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The Precocious Child in the Late Nineteenth Century

LAING, ROISIN (2016) The Precocious Child in the Late Nineteenth Century. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Precocity is incongruous with the nineteenth-century ideology of childhood innocence. It is, nevertheless, a prominent subject across discourses in the century’s final decades. This thesis argues that in the late nineteenth century precocious children are depicted and debated in ways that reveal their particularly post-Darwinian significance.
Through an analysis of a broad range of literary texts, in dialogue with key contributions to the emergent branch of psychology known as Child Study, this thesis illustrates that the precocious child functions as a problematic origin for narratives of adult selfhood in an era when such narratives were ever more tentative, and ever more tenacious.
The thesis first examines precocity and innocence in a scientific overview of the subject, and in a selection of Henry James’s fiction, to suggest that these contradictory qualities are inextricably bound up with the question of adult self-construction. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and E. Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers series are then shown to complicate the assumptions about, and functions of, the precocious child in contemporaneous medical studies of precocity. Following this, the thesis interrogates the extent to which autobiography enables authors and psychologists to create a remembered child who might function as the precocious origin to the adult self. J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is then analysed as a study of the ideology and contextual significance of the precocious child. A final chapter discusses work produced by two precocious children themselves.
This thesis illustrates that the precocious child emblematises the continuity of the self across time, but only by reflecting an adult to whom it is supposed to be a primitive antecedent. Precocity can thus be read as a study of the idea of progressive selfhood which was so central to the Victorian era after Darwin.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:"precocity" "childhood" "selfhood" "nineteenth-century" "Child Study" "Henry James" "Frances Hodgson Burnett" "E. Nesbit" "J. M. Barrie" "child authors" "James Sully" "autobiography" "psychology"
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2016
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:06 Dec 2016 08:07

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