i: Etiquette and Manners in Victorian and Edwardian Children’s Fantasy Literature
For women in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras, domesticity and the art of practiced manners were essential social skills, and this is reflected in children’s fantasy literature. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll and A Little Princess (1905) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, right and wrong—as understood by the general British public—is largely related to manners and propriety. Rules, both societal and legal, make up the moral code of the time. Rather than being bad or evil, being improper (especially for young females) was far worse. Alice demonstrates her knowledge of the importance of rules and manners in her constant berating of her behavior and the behaviors of others while in Wonderland. Manners and acts of proper behavior, similarly, are indicators of social class identity in A Little Princess; the expectations for rich little girls and for servants are largely different, and Burnett juxtaposes these in order to make more obvious the separation of the classes in terms of moral behaviors. However, both texts also denote a deviation from these norms by Alice and Sara. Both characters stray from these societal expectations: Alice in her command of the creatures of Wonderland, particularly at the end of the novel in which she takes on a role of power amidst the King’s court, a character trait most associated with the masculine, and Sara in her fluctuating class identity, changing from wealthy young girl to poor servant and then back to wealth once again, which unsettles the power dynamic between Sara and her headmistress Miss Minchin.
During Alice’s descent into Wonderland through the rabbit hole, she contemplates what the appropriate social greeting will be for the people she assumes live on the other side of the world. She thinks that she will “…have to ask them what the name of [their] country is,” and she “trie[s] to curtsey as she [speaks]” (Carroll 3). In assuming that the culture will be at least somewhat like the English culture she left, Alice inserts proper greetings that she knows, like curtseying, into the unknown world of Wonderland. Curtseying follows the traditional belief of propriety for a young female. In doing this, Alice is essentially following the societal rules established for her in the real world and transferring these to Wonderland. Another more extreme example of this comes shortly after her trip down the rabbit hole in Alice’s recollection of “several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules” (6). This reference to early instructional texts, written explicitly to teach children proper morals and behaviors, is being acknowledged by Carroll in a way that appears to be producing agreement, but also instigates humor. Alice, alone in a new, strange world, has little use for such instructional texts, yet she knows that if she does not follow guidelines established by society as the proper behaviors for a child, she may be eaten up.
Carroll is utilizing elements of the fantastic—man-eating beasts—to demonstrate the theorized negative consequences of breaking the rules; consequences which have been described to children by adults whose intentions are to teach said children their place in the world. Carroll’s consequences for failed propriety and forgetting one’s class station are rather dire. This comedic emphasis on the moral implications of following the rules permeates the novel; not only does Alice question right and wrong in terms of proper modes of behavior throughout her stay in Wonderland, she also attempts to explain what she understands as proper manners and behavior to the citizens of Wonderland, which in many cases ends unsuccessfully.
As Alice spends more time communicating with the creatures in Wonderland, her understanding of what is proper begins to shift. During a conversation she holds with the Duchess, Alice “[is] not quite sure whether it [is] good manners for her to speak first” (46). The Duchess, whose social ranking as a member of royalty is far higher than Alice’s, is someone whom Alice, abiding by the social norms of England, should not address first. However, the violence that permeates the Duchess’ home which results in Alice’s cry of, “Oh, please mind what you’re doing!” contradicts the behaviors expected of a member of the noble class (46). Because Wonderland does not exist in reality (a prime example of the “other world” used within the fantastic), Alice’s sudden and improper outburst is not punished by the author. In fact, Alice is seen as the more domestically responsible of the two characters, as it is she who recognizes the danger to the Duchess’ baby which is caused by the noblewoman herself. Because the Duchess’ home is set in a place that has no correlation with the real world, Alice is able to disrespectfully address the Duchess without consequence. Therefore, Carroll grows Alice’s agency as a child through her experiences in Wonderland because she can claim more power for herself.
At the end of the novel, the Red Queen instigates yet another shift in what is considered proper in Wonderland. The court case, which takes place after the Queen’s tarts go missing, is steeped in moral ambiguity. This is likely Carroll’s own commentary on the mid-Victorian justice system, and it is this that causes Alice to question what she understands as right and wrong with enough finality to send her home to the real world. When Alice becomes a suspect as a tart thief, the Queen questions her in court. However, when the results of her inquisition do not prove that Alice is the thief, the Queen claims that she must leave the court because she is too large in physical size. To this, Alice responds “Well, I sha’n’t go, at any rate…besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now” (103). Alice, who at the start of the novel is timid toward those she presumes to be her superiors, once again demonstrates a lack of propriety by recognizing the unfairness of the Queen. Once again, the setting of the fantastic provides Alice an outlet through which to deny social norms (in this case, the Queen’s orders) and think for herself. Rather than leaving the court because she has been instructed to do so, Alice questions the Queen’s own authority. Because the Queen fails to model the proper behaviors of a ruler—or, more importantly in terms of Victorian society, the proper behaviors of a female– she no longer appears to Alice as a strong role model or adult. In fact, the Queen displays masculine characteristics in her desire to wield power rather than to submit to male authority.
This denial of propriety occurs again near the very end of the novel when Alice straightforwardly denies the Queen’s demand to have the sentence first before the verdict, to which the Queen says “Hold your tongue!” and Alice responds “I won’t!” (107). By denying the power that the Queen’s social status implies, Alice is retaining some of this power for herself, and saying “no” to the Queen allows Alice “grow to her full size” (107). This action leads to her departure from Wonderland. In choosing to be fair, Alice acknowledges the ignorance of Wonderland’s monarchy and their lack of fairness and impartiality in the court case. Thus, Alice literally grows up, expels herself from the fantastical setting of Wonderland, and returns to the real world.
Much like Alice’s morality, Sara Crewe’s in Burnett’s A Little Princess is defined through her behavior, which is complicated by the changes that take place to her social status as she shifts from the daughter of a wealthy merchant to a penniless orphan. Prior to her father’s death, Sara is described as an “odd little girl who ha[s] such an intelligent small face and such perfect manners” (Burnett 11). When headmistress Miss Minchin, upon meeting Sara, assumes that the young girl cannot speak French, the narrator states, “if Sara had been older or less punctilious about being quite polite…she could have explained herself…it would be almost rude to correct [Miss Minchin]” (12). This perceived rudeness stems from the fact that in age Miss Minchin is socially superior to Sara. However, in class standing Sara, whose father possesses considerable wealth, is superior to the unmarried, childless Miss Minchin. These social traits define an unusual tension between headmistress and student that changes when Sara, later orphaned and poor after her father’s death, no longer has a high social standing, allowing Miss Minchin to reclaim power. However, in this example, Sara’s overly kind and polite treatment of Miss Minchin results in the latter appearing ridiculous in comparison. Miss Minchin’s quickness to make assumptions and the severity she demonstrates over Sara’s knowledge of French prove her lack of genuine morality.
In addition, Sara’s valiant character, even when compared to the scullery maid, Becky, whose situation is desperate also, flips “the ideological conflict between the domestic angel in the house and her other (the worker or servant)” on its head (Langland 291). Sara embodies the Angel in the House, a Victorian depiction of the ideal woman figure, due to her impeccable politeness and motherly, domestic characteristics unlike Miss Minchin who, though Sara’s elder, is cold and cruel. Even in her lowered societal position, Sara remains polite. She is often the person charged with teaching the school’s younger pupils, and she plays a motherly role for Becky, as well as for her ex-schoolmates Ermengarde and Lottie. Because of this, there is little separation in status between the identities of Sara the Angel in the House and Sara the servant. Burnett links Sara’s goodness to the the pureness of her actions rather than to her social status; as even when her status is at its lowest, she still retains characteristics of the Victorian domestic angel.
Miss Minchin’s social status directly affects the satisfaction of her students (and their parents), thus making her reliant on the children she teaches. This reliance, which is itself in opposition to the societal belief that children are supposed to rely on adults, is what emphasizes the goodness of Sara’s character in comparison to Minchin’s bitterness and selfish outlook. Even when she is being treated as a drudge, Sara knows “she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her…‘A princess must be polite’” (97). Both Sara and the narrator consistently refer to the little girl as a princess throughout the whole of her experience at Miss Minchin’s school, including in the moments when she is extremely poor. It is this ideology of moral superiority that leads to Sarah’s creation of a fictional world in which she is treated as a princess. Sara’s kindness and empathy make her more of a leader than Miss Minchin, and Burnett expresses this through her use of the fantastic. Acts of fantasy and imagination largely take place in Sara’s attic room to which she is banished after her loss of father and fortune. There, she often speaks to her doll Emily as if the doll can respond and guides Ermengarde and Becky on how to “pretend a party” (131). Her moral superiority when facing the cruelty of Miss Minchin upon the headmistress’ discovery of their party, results in the “magic” of the attic coming to life. In truth, it is the neighbor’s servant Ram Dass who, in is observation of Sara and her courage in such poor circumstances deems her worthy of his master’s aid. However, in Sara’s world of imagination, this magic is an example of the fantastic. All alone in her attic room, Sara imagines herself warm and with enough food to feed not only herself but to share with the family of rats who live in the wall, and it is this dream that comes to life—although Sara knows it as “magic”—through the work of Ram Dass.
