Lois Burke is researching her PhD at Edinburgh Napier University, after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree from Teesside University and a Master’s degree in Romantic and Victorian Literary Studies from Durham University. Her research focuses on Victorian girls’ experience of puberty and maturation through their life writings and the literature they read. She is a co-founder of the Postgraduate Gender Research Network of Scotland, and she works closely with the Museum of Childhood and the Scottish Early Literature for Children Initiative (SELCIE.) She has taught on undergraduate modules about social deviance in the nineteenth century and adaptation studies. She tweets @LoisMBurke.
In conduct and medical literature throughout the majority of the nineteenth century, adult writers delineated what was potentially dangerous for growing girls to do and say. Whether this be staying up late, taking hot baths, or even exciting one’s passions at the opera, the social and cultural limitations placed on girls during their pre-pubescent and pubescent years seem almost laughable now.
Yet the broadening of girls’ minds was no laughing matter for certain nineteenth-century moralists. Precocity was viewed as a particularly dangerous attribute, and was a gender-specific site of anxiety. Extensive knowledge in any subject was deemed to be transgressive for girls, who were expected to stay within the boundaries of submissive femininity. This was exemplified in John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies (1868), in which he stated that girls should only have a rudimentary knowledge of science and languages which would enable them to converse with their future husbands. But as this forbidden knowledge was exactly that to girls, the diatribes against it were often of a vague nature; as if British writers were unwilling to engage with the notion that girls would develop curiosity and ambitions beyond their defined lot. For example, in 1854 the conduct writer Mrs Marian Pullan obscurely pleaded that girls ‘be very careful to be always doing something’, as keeping girls busy with feminine accomplishments kept them away from trouble. Conversely, the girls themselves were obliged to know precisely what was and wasn’t deemed to be acceptable conduct and expression – and some knew how to test these imposed limitations through their own writings.
One of the most famous child diarists, Kirkcaldy-born Marjorie Fleming (1803-1811), tested the use of language as well as acceptable topics of conversation through her writing. At six years-old she put pen to paper and described a situation in which she called someone an ‘impudent bitch’, and how she was chastised for such language.
To Day I pronounced a word which should never come out of a lady’s lips it was that I called John an impudent Bitch and Isabella afterwards told me that I should never say it even in joke but she kindly forgave me because I said that I would not do it again I will tell you what I think made me in so bad a honour is I got 1 or 2 cups of that bad bad sina tea to Day
Victorian editors who positioned Fleming as the epitome of childish innocence and artless joy omitted that particular entry in abridged publications of her writing. She also wrote on multiple occasions about how she was specifically not permitted to discuss love, ‘heroins’ and marriage – yet she rhapsodized about them.
In the love novels all the heroins are very desperate Isabella will not alow me to speak about lovers & heroins & is too refined for my taste
I walked to that delightfull place with that a delightfull place young man beloved by all his friends and espacialy by me his loveress but I must not talk any longer about him any longer for Isa said it is not proper for to speak of gentalman
Love I think is in the fasion for every body is marring there is a new novel published named selfcontroul a very good maxam forsooth.
What was restricted for Fleming didn’t set an embargo on her curiosity – luckily her manuscripts still remain and such insights which were previously glossed over by Victorian editors can be recovered.
In a similar fashion, 10 year-old English diarist Emily Pepys (1833-1877) documented her quest for the kind of knowledge which was off-limits.
Herbert and I were left alone, and looked at several nice things in the Encyclopoedia, such as Anatomy, Midwifery etc. etc. etc. but Mama told me to go to bed 10 minutes before 9 so we had not much time. Herbert and I always go together let one another into all our secrets that we would not tell anybody else for worlds.
As at this point in history there existed no candid medical texts which sought to inform girls about their bodies – their only option was to acquire it covertly, and in Pepys’ case, divulge that rebellion in their daily writing. Thus the girls’ diary is an invaluable fragment of social history which records this gendered struggle.
As she was a collateral descendant of Samuel Pepys, Emily Pepys’ diaries were published contemporaneously, and Flemings’s distant relation to Walter Scott was equally used as a marketing ploy when her diaries were published posthumously. It is true that diaries have an androcentric history; those that are generally thought of as the great examples of life writing were penned by figures such as St. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and Samuel Pepys. Yet feminist life writing scholars from the 1970s onwards have supported the reclamatory treatment of women’s words that have long been buried in archives.
It is high time that this is extended to girls’ writings, too. Carolyn Steedman in The Tidy House: Little Girls Writing (1982) astutely suggested that ‘Writing is a means of growth available to all children, producing artefacts wrought by their own internal rules.’ Young diarists in the nineteenth century deserve credence for their boldness in an age when the burgeoning ‘cult of the child’ upheld strict expectations for their conduct. Diarists provoked their own socialisation through life writing, and tested the limits of acceptable behaviour, in preparation for a womanhood which was to be equally steeped in ideology.