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The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel.

The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel. By Laura C. Berry. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. x + 199 pages.

Readers of Victorian literature will hardly be surprised to find that victimized children feature prominently in major nineteenth-century novels, as Laura Berry's study clearly demonstrates. But Berry offers new perspectives on this familiar territory by providing a richly detailed social, political, and philosophic context for her subject. Her new historical analysis reveals that the fictional treatment of children constitutes just one aspect of a widespread cultural rumination on the nature of self in relationship to society in the Victorian age. Victimized child characters provide a focal point for "the imagining of a version of selfhood in which a subject may be taken as self-determining and individualized, but inextricably (and simultaneously) dependent upon social formations, especially institutions, outside the self" (4). Children serve as particularly useful subjects in the autonomy/dependence debate because they "are seen as mutable subjects who can transgress the social boundaries that adults cannot" (6). As relatively "unformed" creatures, they naturally call into question "the fixity of social determinants such as class or gender" (7).

Berry's introduction establishes the extensive social and political ramifications of the victimized child subject. She begins by discussing Thomas Malthus's dour calculations concerning the geometric increase in population versus the arithmetic increase in food (first presented in Essays on the Principles of Population, 1798). Berry suggests that Malthus's warning about a growing number of "hungry bodies" influenced the Reform Bill of 1832 as well as the themes of several major novels of the 1830s and 1840s (9). Berry argues that novels of this period frequently attempt to recast the threat of hungry adult bodies in the more sympathetic shape of child victims in order to make their presentation of social problems more palatable. Children also enable Victorian novelists to develop "the logic of dependent selfhood" (12) in response to growing tensions between economic forces, which emphasized the importance of independence, and social forces (the "disciplinary mechanisms" that Foucault traces), which increasingly encroached on private life.

The focus on child victims in Victorian novels, according to Berry, means that the marriage-centered plots of the eighteenth century give way to more family-centered plots. The child becomes the primary paradigm of the self, Berry argues, and "the victimized child becomes an important means of articulating an autonomous and socially indebted self, bound but self determined" (19). Berry proposes Mary Shelley's 1831 Frankenstein as an important influence on the treatment of endangered children in Victorian novels, while admitting that the influences are many. She sees Frankenstein's Monster as combining Malthusian fears of a hungry, threatening adult male with growing concern about neglected children and the need for better education and provisions for the poor. The Monster figure effectively pulls together the numerous social, political, and philosophical strands that Berry sets out in the Introduction, while prefiguring themes she develops in subsequent chapters that deal with novels by Dickens, Anne and Emily Bronte, and George Eliot.

Chapter one presents a reading of Oliver Twist in the context of James Kay-Shuttleworth's writings on educating pauper children. Berry takes almost half the chapter to explain both Kay-Shuttleworth's position concerning the education of workhouse children and the reason for the generally negative reactions his proposals produced. Kay-Shuttleworth advocated separating pauper children from the negative influences of the workhouse and providing them with a more thorough education than they had traditionally received. His suggestions generated concerns that family life would be disrupted and that pauper children would become too educated to be good laborers in the future. Berry then posits this concern over the future work-roles of pauper children as central to the concerns of Oliver Twist. While her analysis of the pauper education debate is clear, informative, and engaging, Berry never brings it to bear on Dickens's novel in a very illuminating or original manner. At first Berry's discussion of the novel seems to pick up where her introduction left off--with the role of hunger in new poor-law writings. She traces the inverse relationship between the morality of Dickens's characters and their access to food, and she successfully draws comparisons between the pathos and threat of hungry bodies in Oliver Twist and Mary Shelley's Monster, thereby reminding us of the Malthusian fears she outlined in her introduction. Berry's close readings of hunger/food images in the novel are illuminating and sometimes amusing, but their relationship to the Kay-Shuttleworth material with which she begins the chapter never becomes clear. Her eventual attempts to link Kay-Shuttleworth's writings more closely with Dickens's novel through the issue of hereditary concerns seems strained, although she does conclude that Oliver Twist advocates separation from family, as did Kay-Shuttleworth, because "biology dictates that families can be toxic" (59). She compares Oliver's foster family to Kay-Shuttleworth's educational institution--"a place to reaggregate as the pedagogical subject" (59)--but she says little about the nature of the bourgeois education Oliver receives when Mr. Brownlow adopts him. Berry argues that both Kay-Shuttleworth and Dickens stumble over the issue of work in relation to their child-subjects, because "the `value' of work cannot be denied, but neither can it be fully embraced; to do so would begin to chip away at the portrait of innocence that has been so carefully crafted in Oliver" and in depictions of workhouse children (61). Berry suggests that this problem of envisioning the child victim as an adult worker perhaps influenced Dickens to switch to a female victim in Dombey and Son, which is the novel she focuses on in chapter two.

