Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > "The Little Actor": Performing Childhood in Nineteenth-Century British Literature
Available after 31 December, 2018

Lord Byron’s “To Ianthe,” Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim reinvent the portrayal of childhood. Didactic literature by authors such as John Newbery, Mary Wollstonecraft, Isaac Watts, John and Charles Wesley, and Hannah More, though it assumed that growing up meant the transformation of an essential inner identity, paradoxically represented childhood not as an essential quality, but as a prescribed role to be performed by the child. Children’s performance of morally or culturally approved roles was, in fact, the mechanism by which they were supposed to be transformed into successful adults. Didactic authors expected the child to imitate a single model: the moral, educated, well-mannered child. Byron, Carroll, James, and Kipling instead point to multiple models, multiple ideas of how children could behave. In their works, children can choose from different “scripts” of childhood and perform them to reinvent childhood and themselves: the children imitate models but choose which ones to emulate. James and Kipling go a step further, depicting children who use their performance of social roles to influence adults and pursue their own goals. Finally, Kipling questions (much like the late twentieth-century critic Judith Butler) whether his young protagonist even has an essential identity separate from the performance of social roles. The four authors imitate didactic literature’s idea of childhood-as-performance but transform it, asserting children’s agency against the adult authority of didactic literature. This study’s analysis of these authors’ works expands Marah Gubar’s focus on child agency (rather than passive vulnerability to adult influence) in children’s literature to depictions of children in the broader field of nineteenth-century British literature. Its argument also builds on Robin Bernstein’s notion of performed childhood innocence as a racial category (defined so as to exclude African-Americans); it describes the way Byron, Carroll, James, and Kipling use the different expectations for children of different cultures, classes, and genders—such as the expectations for Kim’s roles as both British spy and eastern Buddhist disciple in Kipling’s Kim—to generate multiple possibilities for childhood roles.