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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: March 2010

4 - Phantasies of matriarchy in Victorian children's literature


Yet women have a mission! aye, even a political mission of immense importance! which they will best fulfil by moving in the sphere assigned them by Providence; not comet-like, wandering in irregular orbits, dazzling indeed by their brilliancy, but terrifying by their eccentric movements and doubtful utility.

This chapter addresses the maternal in noncanonical children's literature by women as a trope that exposes the blind spot of the dominant Victorian gender ideology. Far from entrenching the feminine within the domestic and private, phantasies of the maternal expose motherhood as the vehicle for a transgressive agency which crosses that artificial divide, the separate spheres of activity. Although children's literature is specifically addressed to children and to mothers who read aloud to them, the literature is inherently interwoven with the nineteenth-century debate about the political valency of motherhood and its pervasive influence upon children. This chapter explores a group of noncanonical children's writers – Maria Louisa Molesworth, Julia Horatia Ewing, Frances Browne, and Jean Ingelow – in terms of the representation of the maternal. In particular, I am interested in the tensions produced by the attempted containment of middle-class women within the domestic sphere, which is contingent upon the assertion of female influence upon children and upon patriarchs in the public sphere.

The children's literature written by these authors does not explicitly address the woman question, nor were the authors in any way actively involved in women's enfranchisement. As a result of her religious convictions, Ingelow firmly rejects supporting the women's movement.