Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Victorian Children and their Representation in Literature

"Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of churchwardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder”. This is one of the lines that readers can find in the first chapter of Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens, and with which I would like to start this entry about children in the Victorian period and how they are represented in literature. First, I will provide explain some background about the Victorian period and literature and then I will address some texts or excerpts of this era and talk about children and their representation in literature such as Oliver Twist and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

As we know, the Victorian period begins in 1837 with the reign of Queen Victoria and ends in 1901. The period is known by a huge growth in population, improvements in technology, ways of viewing the world, and poor conditions for the working class. Literature was an important field of the era and novels and long works about society and all these aspects of everyday Victorian life were published. One of the aspects of society written in literature is the one regarding children and childhood, and with child labour and education, children literature starts being developed by writers such as Lewis Carroll. The Victorian period was a society dominated by children. Child labour was a fact, and this is shown in works such as Oliver Twist. Gavin says that “the dual influence of Romantic linking of childhood with the imagination and of Victorian writers like Dickens highlighting the importance of fantasy for children gave rise to the Golden Age of British children’s literature” (2012, 9). 

I have decided to establish the difference between two kinds of children represented in the Victorian period. On one hand, we have the poor, working-class or ill child prototype, such as Oliver Twist or Tiny Tim. On the other hand, we have the child belonging to a higher class level, such as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, more related to the fantasy topic.

Gavin says that “childhood in Victorian texts for adults […] was a vulnerable, often painful, powerless state, frequently lonely, with the child portrayed as a victim of adult power, emotional or physical brutality, social neglect, illness, and early death” (2012, 9). This is shown in Dickens’s novels and tales. Poor Victorian children lived in misery, in small houses. They did not have expensive toys or clothes, and they had to work to be able to feed. Oliver Twist was a poor child whose mother died and whose father was absent. He spends several years in a workhouse for orphans, where he is mistreated. Dickens shows the injustice and the way children were mistreated in excerpts like the following:

’Please, sir, I want some more.’
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
’What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice. 

You can watch this moment in a scene from one of the film adaptations of Oliver Twist:

Previously, the children of the workhouse had held a council in which they chose who should ask for more food, since they suffered the tortures of slow starvation. Oliver is the one who does it despite the consequences that this behaviour could have. The master looks stupefied at him as if he had asked for the impossible, representing how adults were oppressors and how they mistreated children only because they thought they had the right to do so. Poverty led to hunger and hunger led to work or crime. Children used to work on farms, in homes as servants, and in factories. They also worked as chimney sweeps. In the following pictures, we can see children working as chimney sweeps, smoking as if they were adults, or as pickpockets committing crime. Striking, isn’t it?

Children play an important role in Dickens’s stories. An example of this is the character of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, the main character of the story, is a bitter, old man whose only concern is his business. He hates generosity and happiness, and he considers himself superior to the poor people. The poor conditions of the children, the starvation, and the child labour are also addressed in the book. The difference between upper (Scrooge) and low (Tiny Tim) classes are established.

‘God bless us every one.’ said Tiny Tim, the last of all.
He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.
‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, ‘tell me if Tiny Tim will live.’
‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.’
     ‘No, no,’ said Scrooge. ‘Oh, no, kind Spirit. say he will be spared.’

Tiny Tim, an ill and poor child, plays an important role in the character development of Scrooge. Malkovich describes Tiny Tim’s character and importance by saying:

Tiny Tim tells us we should be happy, no matter what our lot in life brings. Yet Tiny Tim is, like many Dickens’s characters, an imperfect child. It is the fairylike quality of his nature that makes him memorable to us, even if it is sweeter than sugarplums at Christmas. Readers first see Tiny Tim on his father’s shoulder, but Dickens points out, “Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!”. While there is a semblance of helplessness in Tiny Tim’s physical frame, he is like a family Jiminy Cricket who ultimately keeps up the family’s spirits in the face of their poverty and helps melts Scrooge’s icy, miserly heart.
                                (2012, 44).

