Monday, 30 January 2012

Thank Heavens for Little Girls

It is a Truth universally acknowledged that all Victorian men were secretly paedophiles. John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, the list is endless and I have heard all of their names, linked at one point or another, with an inappropriate love of little girls. Oh yes, it is another universal truth that all these paedophilic gentlemen were solely interested in little girls. This is one of those subjects that I didn’t realise was a subject until I started to consider what we all believe to be ‘true’. What the hell was going on with middle-class men and little girls in Victorian Britain?

Let’s start with an area I like to think of as Child Worship. It was a bit of a Georgian preoccupation to have an investment and an attachment to your young children. I’m sure parents before 1750 loved their kids, but the rate and horror of child mortality before this period was astonishing so possibly the attitude was a little altered by the uncertainty of your progeny. The Georgians bravely seemed to embrace the potential of their youth and dedicated time and effort into enjoying, moulding, influencing and celebrating their children. For some, this was a risky investment, as the chances of escaping infancy were somewhat shaky, but for the first time you can see glimmers of what we now revel in, the enjoyment of being a parent. Take this painting for example:

It’s Regency Britain, and your gorgeous little girl is skipping around this green and pleasant land with her spaniel, her blonde curls fluttering in the breeze. Bless her. This cherubic little Miss is typical of child portraits of this time, all dimples and satin sashes. Her name is John Ruskin.

Princess Ruskin is a prime example of the feminization of childhood. At least as far as the early Victorian period, all children wore gowns, until the boys reached a certain age when they were ‘breeched’ (which sounds far dodgier than it is), which is when they had their first pair of breeches. Now this is nice middle-class children we are talking about, and that is for a reason. This is the generation of men that nowadays we suspect of being child molesters. At around 6 years old, these boys were put into trousers and sent off to school and that was it, their childhood was over. When Ruskin referred to his childhood, he described his pre-school days in the most flowery terms, and himself in terms of feminine qualities. It is almost as if he regarded himself as a girl before those trousers went on, and the girl-years were the best. The ideal of childhood is female, the only idea of childhood is female, so little wonder that male, middle-class artists were drawn to paint the little girls who were Queens.

The Child Miranda Frederick Burton
The zen-like calm and Christ-pose of Miranda is almost eerie. She is looking straight at us, emitting an iridescent glow from her hair, clothes and shell-pink skin. This is a not a cute little girl, this is a powerful creature who is better than us. Blimey, he may as well have put her on a throne…

The Child Enthroned Thomas Cooper Gotch
Yes, like that one, thank you Gotch. And she’s got a halo. That’s a bit much…

Lily Noble (1863) John Everett Millais
Lily Noble is a sort of half-way house. She is obviously not a goddess, but she does sit upon a throne, her name almost Dickensian in its literalness. These three girls are perfect, silent souls who sit in all-knowing judgement over us. To paint them is to paint a golden idol, a precious almost holy thing, and in no way are they doing anything remotely ‘childish’. Yes, she's holding a doll, but it might as well be a sceptre.

May Morris (1872) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
When Jane Morris ended her relationship with Rossetti in the early 1870s it was in response to his growing sexual interest in May. I read that recently and found it utterly breath-taking and without basis in anything in Rossetti’s character. How many children are in Rossetti’s art? You could probably count them on one hand, he seems to have had an aversion to them, possibly due to his own sad experiences, but when you see the above picture, it does stop you for a second. Pictured in the same ‘Stunner’ way as her mother, May is only 10 years old in the above portrait. She has the same facial expression as her mother, that some people interpret in Jane as sexual longing. Well, I’ll believe Rossetti’s a child molester when hell freezes over, but it’s a strange choice to pose a tweenager in the same way as you pose her mother, your lover. There is very little difference between the image of May and this one by Albert Moore…

A Girl Albert Moore
This ‘girl’ is obviously older, but still the word ‘girl’ prevails. When did a girl become a woman? To hazard a guess, I would think her wedding day, which is ironic if you look at images of some of the wives of our beloved Pre-Raphaelite circle…

Mrs Burne-Jones (1860) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Now although she looks about twelve, Georgiana Burne

We know all that Victorian women were all ‘the angel of the house’ and at the mercy of their father-husbands. That doesn’t explain the images of little girls that abound. These images aren’t like Georgie, a child-like woman, these are images of little girls on thrones, with halos. These are little goddesses.