In her Dombey and Son chapter, Berry achieves a much more successful combination of historical contextualization and close readings than she managed in chapter one. Improbably, Berry begins the chapter by positing a connection between wet nurses and railroad laborers in the Victorian age in general and in particular in Dickens's Dombey and Son via the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Toodle. But as unlikely as this connection may appear at first, Berry supports it admirably with nineteenth-century sources on railroads and on wet-nursing. Both railroad workers and wet nurses came to be seen as sources that spread contamination. Berry focuses particularly on the wet-nursing treatises of C. H. F. Routh and William Acton. The Routh/Acton debate on breast-feeding centered on concerns about the morality of wet nurses, many of whom were the mothers of illegitimate children. Acton saw wet-nursing as a respectable means of helping such women back into society and enabling them to support their own children. Routh felt that wet nurses, given their status as fallen women, were naturally dishonest and immoral. Their influence was akin to contamination, he felt, and he argued that they could not be trusted and that they could inflict harm on the children in their charge. He also argued that allowing them entrance into better homes sent the signal that their crime was light, and such a signal could have dangerous results.

After outlining the wet-nursing debate, Berry turns to Dombey and Son where she first traces a reversal of the hunger images she has thus far analyzed: "in Dombey and Son the poor are literally food for the rich" (74). She emphasizes how Mr. Toodle, a railroad worker, and Mrs. Toodle, Paul Dombey's wet nurse, counter prevalent concerns about contamination and spreading pestilence. The entire Toodle family is a portrait of health, wholesomeness, and productivity. Berry sees both Toodles as furthering images of circulation in the novel; everywhere Dickens demonstrates the necessity of good circulation in society. "London society," Berry asserts, "demands fluidity, both in the social and in the business worlds.... Dickens virtually celebrates--certainly, he explicitly acknowledges--the necessary intermixing of the classes in industrializing society" (75). In this chapter, unlike chapter one, Berry's socio-historical material directly relates not only to two important characters in the novel, but to major thematic and image patterns as well. The historical sources and the fiction are mutually illuminating; this is new historicism at its best.

In chapter three, Berry turns to a far more negative depiction of domestic relations with her analysis of Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in relation to the 1839 Custody of Infants Act. She continues her analysis of images of hunger, arguing that in these works "hunger can be transformed into an unspecified desire, always ready to consume the self" and that these hungers originate within the family, not outside of it, as in Dickens's novels (95). In both Wuthering Heights and Wildfell Hall, "Rope for curbing hunger lies ... in the rigors of child rearing" which can tame and redirect such hungers (96). Berry then traces how issues of child custody intersect with the focus on hungers in these novels, positing "possession, incarceration, and protection as a way of resolving the tensions of appetite" (97). To provide a historical context for this subject, Berry analyzes the infant custody debates of the late 1830s.

Wildfell Hall takes on custody issues directly, demonstrating what can happen to a family under a system that almost inevitably gives custody rights to the father, no matter how he acts. But Berry shows how the carceral implications of "custody" also emerge in this novel as Bronte draws frequent connections between home and prison, and eventually shows that cruelty is an inevitable aspect of the domestic scene--and of all relationships--because it arises from "the individual appetites of men and women, and in fact is the generating force that makes the individual possible" (112).

