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Date of Award

Spring 2012

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Department of English

Abstract

In this paper, I explore the evolving conceptions of childhood and motherhood as expressed in Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature generally, and specifically in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. An overview of the history of children’s literature and its development with relation to the changing cultural concept of childhood, as well as a discussion of social, economic, and creative factors impacting the ideological position of women at the turn of the 20th century provide the necessary background for said exploration. A variety of primary and secondary sources relating to relevant social history, artistic and literary movements, and the specific authors were consulted to ascertain the prevalent and emerging attitudes about women and children, and to determine how these were manifested in the books mentioned above. The woman as the “Angel of the House” and the child as innocent were prevailing ideologies embraced in both America and Britain at the time. All three authors incorporate these ideas into their work, but each appropriates them uniquely, revealing personal biases. For Alcott and Burnett, the mother characters function as spokespersons for the metaphysical beliefs of the authors. Little Women retains traces of the Puritanical preoccupation with sin while simultaneously reflecting Alcott’s progressive social attitudes resulting from her Transcendental roots. Marmee March embodies this duality by both advocating and challenging conventional femininity. Influenced by New Thought, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, Burnet adopts a hopeful view in which mothers, represented chiefly by the Madonna-like Mrs. Sowerby, and children are collaborators in bringing about physical and mental healing. Barrie’s approach to the mother-child relation, rather than metaphysical, is gendered and semi-erotic. He depicts a sustained tension between innocence (the child) and experience (the mother). Wendy Darling functions as the girl-mother through which Barrie probes the schisms between child and adult, male and female. Together, the three highlighted works provide a fairly comprehensive representation of the cults of childhood and the household angel as manifested in The Golden Age of children’s literature.

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