Autumn Leaves (1855-6) John Everett Millais
Sophie Gray (1857) John Everett Millais

Look at the direct, silent gazes of the Millais girls. Sophie Gray is a good example of the all-knowing child, challenging us to approach. She is only fourteen in her portrait, and only twelve in Autumn Leaves. The attraction possibly lies in the promise of matched 'intellect', without the bother of adult preoccupations. For artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites, the realm of the imagination was perfection, and the child ruled such a world. Fairy tales, heroes and dragons, mock-medieval a-sexual simplicity is made for the child aesthetic, with no threat of sex. No worldly concerns to hinder them, the child lives in an unworldly state of imagination until the day she says ‘I do’. For men who attempted to insert themselves into this world regularly and professionally, the child must have seemed their guide. If you look at it this way, it becomes completely understandable why men of fantasy, both literature and art-based, sought out the companionship of young girls. In fact, it explains John Ruskin’s sham of a marriage, how he couldn’t bring himself to ‘womanise’ the girl, and by his terminal hesitation, he managed to ruin his marriage. It explains Rossetti’s love of the Morris children in their isolation at Kelmscott, offering him a complete release from the real world back into childhood. It is a relief from all the responsibility, the physical and emotional demands and the constant pressure of being a Victorian man. When Emile Zola wrote ‘I want never to be anything but a child walking in the shadow of your dress,’ he might as well have added ‘but as that isn’t possible, I’ll vicariously live through a child instead.’ To be a child meant never having to leave the Wonderland of the imagination, and as a boy that experience was cut short at the age of six before they got to truly appreciate the freedom from modern care that girls enjoyed.  No wonder these men craved the company of little girls, they were their ticket to Wonderland.

That’s all very well and good if you believe that side of the story, if you believe that Victorian gentlemen all had the very best of intentions. Join me tomorrow for Part Two: ‘Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon’…

The Bud and The Bloom (1906) Andrea Lucchesi


  1. We have to be careful in this area - at the time of Dodgson at Oxford there was a large scale cult of the 'innocent' child. Nude images are very common and were considered art not porn. But child prostitutes were very common, both male and female. Good post.

  2. It reminds me of Japan and the cult of their little girl love. Maybe Japan isn't a great example but it's the most common one we have now in modern day. (Plus I was just looking up some Japanese co-play stuff.

    So many of the Pre-Raphaelites seem to want to "mold" their women into the perfect wife. I think it links into this innocent child. Even Dickens gets into it. I keep thinking about Mr. Ruskin and his "horror" of Effie on their wedding night. She wasn't quite right.... i.e. wasn't a little girl so to speak. Hmmmm

    Lots ot think about.

  3. And look I figured out how to post finally!

    1. I guess you have a spectrum of people with different attitudes, some men probably did yearn for innocence and imagination, but it's clear that there were others with wants we now despise. Does anyone know what the age of consent was then, I seem to remember it was substantially earlier than now.

      As regards the infantilisation of women, ironically I suppose richer women would have been regarded more in this way. There's always a price to pay for everything! if you were poorer and had to work you would just have to get out into the world and get on with it. Your life would have been less pampered but less isolated and claustrophobic. Some women obviously had awful lives, but maybe some in not too heavy trades (I'm thinking of Lizzie S in the hat shop now) possibly had a reasonable time.

      Great post as ever, three cheers for Kirsty!

      And maybe the lovely Nancy (welcome, gingko leaves good choice, one of my design favourites too) could tell me what file size/image size/pixels you used for your profile pic?? I have tried several times but it played me for a giddy kipper... would be really appreciated.

  4. I always find your posts so educational. Wow this is fascinating stuff.

  5. Moyra - I don't remember how I did it but the pixel size is 74x80. I can see if I can figure out how I did it. I'm such a luddite that however I did it I'm sure it was basic or accidental.

    PS. I just love Sophie Gray

    1. Nancy! You made it! Although I'm rather sad not to have you all to myself anymore ;)

  6. Great post! This is one subject that no historian of the 19th century can avoid - it seems to pop up everywhere! I thought you did a really excellent job addressing the way that Victorian youth and adults were gendered. How clever to use the Ruskin portrait to start things off! And I have to agree with you about Rossetti. I think historians often use the absence of details as some sort of creative licence for unfounded speculation.

  7. Gentle Readers of this blog, thank you! Your comments are much appreciated. Yes, I think this is a tricky subject that is all too often treated with a quick knee-jerk. The past is another country and things that were fine to alot of people then may seem horrific to us now, but that doesn't mean that some people attracted to these images then weren't up to no good. Part Two is about the more cute and troubling images...

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  9. I'll go along with Wendy, your posts are truly educational and fascinating at the same time. I just discovered your blog, as the Tate posted a "handy A-Z guide of the P.R." on their FB account and I searched the web for everything I read in it.
    Excellent work, much more stimulating than the course I attended at the university some twenty years ago, I'll surely remember much more in another twenty years...

  10. Thank you so much. We're going through a time of much interest in the PRB and I like playing my part, however small and odd :)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx