what is now the standard edition of Charlotte Brontë's extensive early writings, as well as on her further work with the Juvenilia Press. She explores the way various groups - authors, their families and friends, biographers, professional critics, and editors - have exercised their power over juvenilia and helped to define our attitudes to early writings; and she explains the way editorial practice has both hindered and furthered our understanding of this non-canonical body of literature.

The essays that follow in the second section of the collection are on the childhood writings of individual authors: Austen, Byron, Barrett Browning, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, George Eliot, Ruskin, Alcott, Mary Arnold (better known as Mrs Humphry Ward), and Amy Levy. These are names to conjure with: and the authors of the essays have the chance to catch these precocious experimenting children in the act of growing into the great authors we have come to admire.

Margaret Anne Doody finds Jane Austen's early writings 'in some important respects very unchildlike. They reveal an Austen who is astonishingly sophisticated about sexual relations and social mores.' Doody advances the intriguing hypothesis that the young Austen was preparing to be a different kind of author from the tamer one she actually became, and that to meet the demands of a stuffier readership she trained herself to leave behind, or at least tone down, 'the rich and energetic comedy of the heartless world'.

Rachel Brownstein pursues the young Austen's writing in relation to the young Byron's, and finds - besides the obvious differences - some surprising parallels. Like so many young writers, they both began by writing imitations; but these two wrote 'with one eye on the model and the other on the reader', developing complicity with the reader through parody and the assumption of shared literary experience. It is tempting to speculate that if Austen's wicked parody Love and Freindship had been published on the heels of its composition in 1790, it might have made as much stir as 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'.

If Alexander Pope boasted that he 'lisp'd in numbers', Elizabeth Barrett Browning claimed 'At four I mounted Pegasus'. Beverly Taylor focuses on Barrett's copious and largely unexplored juvenile writings. This was a child with grand - not to say grandiose - literary ambitions: one who wrote an epic poem in imitation of Homer at thirteen. But she was already alert to 'psychological and political issues': as Taylor demonstrates, 'young Elizabeth's writings comprehend life experiences, adult behaviours, and political events to a surprising degree.' We adults patronise such early flowering at our peril.

In her essay on Charlotte Brontë's creation of that famous 'web in childhood', the Glass Town and Angrian sagas, Christine Alexander explores the ways in which juvenilia intersect with autobiography, as the young author self-consciously examines her different narratorial roles in their relation to an intricate and unfolding creation.

Victor Neufeldt's essay on Branwell Brontë follows usefully from Alexander's examination of the Brontës' complex collaborative play. Branwell took to literary role-playing like a duck to water. The family's love affair with Blackwood's Magazine provided him with models for editor, contributor, poet, scholar, and critic, each of which he readily adopted as a temporary persona; and the acute literary self-consciousness involved in creating and playing these roles, and putting them in conflict with one another in the created worlds of Glass Town and Angria, honed his skills in composition as he trained himself to become a professional in the adult world.

The process of choosing a model to imitate, which is necessarily a part of the young author's process of self-identification, is Juliet McMaster's main concern in her study of George Eliot's teenage fiction, Edward Neville. The young author's deference for the historical novelists Scott and G. P. R. James, and her necessary focus on local habitation - whether Dorlcote Mill or (as here) Chepstow Castle - became signatures that lasted as Marianne Evans grew into George Eliot.

If Byron and Austen as young writers always kept one eye on a putative reader, and the Brontë siblings developed their Glass Town and Angrian worlds in collaboration, for John Ruskin as an only child, as David Hanson demonstrates, the primary readers were his mother and father. His early writings happen in dialogue with his parents' responses and evangelical reservations about his precocious productivity; and though he negotiated ways to keep writing, 'his writing remained entangled in the domestic ideology that [his mother] invoked to quell his prolific invention'. Hanson's exploration of evangelical anxieties that 'extravagant behaviour (intellectual, creative, or sexual) would wear out the organ' is revealing about the resistance that many children besides Ruskin faced on their way to literary self-expression.

Like the Brontës, the Alcotts were a writing family, and Louisa May Alcott, with encouragement from Bronson Alcott and his Concord associates Emerson and Thoreau, collaborated with her sister Anna (the 'Meg' of Little Women) in writing and performing plays, as well as in a family journal with the hats-off-to-Dickens title 'The Pickwick Portfolio'. At seventeen she also wrote a full-length novel (strongly reminiscent of Jane Eyre) that in recent years has been published and televised. Daniel Shealy traces what she called her 'childish plays' as a path towards her highly successful career, when 'scribbling' became her 'very profitable amusement'.

