Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: The Nineteenth Century Child and Consumer Culture

Dennis Denisoff (ed.) The Ninteenth-Century Child and Consumer Culture. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. ISBN 9780754661566.

Reviewer: David Beagley

Like so many adults today - parents, teachers, concerned onlookers - I rail against the extremes of modern commercial exploitation of children.

The blatant invention of the ‘tween’ fashion market with dolls and clothes aping decades older sexuality, movie tie-in trinkets with burger meals combining the twin evils of fashion fad and junk food, merciless promotion of unnecessary texting/downloading/blogging/online networking (all at premium rates!)  - “Why can’t they just be left to be children!!” we cry, outraged at the modern free-market’s profiteering from the guileless innocence of children.

But we would do well to remember that John Newbery, in 1743, advertised his first best seller, A Little Pretty Pocket Book, as coming with the bonus of giveaway trinkets “ a BALL and PINCUSHION, the Use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good Boy and Polly a good Girl”.  While he was pioneering children’s book publishing under the guiding principles of John Locke’s theories of childhood and education, he was also establishing brand loyalty as a key marketing tool by repeatedly encouraging his readers to remember “your friend at St Paul’s churchyard” and unashamedly cross-promoting his other product, St James Fever Powder (the lack of which causes the death of Little Goody Two-Shoes’ father!).

Children’s literature, indeed the modern concept of childhood, as a public and commercial institution was in its infancy and growing at the same time as Adam Smith was writing The Wealth of Nations and theorising the laissez faire commercialism of the Industrial Revolution and the modern age.  Is it any wonder that the two are inextricably entwined?

Did you know that just a century later, Charles Dodson (Lewis Carroll) licensed Wonderland postage stamp holders and Through the Looking Glass biscuit tins as commercial spin-offs from his Alice books? 

The Nineteenth Century Child and Consumer Culture is a wide-ranging exploration of the attitudes toward, and the treatment of, children in mid-late 19th century Britain and America.  Part of Ashgate’s Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the present series, it is a collection of tightly focussed studies of the 19th century child as consumer, as commodity and as social construct.  The essays cover the construction of these perceptions of the Victorian child in and through literature, play, work, commerce, politics, gender, sexuality, even unto death. 

Dennis Denisoff theorises the collection strongly in his introduction and places the tone of the whole work firmly in sociological analysis, particularly emphasising the themes of consumerism and gender construction.  This is a strong element of the book as it clearly links and contextualises the wide range of topics canvassed by the essays.  It is also essential as the tight focus of most of the essays can leave some connections rather tenuous at first sight.

Twelve essays are grouped in four thematic sections: Play Things – toys and theatre, Consuming Desires, Adulthood and Nationhood, and The Terrors of Cultural Consumption.  This leads to some interesting juxtapositions, as Michele Mendelssohn’s study of Henry James’ sexualization of the Victorian girl sits alongside Carol Mavor’s essay on eating and food in Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, followed by Richard Kaye on the decadence of the Salome character through Wilde and Jugendstil culture.

Mendelssohn’s piece typifies the whole collection.  It is a well constructed argument that draws on an extensive list of scholarship, makes its points about girls on the marriage market (especially well-connected wards and orphans) emphatically and with appropriate textual evidence, and is clearly referenced and footnoted.  But it is also extremely limited in its application – only 2 James stories are examined in detail – and it misses an opportunity to explore so many other possibilities.  Under such a general heading as “The Nineteenth Century Child”, two single characters in fin de siècle stories are hardly demonstrative evidence of a whole century’s attitudes.

Given the number of high profile literary examples of girls being groomed for the market, from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice early in the age, through Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend in the middle, even to Cosette in Hugo’s Les Miserables, contemporary with James, the issue is clearly not just one of literary analysis, but should resonate loudly in the sociological terms that drive nearly all of the studies.

Our Mutual Friend does receive a strong examination, but it is in terms of orphans and adoption, and the commodification of these children in need, in Tamara Wagner’s “ ‘We have orphans […] in stock’: crime and the consumption of sensational children”.  Wagner shows the strong links that Dickens' plot structure and characterizations have to the mass-market sensationalist serials of the time with their gothic settings, lost heirs, pitiful death scenes and first glimmers of the crime-thriller genre.  She established the helplessness of the child players in these dramas, as the adults seem all either rapacious or mysterious (for their own purposes). 