In Wuthering Heights, custody becomes a central issue, as almost every visitor to the Heights ends up as "prisoner or ward; it hardly matters which, since they amount to the same thing" (106). Berry argues that "Nelly and Heathcliff vie for custody over most of the bodies that pass through their world," Nelly attempting to control through discipline and Heathcliff through brutality. Ironically, the intense controlling impulses lead to a loss of all control, as Heathcliff and Cathy lose sense of themselves in each other and both are consumed by their appetites. Through the trainable child-subjects of the next generation at Wuthering Heights, Bronte posits a break from the bonds of untamed hunger. While Berry's analysis is both detailed and insightful, her reading of the characters of Cathy and Heathcliff seems overly moralistic and didactic. Certainly Emily Bronte reveals the destructiveness of the passions of these lovers, but she celebrates it as much or more than she criticizes it, and Berry fails to acknowledge these Romantic overtones. Berry also contrasts the imprisoning mother (Nelly) of Wuthering Heights with the purportedly liberating mothers of Dickens (121), a comment which needs much more support, as many of Dickens's mother-figures seem anything but liberating. Overall the chapter provides rich readings, but once again, as with chapter one, the historical material at the beginning does not shed much light on the fictional texts. The information is interesting, useful as a long endnote perhaps, but it is not really essential to furthering the readings of the novels themselves.

In the last chapter before the Conclusion, Berry turns to a reading of Adam Bede in the context of nineteenth-century infanticide cases and discussions. Berry suggests that "Eliot writes in direct opposition to reformers who participate in the proliferating discourse of infanticide ... and whose efforts to civilize criminal mothers materialize as social reform projects sponsored by the state." Berry finds that both Adam Bede and social reform writings focus their presentations of infanticide "around the idea of confession" (131).

Berry begins this chapter by contrasting the taming of animal natures in Wuthering Heights with the celebration of them in Adam Bede, which seems a strained attempt to debunk traditional interpretations of both works. The argument can work only if one accepts the reading of Wuthering Heights offered in the previous chapter, which, as I have already stated, seems to deliberately ignore the mythologizing of passion that makes the novel so memorable.

Tracing the mid-Victorian fascination with infanticide, Berry finds that debates on the issue centered on social reforms and the figure of the murdered child, which Berry claims "is the most perfect Victorian subject," for it represents complete innocence, dependence, and "the potential for life, a perpetual marker for a selfhood that can never be marred by the dividing social categories of class or gender" (136). The child victim served to advance the cause of social programs and social intervention in general. The connections between the historical material and the interpretation of the novel are obvious in this chapter, since infanticide is the chief dramatic event of Adam Bede. Berry contrasts Eliot's depiction of the issue with that of the social reform writings by suggesting that Eliot resists "state intervention" because "change happens over time, happens `in the body,' and defies both speech and social practice" (137). For Eliot, social intervention offers no solution to human tragedy; only human evolution can bring about positive change, advanced through superior beings such as Adam and Dinah and through the vehicle of confession.

In the conclusion of The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel, Berry reiterates her claim that George Eliot resisted the dominant trend of her times toward increased social intervention in the lives of both children and adults. Social programs, for Eliot, could not rewrite human behavior; change had to occur at the level of the body and the soul, not the city or the state. Modern society, of course, has continued down the path of social reform as the best route toward amelioration. As this trend grew in the latter nineteenth century, child victims ceased to be such a central focus of popular novels. Their tales become the province of social workers and psychologists, Berry asserts. She ends the book by stating that "almost as soon as `childhood' became a distinct category, stories of children in danger were circulated as part of larger debates about self, nation, class, and family" and that this focus is a crucial element in "the history of modernity" (167). Certainly, she has proven through her study that victimized children played key roles in major Victorian texts and in broader social and philosophical discourses of the time. But to claim that such children characterize the Victorian age in particular, without at least referring to such seminal child-victims as Oedipus, Moses, and Jesus, seems to be a bit short-sighted. Endangered children have gripped the imaginations of audiences from the very beginning of western culture.

Fortunately, such moments of short-sightedness happen infrequently in this book. Berry offers intelligent, original, insightful readings of major mid-Victorian novels and fascinating historical information that, in most cases, does shed new light on the fictional texts. On occasion her readings of the novels seem stretched or underdeveloped, as with her remarks about mothers in Dickens, or her characterization of Eliot's Adam Bede as being more radical than Bronte's Wuthering Heights. And at times she seems to be struggling to bring the historical material to bear on the fiction, as is the case in her chapter on Oliver Twist. But overall, Berry provides a well-written and well-researched new historical analysis that Victorian specialists, philosophers, historians, and literature generalists could all find rewarding.
Natalie McKnight
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts


Natalie McKnight is the Chairman of the Humanities and Rhetoric Division of the College of General Studies at Boston University. She has published two books on Victorian literature: Idiots, Madmen and Other Prisoners in Dickens (1993), and Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels (1996).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McKnight, Natalie
Publication:CLIO
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Words:2567
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