Victorian Popular Fiction Association Study Day

Report on The Threatened Child in Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction and Culture

Ailise Bulfin and Leanne Waters

Friday 20th Sept, Humanities Institute, University College Dublin   @VPFA1    #VPFAChildren

Augustus Mulready’s ‘From Morn til Night’ Illustrated Police News, the abduction of Fanny Adams

The Study Day opened informally with an evening walking tour of Victorian Gothic Dublin focusing on the haunts of Dublin’s famous gothic trio Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, with Oscar Wilde of course getting a mention. Here we learned, among other things, that Stoker briefly lived in a building that now houses Top Shop on Dublin’s famous Stephen’s Green, which itself had been an 18th century site of public executions and skulduggery, but was opened to the public as a beautiful park just around the time Stoker was living there. The Study Day also received a little pre-opening radio coverage, with Ailise Bulfin exploring the rationale behind it on Luke Clancy’s ‘Culture File’, part one and part two.

The Study Day formally opened with Kathryn Hughes’s wonderful if harrowing keynote, ‘Sweet Fanny Adams: “Nothing, Vacuity”’ (glossary of WW1 Soldiers’ Slang)’, documenting one of the nineteenth-century’s most notorious child murders. It tracked events from the discovery of eight year old Fanny Adams’ remains scattered over a Hampshire field on a summer’s day in 1867 to the transformation of the child’s name in popular culture to ‘Sweet FA’ meaning ‘nothing at all’ in subsequent years.  Hughes discussed how Fanny Adams essentially disappeared twice: first on that infamous afternoon in 1867, and subsequently in the endless re-telling, embellishment, reduction and appropriation of both her name and her brutalised body. She documented how reportage of the crime drew on three existing templates to try to make sense of it: previous true crime reporting, with its habitual deployment of melodramatic tropes; the little red riding hood fairy tale narrative, with its implicit sexual threat; and emerging Darwinian understandings of both working-class and child atavism, so that aspersions were even cast on Adams herself. Hughes engaged in a thought-provoking counter-history imagining if Adams had been allowed to live following her sexual assault – how she herself would have been put on trial, and how submerged existing concerns about her being too developed for her age (and therefore having led on her attacker Frederick Baker) would have been to the fore. Hughes also observed how the discursive response to Adam’s experience turned it into a ‘story’, which itself became a template for other stories which circulated in the press and, as the discussion subsequently suggested, was also deployed in gothic fiction. In working to uncover the erasure of the girl behind the name, Hughes’ talk helped to undo that erasure and to bring the child herself and her embodied experience back to the centre of our consideration.

Freeman’s ghost child        Baby-farming

Panel 1 – ‘Salvation and damnation’, chaired by Michelle O’Connell, opened with Nicholas Daly on ‘The Orphan Paintings of Augustus Edwin Mulready’. Daly described Mulready’s radiant orphans as the spectacle of the urban poor turned into drama and story for a middle-class audience, again using melodramatic conventions of sharp contrasts. He also discussed the sexualisation of the ‘innocent’ child figures both implicitly through known associations between flower-selling and prostitution, and more explicitly in some of Mulready’s later, darker paintings. Next up was Jen Baker speaking on ‘Abused Bodies and Tormented Souls: The Threat to Child Salvation in the Nineteenth Century’, which highlighted the tension between nineteenth-century views of child death as merciful salvation and fears that the child’s happiness might still be threatened, or indeed they themselves might be threatening in the afterlife. As well as looking at Mary E. Freeman’s ‘The Lost Ghost’ (1903), she gave the chilling example of M. R. James’s ‘The Lost Hearts’ (1895), in which two poor children who are murdered so their hearts can be eaten return to haunt their murderer. Finally Kath Beal gave an equally chilling paper on ‘Amelia Dyer – Baby Farmer and Murderer’. Beal set the scene with a discussion of the social conditions which permitted the ordinary abuses of baby-farming, before documenting the crimes of Dyer, who murdered hundreds of infants in her care and confessed to enjoying it. She suggested that the killings were not properly policed because of the children’s working-class status, and the possibility that this was seen as a tacit solution to the pressing social problem of large numbers of potentially criminal working class children. In the productive Q&A afterwards, the sheer numbers of working class children present in nineteenth-century society was discussed in relation to the threatened and threatening child’s prominent position in the era’s popular cultural production.

Panel 2 – ‘Children’s literature and poetry’, chaired by Dara Downey opened with Ryan S. Lopez on ‘Castles in the Air: The Victorian Princess and the Rescuing Imagination’. Lopez began by discussing emerging psychological understandings of childhood reverie, or “castle-building,” as a direct cause of mental derangement in adulthood. He then considered how one strand of Victorian children’s fiction offered a far more positive view of imagination, focusing on George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872) in which imagination acts as salvation for the child facing abduction and forced marriage. Wendy Mooney followed with ‘William Allingham’s “The Fairies” (1849) and the helplessness of Irish Victorian children’, which examined the disturbing contexts underlying the account of the fairies’ theft of ‘little Bridget’ in this well-loved children’s poem. Mooney outlined how Allingham’s poem was written in 1849, following two decades in which the abduction of young girls for forced marriage was a notable social problem in rural Ireland. Finally, Ailise Bulfin closed the panel with a paper examining the covert depiction of child sexual abuse in late-Victorian gothic fiction, focusing on female villains and positing that the recurrent trope of child ritual sacrifice in this set of texts functioned as an extreme device to other the abuser.

  The Princess and the Goblin  Stealing ‘little Bridget’ in ‘The Fairies’

Panel 3 – ‘Fin de siècle and beyond’, chaired by Nicholas Daly, opened with Leanne Waters discussing ‘The suffering of Christly children in bestselling religious fiction’. Waters examined the uses of melodramatic conventions to attempt to produce readerly affect in religious-themed bestsellers, and, in particular, the deployment of suffering children for didactic or proselytising purposes. Next Sharon Murphy’s paper, ‘“[A] hungry, ragged, and forsaken little boy”: The Significance of the Street Arab in The Moonstone, The Sign of Four, and Kim’, discussed the recurrent but overlooked figure of the ‘street arab’ in late-Victorian popular fiction. Murphy highlighted the callous deployment of this disposable child figure for plot purposes in Collins’s and Doyle’s texts, just as their characters exploit these boys for cheap labour. Finally, Jennifer Smith took us forward to the present day with her paper, ‘The Threatened Child, Shapeshifting, and Gender: Uncanny Bedfellows in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices Trilogy’. Smith argued that the recurrent deployment of nineteenth-century tropes of the threatened (female) child in the series limit the agency of its protagonist, thus cutting against its main ideological thrust.

  The ‘forsaken little boy’ in The Moonstone    Cassandra Clare’s threatened Tessa character

Our thanks again go to all our speakers, chairs and supporters – the Victorian Popular Fiction Association, the UCD School of English, Drama and Film, the UCD Humanities Institute and the UCD Seed Funding Scheme.