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The Fabian Child: English and American Literature and Socialist Reform, 1884-1915

  • Author(s): Hollander, Amanda Farrell
  • Advisor(s): Bristow, Joseph E.
  • et al.

“The Fabian Child: English and American Literature and Socialist Reform, 1884-1915” intervenes in current scholarship that addresses the impact of Fabian socialism on the arts during the fin de siècle. I argue that three particular Fabian writers—Evelyn Sharp, E. Nesbit, and Jean Webster—had an indelible impact on children’s literature, directing the genre toward less morally didactic and more politically engaged discourse. Previous studies of the Fabian Society have focused on George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb to the exclusion of women authors producing fiction for child readers. After the Fabian Society’s founding in 1884, English writers Sharp and Nesbit, and American author Webster published prolifically and, in their work, direct their socialism toward a critical and deliberate reform of literary genres, including the fairy tale, the detective story, the boarding school novel, adventure yarns, and epistolary fiction.

Chapter One examines Evelyn Sharp’s radical sexual politics and how her many stories elucidate the connections between women’s suffrage and other socialist causes such as housing reform and blood sport. Sharp shows how Victorian ideas of gender performance are often constructed around those who wish to identify or present their gender in a way that diverges from their sex, particularly difficult when generic tropes cast boys and girls in specific, highly delineated roles. Chapter Two tracks the growing socialist impulses of Nesbit’s novels, The Enchanted Castle and Harding’s Luck, which depict children forming friendships across class lines and experimenting narratorially with their own roles as protagonists. Harding’s Luck also, with its disabled hero, shows a growing tension within Fabian socialist thought between the ability of socialism to achieve individualism and a growing fanaticism within the Society for eugenics and collectivism. Chapter Three analyzes how, in the United States, Fabian thought drives the social reform in Jean Webster’s final two novels, Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, both bestsellers that brought debates about institutional reform, female agency, and genetic destiny to the child reader.

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