Reviews 2013

Children’s Literature and Capitalism: Fictions of Social Mobility in Britain, 1850-1914

Children’s Literature and Capitalism: Fictions of Social Mobility in Britain, 1850-1914. Christopher Parkes. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 215 pages. £55.00 (hardback).

Christopher Parkes’s Children’s Literature and Capitalism: Fictions of Social Mobility in Britain, 1850-1914 challenges the premise that, in the wake of the industrial revolution, ‘the child emerged as both a victim of and a threat to capitalist society’ (1). In fact, according to Parkes’ compelling account, literature written for young readers in the Victorian and Edwardian era figured children as ingenious, curious, innovative actors who participated in, even epitomised, capitalist entrepreneurialism. In so doing, such texts redefined the relationship of the child to the marketplace typically conceived by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century narratives by equating the spirit of capitalism with the spirit of childhood. The evangelical tradition, so dominant in the late eighteenth century, had envisaged hard work as a solution to the ‘national youth problem’ (8), while the early nineteenth-century romantic emphasis on childhood innocence had recast labour as a tribulation of the adult world. But the tendency of scholars of nineteenth-century children’s literature to give undue prominence to romantic conceptualizations of childhood as separate and apart from capitalist society, Parkes suggests, has obscured the ways in which children of the period were seen as the drivers, and not merely the victims, of capitalism. By the mid nineteenth century, he argues, literary authors from Charles Dickens to L.M. Montgomery were beginning to depict child protagonists not as ‘passive subject[s] lacking agency and autonomy in the labour market’ (3) but as imaginative and dynamic inventors – so much so that the manifestation of capitalist instincts even came to define the child as such.

Parkes identifies the roots of this conceptual alliance between childhood and enterprise in educational writing of the late eighteenth century, citing as a point of origin the influential manual for parents written by Richard Lovell and Maria Edgeworth, Practical Education (1801), which encouraged parents to cultivate their children’s curiosity in the material world through practical activities and, crucially, play. He posits a direct link between the Edgeworths’ valorisation of practical experimentation as a means of education in childhood and the mid nineteenth-century interest in self-help, most clearly articulated by Samuel Smiles, who saw youth as ‘the springtime of inspiration, of invention, of discovery, of work, and of energy’ (145). By effectively harnessing assets which, at least for Smiles, were available in abundance during childhood, the mid nineteenth-century child, Parkes suggests, was envisaged as socially mobile, capable of dramatically altering his or her material circumstances through industry and initiative alone. Parkes thus brings into plain view an apparently paradoxical – but, as is demonstrated by the wealth of material on which he draws, widely-held – belief that ‘it cannot be capitalism or the British class system that robs the child of his childhood when it is childhood itself that will allow him to develop the tools necessary to escape poverty’ (6).

Parkes’ central thesis is bold and invigorating, and it sets up intriguing new readings of some seminal Victorian and Edwardian literary works for and about children: David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Railway Children, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Anne’s House of Dreams. While these well-known canonical works are invariably the central focus of interest, the discussion also takes into account a range of lesser known fictional and non-fictional texts, drawing informed connections between them. Chapter 1 concentrates on Victorian religious tracts, serial publications, biographies, and novels which sought to find young people imaginative ways out of ‘dead-end’ (castrating) careers such as that of clerk (emblematic of sexual inertia) in favour of job opportunities that were compatible with the pursuit of libido, or in its more sentimentalised form, romance. Chapter 2 places Charles Dickens’ novels in the context of wider debates about the virtues of the family business, showing how Dickens’ narratives physically and psychically remove the child from the home such that the young protagonist’s investment in the family business emerges as one that is chosen by and not foisted upon him. Chapter 3 turns to Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novels, where Parkes reveals that Stevenson’s boy protagonists do not merely slide into the professional roles allotted to them by those adults who are ostensibly their role models, but instead mimic behaviour demonstrated by the novels’ more transgressive characters such that the otherwise routine work that is required of them begins to promise excitement and danger. Chapter 4 teases out the ways in which the pursuit and defence of capitalist values is at stake in what at first glance might be dismissed as child’s play in novels by E. Nesbit, while readings of two novels by Frances Hodgson Burnett show how an emphasis on hard work and enterprise as a means of bettering oneself is tied to a socially egalitarian agenda which theoretically minimises class difference, even if only by enabling the child protagonist to move between classes. Chapter 6 focuses on gender difference, presenting readings of two Anne of Green Gables novels which highlight the ways in which female suffering instigates economic gain and professional fulfilment. The child protagonists that Parkes charts are thus all enterprising masters of their own destiny, destinies achieved through hard work and innovation, since generic protocols dictate that their efforts always pay off in the end.

Parkes’ account provides a strong and convincing case for the dominance in the Victorian and Edwardian period of a view of youth employment as empowering, voluntarily contracted, and rewarding. But Parkes is fully alert to the cruel implications of such a view, which ‘absolved capitalist society of any responsibility for the individual’s lack of success, placing the blame instead on the shoulders of children who had failed, in other words, to perform childhood properly’ (10). Parkes’ ultimately sceptical narrative gestures towards the perilous human cost of unwavering optimism in market forces.

Louise Joy
Homerton College, UK

Works Cited

Smiles, Samuel. Self-Help. Teddington: Echo Library, 2006.