Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Talia Schaffer

Committee Members

Rachel Brownstein

Anne Humpherys

Subject Categories



children; custody; law; literature; nineteenth-century; personhood


Why are nineteenth-century literary narratives filled with children's accounts of bad parents, dead parents, absent parents, and surrogate parents? What are the origins of our current preoccupation with children as evidenced, for example, in Ian McEwan's new novel, The Children Act; New York State's recent amendments to the name and role of "Attorney for the Child"; and today's vehement debates over parenting styles? The mid-nineteenth century was a period of intense preoccupation with "the child": it engendered family law; it generated an explosion of representations of children in art and literature; and it witnessed the beginnings of the scientific study of childhood. Knowing Children/Children Knowing: Nineteenth-Century British Child Law and Literature pursues the relatively uncharted relation between nineteenth-century Anglo-American child law reform and Victorian literary representations of childhood and childhood consciousness, arguing that this relation is the origin of our present concerns. Examining issues of childhood and personhood, freedom, and choice, and using primary literary, legal, and historical sources, I argue that novelists and autobiographers used changes in the law as a creative opportunity, engaging legal debates about children in their plots, in their forms, and in their portrayals of childhood. These narratives, when read in their historical context, mark a change in the understanding and representation of childhood that anticipate contemporary thinking about child welfare. Correlatively, these historical roots give us a lens through which to see and understand formal literary invention.

This project begins to fill a gap in the disciplinary intersection of Victorian family law and literature. In a 2007 Victorian Literature and Culture review of law and literature criticism, Simon Petch proclaimed that "Victorian Studies seems to have gained very little from the Law and Literature movement," because of the movement's narrow focus on a handful of texts. Much law and literature criticism has two main issues: it is oftentimes ahistorical and, as Petch points out, it treats "literature" as "culture." For example, Kieran Dolin's work is based on his assumption that law, like literature, is a fiction. Ian Ward, writing as a member of the legal academy," notes that the "'law and literature' movement has been nurtured in the main, from within this academy," and challenges literary scholars to take up this relationship. Although there has been work on divorce law in the nineteenth century and much work done on "the child" by literary critics, these two are rarely considered together: custody law is most often viewed as a by-product of divorce reform and understood primarily as an expansion of a wife's rights developed by Victorian suffragism. Likewise, in this context, literary representations of the child are often treated as part of the marriage and/or divorce plot or of "the woman question." I present an alternative history, arguing that literary treatments of the child are primary and generative: the child is not secondary to these other plots but offers us another plot entirely. Child-centric literature participates in new ways of thinking about and structuring families and new ways of organizing narrative form. Maintaining the differences between legal and literary discourses, I read a reciprocal relationship between law and literature concerning children: child-centric literature is both influenced by child law and influences child law. As the law recognized that children have a voice and that childhood interests exist, literature gave expression to the child's voice and interests.

The history of custody law shows us that there is a rhetoric of personhood that developed with specific applications to childhood, which has to do both with the child as such, as well as with the symbolic nature of the child as a figure of fundamental human being-ness. At the same time that the law acknowledged childhood subjectivity, it also considered children as dependents and in need of protection. In response, the court became parens patriae -- literally, "parent of the nation" -- displacing biological parents. By the early twentieth century the conception of the child changed from that of an object of possession to (paradoxically) that of an object in need of guardianship who is also a subject: as a result, children's lives became regulated by the state more than by their parents. The literary works I am examining have a stake in making adults understand the child's perspective and, in doing so, invite the reader to use this as the key to understanding one's own development. Childhood became necessary; it needed to be protected and managed because it was essential in formulating personhood in both real and symbolic ways. As such, childhood is a crucial component of modern identity itself.

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