Through this Christmas tale, Dickens addressed the miserable conditions of poor children, representing them through the character of Tiny Tim. In the story, if Scrooge does not change and becomes more generous, Tiny Tim will die. This might be seen as a moral message regarding the differences between social classes. If wealthy people do not help the poor, the misery of the latter will continue increasing and they will never stop struggling with the hard conditions that characterize their lives. The concept of generosity with a Christmas environment is enough to make a story so successful, with several film adaptations that people never get tired of watching. 

Now, I would like to give an example of the opposite kind of Victorian child than we have seen in Oliver and Tiny Tim. Wealthy Victorian children used to be spoiled and they did not have to go through the poor life conditions of the poor. They were given good quality clothes and toys, and were able to attend school and be part of the educational system. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an example of the child belonging to an upper social class. However, even if Alice does not live in poor conditions, the character goes through a journey of learning and Carroll presents another kind of Victorian children, as Wood says:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) hold in suspension the tensions between defining the child as idealized other and the culpable object, to be beaten if necessary to fit the form. Carroll’s choice of nonsense mode to render the contradictions of Victorian childhood signals a new approach to the problem, one that conjoins idealism and realism.
                           (2012, 123).

These children were taught protocol and manners, especially girls. Wood says that “[…] Alice knows that she is expected to behave according to the codes appropriate to her superior social status” but “[…] Alice is confident about her knowledge of proper protocols for conversation and general behaviour. Alice converses with her inferiors and rebukes violations of etiquette as her right” (2012, 125). We usually see in the novel how she behaves or address others depending on the way she has been taught. For instance, in the tea party:

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
     Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “ I don ’t see any wine,” she remarked.
     “There isn ’t any,” said the March Hare.
     “Then it wasn ’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.

I am pretty sure you must have watched the adaptation of the Disney film:

Finally, I would like to highlight again the difference between the behaviour of the adults and the children in Victorian period. Alice is not ill like Tiny Tom and she does not have to work like Oliver. Therefore, she was not oppressed in society and mistreated by adults like the two boys were. However, several allusions to behaving like an adult are shown in excerpts like the following:

“Who are you ?” said the Caterpillar.
     This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
      “ What do you mean by that ?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “ Explain yourself !”
      “ I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
      “I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
      “ I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can ’t understand it myself to begin with ; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

We can see here that Alice feels lost and that she does not know who she is anymore, maybe referring in a subtle way to how difficult growing up when she says “and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing”. Children were below adults hierarchically speaking. For instance, when Alice eats the mushroom, she gains height, and Wood says that “becoming large at will would appear to offer Alice the means to dominate others, negating one of the chief reasons adults have power over children” (2012, 127-128).

In conclusion, both poor and rich children were represented in Victorian literature, but writers of both kinds of characters intended to portray childhood in a way that could be connected to the events happening in the period and that could raise elements of reality such as hunger, child labour, illness, or simply questions about oneself in the process of learning and growing up. Alice is written in a context of fantasy, whereas Oliver and Tiny Tim are written in a context of harsh society and difficulties, both works presenting two kinds of child representation in the Victorian literature.

Maria Lopez.


· Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London: Perpetua Books, 1961. Print.
· Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
· Gavin, Adrienne E. Introduction. The Child in British Literature. By Gavin. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 1-18. Print.
· Lewis, Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan, 1901. Print.
· Malkovich, Amberyl. Charles Dickens and the Victorian Child: Romanticizing and Socializing the Imperfect Child. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.
· Wood, Naomi. “Angelic, Atavistic, Human: The Child of the Victorian Period”. In The Child in British Literature: Literary Constructions of Childhood, Medieval to Contemporary. Ed. Adrienne E. Gavin. Basingstoke: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2012. 116-130. Print.


  1. Hi Mari,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post! your decision to open the post with a quotation from Oliver Twist really makes your work stand out and instantly engages the reader! Your portrayal of Children through Victorian novels is very clever and I really like how you have not only focused on children from the harsh societal aspect but also through fantasy. Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite children's novels so I may be slightly biased, but I think this is a great blog post!

  2. This was a very fun blog to read. I had never thought about the difference in social standing from the child's perspective before. The videos were placed perfectly and gave great examples of the different circumstances of the children as well as the different way of speaking. Alice certainly spoke with more authority and education than Oliver, yet both were just trying to understand and enjoy childhood.