The family context was a defining factor, too, for Mary Augusta Arnold, who - before she became the prolific novelist Mrs Humphry Ward - identified herself as granddaughter to the famous Dr Arnold of Rugby School and niece to Matthew Arnold. An eager recruit to the family occupation of authorship, she trained herself by reading and imitation, penning a series of poems and stories which, as Gillian Boughton demonstrates, 'show great commitment and narrative energy as well as exploring many of the preoccupations which develop through her later twenty-five published novels'.

When the nine-year-old Daisy Ashford penned her famous The Young Visiters in 1890, clearly her views on courtship and gender relations were firmly traditional ('Oh Bernard she sighed fervently I certainly love you madly you are to me like a Heathen god'). But young Amy Levy, growing up in the 1870s, was already alert to feminist issues: with her 'Harum-Scarum Band of Scribblers' she was writing the kind of fiction that in the 1890s would be associated with the New Woman. 'The young Levy's engagement with the rhetoric of female violence', writes Naomi Hetherington, 'taps into the difficulties of first-wave feminism in constructing powerful female figures who do not depend on a gendered ideology of self-sacrifice'. Like the Brontë siblings creating their own world in which they are the 'Genii', the gods who both propose and dispose, or young George Eliot identifying with a hero who defies authority, or John Ruskin contriving his own rules to subvert his mother's interdictions, this young writer is discovering new ways to shape the world.

The childhood writings of the notable writers of the canon haven't yet received the full critical and editorial attention they deserve. But they have received some attention, and the writings themselves are often available in published editions as well as in manuscript form. The descriptive bibliography provided by Lesley Peterson and Leslie Robertson at the end of this volume is designed to provide further information for those who choose to pursue this rich and varied body of writings.

'I beg leave to offer you this little production of your sincere Freind / The Author', Jane Austen cheerfully signs off her dedication letter for Frederic & Elfrida, which she probably wrote at about twelve. 'I have long been employed in writing a history of the Jews,' writes twelve-year-old Emily Shore. 'It has more than two hundred pages, and is in the printing character. Moreover, it has a frontispiece, title-page, vignette, preface, table of contents, and index.' 'Violet and I have made a newspaper,' writes Iris Vaughan in Fort Beaufort, Cape Province. 'Pop gave us lots of foolscap and nibs and ink. Violet will write the stories and I will do the news. Violet will draw too. We sell it at sixpence each. It is hard work doing so much writing.' Iris was probably about twelve at this time, early in the twentieth century, and she did indeed grow up to become a reporter. The conviction with which these children identify themselves as authors, and the effort they are ready to devote to the avocation, is both engaging and moving.

'Scene - a bare room, and on a black box sits a lank female, her fingers clutch her pen, which she dips from time to time in her ink pot and then absently rubs upon her dress.' So writes thirteen-year-old Virginia Stephen, inditing what is surely a prophetic self-portrait of the 'lank' Virginia Woolf she was to grow into. Already in this passage in 'Hyde Park Gate News' she moves from the periphery of her highly literary family to the centre, showing her grasp of the professional literary scene and its politics.

We know now the famous works of the adult author who grew out of that sharply observing child, just as we know the full flowering of the talents of Byron, Brontë, Ruskin, Alcott, and the other figures treated in this volume. But these essays provide insight into those watching, laughing, agonizing, collaborating, exasperating, creative children they once were.


Childhood writings

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Part I. Childhood Writings: 1. Introduction Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster; 2. Nineteenth-century juvenilia: a survey Christine Alexander; 3. Play and apprenticeship: the culture of family magazines Christine Alexander; 4. What Daisy knew: the epistemology of the child writer Juliet McMaster; 5. Defining and representing literary juvenilia Christine Alexander; Part II. Individual Authors: 6. Jane Austen, that disconcerting 'Child' Margaret Doody; 7. Endless imitation: Austen's and Byron's juvenilia Rachel Brownstein; 8. Childhood writings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Beverly Taylor; 9. Autobiography and juvenilia: the fractured self in Charlotte Brontë's early manuscripts Christine Alexander; 10. The child is parent to the author: Branwell Brontë Victor Neufeldt; 11. Choosing a model: George Eliot's 'Prentice Hand' Juliet McMaster; 12. Precocity and the economy of the evangelical self in John Ruskin's juvenilia David C. Hanson; 13. Louisa May Alcott's juvenilia Daniel Shealy; 14. Dr Arnold's granddaughter: Mary Augusta Ward Gillian Boughton; 15. New woman, new boots: Amy Levy as child journalist Naomi Hetherington; 16. An annotated bibliography of nineteenth-century juvenilia Lesley Peterson and Leslie Robertson.

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