The realm of the fantastic, represented as the “attic realm” in this novel, is set apart from reality. While Sara is a princess in her attic, she imagines herself sometimes as a historical figure with power like Marie Antoinette, She is kept company by Emily, a figure that is both her doll and her friend, and these elements do not escape the realm of the attic. Upon walking down the stairs to the school, Sara is merely another member of the servant staff; someone who can be ordered about by nearly everyone in the household as she is of such a low status. However, it is the kindness and consideration that she demonstrates on a daily basis—smiling at Ram Dass and returning his monkey to him, giving bread to the starving street urchin Anne, and playing a motherly role to Ermengarde, Lottie, and the other little girls at the school—that results in her final reversal of fortune. Rather than being rescued from poverty, Sara is returned to her rightful place of wealth and title, an English heiress and “princess”; a status which she demonstrated through her character even when she was poor.
At the start of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911), the emphasis on morality, like with the previous two texts, is linked closely with the manners and behaviors expected of children at the turn of the twentieth century. Even Peter, who lives primarily in Neverland, the novel’s other world that exists outside of reality, “could be exceedingly polite” (Barrie 25). This stress on politeness—something which even Peter, an outsider, demonstrates—aligns with the expectations of behavior for children in the Edwardian period. The Edwardian era prompted a change in adult observations of the child, leading to the perception of childhood as a stage of growth and maturity, rather than the prior Victorian portrayal of children as merely a smaller version of adults (Zipes). This distinction is demonstrated in Peter Pan by Wendy’s character who sleeps in the nursery in the real world yet takes on the adult role of mother when she enters Neverland. Yet even with these intermediary stages between child and adult, the importance of what is considered proper social behavior still illustrates good moral character.
Upon meeting Peter, Wendy acts as hostess in the nursery, acknowledging that “it is customary for them to ask each other’s ages,” a practice which helps to identify status between them (as the elder is socially superior), and she does so in a “charming drawing-room manner” which befits her gender (28). These proper behaviors which revolve around the interactions and social behaviors of genders, continue throughout the beginning of the novel as Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael move from the nursery in the real world to the unknown, fantastic world of Neverland.
When Wendy first enters Neverland she is shot out of the sky by the “lost boys” who believe they are under the instruction of Peter. After discovering this is not true, the lost boys build Wendy a small house, and when she wakes they follow the societal rules of propriety when Peter “knock[s] politely” on her door, and the boys “[whip] off their hats” as a sign of respect (66). The same boys who shot Wendy out of the sky with an arrow suddenly act politely when in the presence of a female in the traditional domestic setting, and with this comes the desire and ability to follow the proper societal norms. In the case of the little house as well as the house underground, these norms are those of reverence toward the mother figure who (as Wendy is the oldest of the children) joins Peter in taking on the pretend or imaginary roles of mother and father. However, Barrie emphasizes the pretend quality of these acts of imagination. Peter in his refusal to grow up, frequently asks Wendy that “it is only make-believe, isn’t it?” (95). By acting as mother and father while in Neverland, a world characterized by its fantastic, magic setting and the creatures that live there, Wendy—whose desire and knowledge that she must grow up is depicted in her story to Peter and the lost boys—gives in to the pretend of their playing while Peter must constantly have it be acknowledged that what they are doing is not real. In this way, Wendy and Peter alike both practice what it might mean to grow up without actually doing so. Neverland acts as a world where the children are able to express themselves and experiment with their potential growth as individuals without their actions having any effect on the real world.
Captain Hook, like many of the other characters in Neverland, is also given attributes of a politeness; however, he is separated as the villain (and Peter’s nemesis) in the novel, and thus his politeness takes on a rather negative connotation. The narrator observes that Hook “[is] never more sinister than when he [is] most polite…and the elegance of his diction, even when he [is] swearing, no less than the distinction of his demeanour, show[s] him one of a different caste from his crew” (52). Rather than politeness acting as a measure of goodness, for Hook it acts as a measure of his wickedness. The villain of the novel is measured by the same standards as the other characters, primarily Peter and Wendy, but the results are significantly different. This is the first time in all three books aforementioned that there is a clear distinction between good and bad in terms of characters. This presents a moral conflict that permeates the novel as the children in their goodness must defeat the powerful and cruel Captain Hook. Unlike Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and A Little Princess whose examples of morality largely came in the form of politeness and the proper behavior of the child characters, Peter Pan begins to deviate from this with the feud between Captain Hook and Peter. No longer are the children concerned with right and wrong in terms of proper behavior alone, but the threat of a villainous presence encroaches on the other world and forces the child characters to make choices that contradict it. In this way, Wendy, John, and Michael display innate goodness by providing assistance to Peter in his defeat of Captain Hook. This defeat of good over evil results in the Darling children’s ability to return home as Peter then commandeers Hook’s pirate ship to fly them back to their home in London; something that would not have been possible without their victory over Hook and his men.