Reviews 2009

The Fantasy of Family

The Fantasy of Family: Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature and the Myth of the Domestic Ideal. Elizabeth Thiel. New York: Routledge, 2008. 216 pages. £60 (hardback).

What is “family”? It looks like a simple question, but is not. I have a family, so I should know what it is. But when I mull it over, maybe I have two families – my present family and the one I grew up in? And what about the family dog? My children insist that it is a (non-human) member. It turns out that even a hum-drum, normative version of family-life is subject to the slipperiness of the F-word. Moreover, if we look at how it has been used over time, as Raymond Williams does in Keywords, the picture becomes even more complex. All one can say in the end is that “family” is a term we use for primary relationships formed either through more or less close kinship, or religious or political affiliation, or simply by living under the same roof. Yet, for most people in the West (including myself) the first impulse, apparently, is to narrowly equate family with a married, heterosexual couple living in the same house with their children. Indeed, this notion of the ideal family continues to be used as a touch­stone for all other family constellations and relationships, even (or perhaps particularly so) when they depart from the norm the most. More than so, “family,” has become a talisman, which can be invoked against all kinds of social ills in contemporary society.

This preoccupation with family matters makes us all “late Victorians,” to borrow Elizabeth Thiel’s expression in The Fantasy of Family. It was Victorian writers, not least female authors of children’s books, who formulated the “fantasy of family” which is still with us today. The primary texts referred to in Thiel’s study are by Hesba Stretton, “Brenda,” Lucy Lane Clifford, Harriet Childe-Pemberton, Caroline Birley, Charlotte M. Yonge, Mary Louisa Molesworth, Ismay Thorn, and Catherine Sinclair. Some of them are well-known, like Clifford’s “The New Mother,” others have been rescued from oblivion, like Birley’s We are Seven. They are all concerned with what Thiel calls the “transnormative family,” a term she uses to cover all those family units that exist “in opposition to the ‘natural’ and ‘complete’ family” (8).

One chapter focuses on street-children (“street-arabs”), another on “cursed” step­mothers, and a third on uncles and aunts in foster family stories. The “street-arab” tales are concerned with the “rescue” of destitute children from impoverished conditions and malfunctioning “natural” families, into the bosom of middle-class domesticity. An underlying paradox in these narratives is that the very ideology that shows these children what a real family should be like, makes them abandon their original but squalid family conditions and provides them with a family that is normative in its ideals but transnormative in its composition. Thus, Jessica, in Jessica’s First Prayer (by Hesba Stretton) is saved, both in worldly and other-worldly terms, by a churchwarden and consequently leaves her abusive mother. It is hinted that she will be later taken up, presumably as a servant, by the family of the minister in the church she attends. Both the chapter on stepmothers and the one on uncles and aunts dwell on the problems and dangers inherent in replacing the mother and (to a lesser extent) the father. Stepmothers are damned by default; the fairy-tale stereotype is often challenged initially, but is ultimately reinforced. Other surrogate parents fare better, especially uncles. They are usually more fun than real fathers (here Uncle David in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House is the best example) but they are still someone to reckon with. The spinster aunt, on the other hand, has already proven through her half-status as an old maid that she is less reliable and attractive than the real thing, a mother.

Each of Thiel’s analyses are thought-provoking and incisive; together they demonstrate the breadth and depth of the representation of family in Victorian times. I miss, at times, side glances at other genres, like the “governess novel” (in the chapter on stepmothers) or references and comparisons to male children’s writers like George MacDonald. Neither am I entirely convinced that “transnormative” is a felicitous coinage. Maybe it is just the novelty of it, but it seems to me that it inscribes and thus justifies the very norm that it questions – i.e. a Victorian (middle-class) notion of family. Furthermore, the texts seem to be as much about transnormative behaviour – in children, uncles, aunts, mothers and stepmothers – as about transnormative families.

These minor reservations aside, The Fantasy of Family is an important and original contribution to the field, as lucidly written as it is admirably researched. The chapter on the role of women authors (“Mother, Ally, Friend or Foe? The ‘dependable’ female author as one of the family”), which follows the chapters just discussed, is particularly illuminating, showing how textual and historical criticism can be fruitfully joined. Thiel contends that Victorian women writers responded in what may seem surprisingly modern ways to the bleak realities of orphanages, step-parenting, street children, and social injustice, often confronting and subverting (consciously or not) the tenets of the family credo. Paradoxically, they could do so from their vantage point within the patriarchal system, where family, of course, was (and is) a cornerstone. As women writers they were per definition caring and empathic and allowed a voice. Finally, in an inspiring conclusion, Thiel shows how children’s authors today, like J.K. Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Susanne Bosche, echo (although sometimes discordantly) some of the sentiments voiced in Victorian children’s literature.

Björn Sundmark
Malmö School of Education, Sweden