However, again, there seems a lost opportunity in the tight focus and limits of this essay.  Two characters (both unusual in the Dickens stable) make a real point of difference between Our Mutual Friend and other sensation/inheritance novels of the time, and even the rest of the Dickens canon.  Bella Wilfer is one of the few (perhaps even the only) of Dickens’ females who develops as a person through the story; she makes mistakes, learns, adapts and emerges stronger and better.  As an example of the “trained for the marriage market” character, she actually shows some agency in her role in the story and does not allow herself to fit the pre-determined mould.  Similarly, Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker, might appear a typical Dickensian exotic at first, but she is realistic in her outlook, unimpressed by the machinations and poses of the main characters, and deserves our sympathy for what she is, rather than pity for what she lacks.  While both Mendelssohn’s and Wagner’s studies have challenging and effective insights and work their themes well, these two characters alone could have offered both pieces some interesting opportunities had they been allowed to take the scope of the articles just a little wider.

Dickens is viewed from another perspective in Liz Farr’s “Paper Dreams and Romantic Projections: the nineteenth-century toy theatre, boyhood and Aesthetic play.”  The influence of the immensely popular pursuit of constructing toy theatres and populating them with garishly coloured in figures acting in melodramatic stories is plotted through not just Dickens but Robert Louis Stevenson and GK Chesterton as well.  Farr explains how this was a overwhelmingly male pastime, with the girls of the nursery relegated to the role of audience or, at best, inkers-in of the printed templates and occasional stage hand duties if allowed.  Paradoxically, this exercise of typical (and socially expected) male authority and domination worked to allow one of the few avenues for aesthetic and artistic expression in the world of the Victorian teenage boy.  In their adult years Dickens, Chesterton and Stevenson all noted their love of the pastime and Farr tracks the influences in their work: exposure to folktales, 'staginess' in storylines, extremes of character and setting for example.

Ymitri Mathison picks up this idea of staged dramas, and the use of props in particular, in her “Maps, Pirates and Treasure: the commodification of imperialism in nineteenth-century boys’ adventure fiction”.  She makes very useful connections in these terms between Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines taking the fantasy of this ‘play’ into the realities of imperial service and its basis in exploitation of wealth.

Very useful themes for comparison also come in Claudia Nelson's “Adult Children's Literature in Victorian Britain”. The Crossover Novel - an ostensibly children's story read and enjoyed by adults - is becoming a prominent phenomenon again, driven (like so much else!) by Harry Potter. Nelson examines not only the published fiction of the early Victorian age but also the use of its forms and structures in adult targeted texts, especially the self-help manuals aimed at the working classes. Maria Edgeworth's earnest education aims through literature and stories and the popularity of the Sandford and Merton episodes are seen as typical of adult control of children's books, though not necessarily sacrificing quality for didacticism: "What drives the point home for the reader is less Edgeworth's evident faith in the utility of the lessons than the way she embeds them in story and personality, which, as in Smile's work, gives them emotional weight." (p. 143)

The twelve essays in The Nineteenth Century Child and Consumer Culture are not all about literature – they are sociological examinations of an historical period that has both evolutionary and exemplary links with our own time.  In the main they consider the attitudes of adults to the child as a social concept, and the behaviours that those attitudes engendered – usually exploitative, authoritative and as a means to the adult’s ends.  There is very little of the voice of children here, partly because it was simply not heard much at the time but partly, too, because this collection is a study of attitudes and choices, rather than events, times and examples.  This could be seen as a limit and, as noted, several of the essays would appear to miss (or reject) possible opportunities to take their ideas into a broader frame. This is not, though, a general criticism of the text as those ‘missed opportunities’ should, in reality, be the reader’s response.

In telling the story of nineteenth-century children, and how their world of products, consumption, commodities and exploitation was not that different to that of modern children, The Nineteenth Century Child and Consumer Culture provides intriguing insights through wide ranging examples of everyday elements.  Each essay has a strong and effective base in scholarship, while Denisoff provides an embracing conceptualisation of the time and the sociological and economic attitudes that are explored.

While literature is not the collection’s key focus, this book provides challenging interpretations for readers to take into their own considerations of the age and its texts.  While it is not quite "plus la change, plus la même chose", it certainly sets up a strong framework for our consideration of both the past of the Victorian Age and the present of Bratz and Barbie.


David Beagley

Volume 13, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2009

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