Undead children : reconsidering death and the child figure in late nineteenth-century fiction
Crockford, Alison Nicole
The Victorian obsession with the child is also often, in the world of literary criticism at least, an obsession with death, whether the death of the child itself or simply the inevitable death of childhood as a seemingly Edenic state of being. This study seeks to consider the way in which the child figure, in texts by four authors published at the end of the nineteenth century, is aligned with an inversion of this relationship. For Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, George MacDonald, and Henry James, the child is bound up instead with un-death, with a construction of death which seeks to remove the finitude, even the mortality, of death itself, or else a death which is expected or anticipated, yet always deferred. While in “The Child in the House” (1878) and “Emerald Uthwart” (1892), Pater places the child at the nexus of his construction of a death which is, rather than a finite ending, a return or a re-beginning, Lee's interest in the child figure's unique access to a world of art, explored in “The Child in the Vatican” (1883) and “Christkindchen” (1897) culminates in a dazzling vision of aesthetic transcendence with “Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child” (1906). MacDonald, for whom death is already never really death, uses the never-dead child figure in At The Back of the North Wind (1871) and Lilith (1895) as an embodiment of his own distinct engagement with aestheticism, as well as a means by which to express the simultaneous anticipation and depression he experienced in contemplation of death. Finally James, in What Maisie Knew (1897), explores the child's inherent monstrosity as he crafts the possibility of a childhood which consciously refuses to die. This study explores a trajectory in which the child’s place within such reconsiderations of death grows increasingly intense, reaching an apex with MacDonald’s fantastic worlds, before considering James’s problematisation of the concept of the un-dead child in What Maisie Knew.
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