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01Sep27b Booknote: Victorian girls

Book note:

Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman

Catherine Robson

Cloth | 2001 | $29.95 272 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 halftones

Fascination with little girls pervaded Victorian culture. For many, girls represented the true essence of childhood or bygone times of innocence; but for middle-class men, especially writers, the interest ran much deeper. In *Men in Wonderland*, Catherine Robson explores the ways in which various nineteenth-century British male authors constructed girlhood, and analyzes the nature of their investment in the figure of the girl. In so doing, she reveals the link between the idealization of little girls and a widespread fantasy of male development -- a myth suggesting that men become masculine only after an initial feminine stage, lived out in the protective environment of the nursery. Little girls, argues Robson, thus offer an adult male the best opportunity to reconnect with his own lost self.

Tracing the beginnings of this myth in the writings of Romantics Wordsworth and De Quincey, Robson identifies the consolidation of this paradigm in numerous Victorian artifacts, ranging from literary works by Dickens and Barrett Browning, to paintings by Frith and Millais, to reports of the Royal Commission on Children's Employment. She analyzes Ruskin and Carroll's "high noon" of girl worship and investigates the destruction of the fantasy in the closing decades of the century, when social concerns about the working girl sexualized the image of young females.

Men in Wonderland contributes to a growing interest in the nineteenth century's construction of childhood, sexuality, and masculinity, and illuminates their complex interconnections with a startlingly different light. Not only does it complicate the narratives of pedophilic desire that are generally used to explain figures like Ruskin and Carroll, but it offers a new understanding of the Victorian era's obsession with loss, its rampant sentimentality, and its intense valorization of the little girl at the expense of mature femininity.

Catherine Robson is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, where she specializes in nineteenth-century British literature and culture. She is also a faculty member of the University of California Dickens Project.


"This wide-ranging, penetrating investigation contributes significantly to the areas of childhood and gender studies, and 19th century British social history."--*Library Journal* "[An] illuminating study of the relationships that existed between little girls and a whole synod of Victorian middle-class men.... What Robson detects in these men is less paedophilic desire and more a melancholy sense of something lost.... Ruskin, Carroll, and their fellow enthusiasts, she contends, were chasing their own pasts..." -- Matthew Sweet, Independent on Sunday.


"Catherine Robson offers an argument that is audacious, compelling, and new. The cult of the girl is a topic that will attract attention. By exploring 'girl worship' among various canonical authors across a long period, this book will appeal to a broad audience. *Men in Wonderland* is a pleasure to read." -- Pamela K. Gilbert, University of Florida.

"In this lively and provocative study, Catherine Robson deftly explores the work of masculine anxiety in shaping Victorian ideals of girlhood. With a wide range of incisive analysis, and a good deal of wry yet sympathetic wit, *Men in Wonderland* discovers a wealth of surprises in what might have seemed a familiar world. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of gender and childhood in the nineteenth century." -- James Eli Adams, Cornell University.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix Acknowledgments xi


CHAPTER ONE Of Prisons and Ungrown Girls: Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Constructions of the Lost Self of Childhood

CHAPTER TWO The Ideal Girl in Industrial England

CHAPTER THREE The Stones of Childhood: Ruskin's "Lost Jewels"

CHAPTER FOUR Lewis Carroll and the Little Girl: The Art of Self-Effacement

CHAPTER FIVE A "New 'Cry of the Children' ": Legislating Innocence in the 1880s

APPENDIX Lewis Carroll's Letter to the St. James's Gazette, July 22, 1885

Notes 199 Works Cited 231 Index 243



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