A Quiet Rebellion: The Portrait of the Female in Victorian Children's Fantasy

Edith Lazaros Honig, Fordham University


The picture of the Victorian female that has been handed down to us is that of the Angel in the House—submissive, domesticated, and content with her limited lot. It is a picture that the adult fiction of the Victorian era does little to dispel. Independence and assertiveness, when they rear their ugly heads, are roundly condemned and soon put down. Yet in the twentieth century a totally different fictional portrait emerges—that of the liberated, modern female. Where did she come from? Certainly there were social advances, but what literary link exists between the Victorian and the modern fictional woman? The bright and independent Alice of Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland suggests that children's literature, more specifically children's fantasy, might provide the strong, liberated females who would bridge the gap between the nineteenth century Angel and the twentieth century feminist. Children's fantasy was clearly influential because of its extreme popularity during the Victorian era, a time that was indeed proclaimed the Golden Age of Children's Literature by virtue of the many fantasies published during the period from about 1840 to 1910. Moreover, fantasy, like myth, reaches out to the unconscious of the reader where a subliminal feminist message could readily be implanted without inciting overt rebellion. After all, fantasies need not reflect reality. They can create worlds with their own rules. A thorough study of historical and critical overviews of Victorian children's literature and the reading of hundreds of original Victorian children's fantasies made it clear that a statistical approach to the problem of the presentation of the female in Victorian children's fantasy would be both unscholarly and unprofitable. It was therefore determined to limit the study to critical readings of major children's fantasies with female characters--primarily the works of Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Mary Louisa Molesworth, Edith Nesbit, and James Barrie, with references to other relevant works. The study was divided into portraits of mothers, spinsters, girls, and magical women. These portraits proved to be startling for the Victorian era. Mothers, whose nurturing presence one would expect to find, were often absent from the scene. Spinsters were admirable, useful women rather than embittered old maids. Girls were intelligent and assertive, not squeamish and subdued. And magical women were not witches, but positive figures of great power. Victorian children's fantasy was fostering a quiet rebellion, one that held out great hope for the equality of the sexes because it worked in a magical way on the minds and hearts of future generations.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Honig, Edith Lazaros, "A Quiet Rebellion: The Portrait of the Female in Victorian Children's Fantasy" (1985). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8521393.