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Emotional Investments: British Childhood and the Liberal Ideal, 1800-1870


As a focal point of public spectacle and communal enjoyment, the Victorian sentimentalized child has earned considerable scholarly attention, and scholars typically read the good will and fellow feeling of sentimentality in opposition to capitalism’s individualism and rationalism. The sentimentalized child is, according to this line of thinking, a reaction against modernity or a symbol of anti-rational, anti-utilitarian ideals. But to what degree is this child also a product of the individualist, capitalist, and imperialist drives of the mid-nineteenth century? My dissertation examines representations of Victorian children at the intersection of sentimental and economic discourse in order to show their complicity.

Through readings of Dickens novels, Victorian boys’ magazines, radical poetry, and a range of other period texts, I contend that the sentimentalized child relies on bourgeois class assumptions and can only exist because of market forces. At the same time, a capitalist approach to childhood must hide itself in the trappings of sentiment in order to be palatable to the reading public. The sentimental narrative’s excessive suffering and tears can disguise a hidden economic agenda, as the tropes of pathos usually (but not always) come together to enforce a middle-class interpretation of appropriate family and public values. When taken together, these supposedly competing visions of childhood teach the core values of liberalism to the reading subject, who must learn to be hard working and individualistic yet, because of his strong emotional ties to others, able to self-regulate so that he does not become an egotistical menace to the wider community. Taken in a wider context, my project demonstrates that humans’ emotional lives do not exclusively inhabit some private, interior realm; instead, they can bow to economic forces and social pressures, and they frequently conspire towards socio-political ends.

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