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Precocious Children and Childish Adults

Age Inversion in Victorian Literature

Especially evident in Victorian-era writings is a rhetorical tendency to liken adults to children and children to adults. Claudia Nelson examines this literary phenomenon and explores the ways in which writers discussed the child-adult relationship during this period.

Though far from ubiquitous, the terms "child-woman," "child-man," and "old-fashioned child" appear often enough in Victorian writings to prompt critical questions about the motivations and meanings of such generational border crossings. Nelson carefully considers the use of these terms and connects invocations of age inversion to developments in post-Darwinian scientific thinking and attitudes about gender roles, social class, sexuality, power, and economic mobility.

She brilliantly analyzes canonical works of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, William Makepeace Thackeray, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson alongside lesser-known writings to demonstrate the diversity of literary age inversion and its profound influence on Victorian culture.

By considering the full context of Victorian age inversion, Precocious Children and Childish Adults illuminates the complicated pattern of anxiety and desire that creates such ambiguity in the writings of the time. Scholars of Victorian literature and culture, as well as readers interested in children’s literature, childhood studies, and gender studies, will welcome this excellent work from a major figure in the field.

About the Author

Claudia Nelson is a professor of English at Texas A&M University and author or editor of a number of books, including Family Ties in Victorian England; Invisible Men: Fatherhood in Victorian Periodicals, 1850–1910; the award-winning Little Strangers: Portrayals of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850–1929; and Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminine Ethic and British Children’s Fiction.

Reviews

"Nelson dips into a variety of 19th-century works, mostly novels, to examine the effort writersmade—through youthful characters but also through adults who refuse to grow up—to change society, especially to alter the way children were raised in Victorian England... The range of works is considered extensive and the book is convincing and readable."

- Choice

"The chief value of her study is probably in its insights into individual texts, which will be of great interest to children's literature specialists and Dickens scholars in particular. But it is well worth considering these larger implications, and Victorianists in general will find the book both richly informative and thought-provoking."

- Jacqueline Banerjee - The Victorian Web

"Precocious Children and Childish Adults certainly makes an important contribution to Victorian children's studies, but it also contributes more broadly to the study of gender, identity, race, class, and empire in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Indeed, while the 'queering of age' at first seems a narrow concern, Nelson quickly reveals it to be an extraordinarily useful lens through which to observe the breakdown of all sorts of categories through which to see the entire period with new clarity."

- Virginia Zimmerman - Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies

"Claudia Nelson's enlightening study compels the reader to investigate the vexed and often unrecognised exchanges between childhood to adulthood in Victorian literature and culture."

- Rebecca Brown - Victoriographies

"Sharp, articulate, erudite, and theoretically nuanced."

- The Year's Work in English Studies

"The book offers a highly nuanced and evocative interpretive project that assembles cases from a variety of texts, including children's tales and adult fiction, in different registers and with diverse audiences. Nelson also engages contemporaneous theories of psychological development. In sheer breadth of coverage, the book is inspiring. It is a slim volume with great volume."

- Karen Chase - Nineteenth-Century Literature

"Precocious Children lays a solid foundation for its claim that age inversion as a category is at least as important as gender or class in understanding the cultural dynamic of the era. Each chapter evinces extensive grounding in historical and critical writing about the texts under consideration."

- Naomi Wood - Children's Literature

"This text is essential reading for anyone interested in transcending static, simplistic constructs of Victorian childhood. Nelson's study provides a necessary framework with which to navigate the worldly-wise and the young at heart in nineteenth-century fiction."

- Katherine Wakely-Mulroney - International Research in Children's Literature

"Precocious Children and Childish Adults is a powerful argument for the inclusion of age in literary analysis, and a study that is sure to generate a new body of work, not only among Victorian scholars but among all scholars interested in literature and childhood, from any time period and continent."

- Emily Hamilton-Honey - Kritikon Litterarum

Endorsements

"A fascinating, capacious, and transformative study. Occasionally, I read a book that I know will change what I see in the world and in literature. This is one of those books."

- Teresa Mangum, University of Iowa
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9781421405346 : precocious-children-and-childish-adults-nelson
Hardback
224 Pages
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