decorated initial 'P'eter Coveney has written of "the flaw which predisposed [Dickens] to see children as frail" (160). But if this was a flaw, it was symptomatic of the age in general. David Copperfield is positively robust compared to many other fragile child characters right through the period, such as Hugh Proctor in Harriet Martineau's The Crofton Boys (1841), Henry Sympson in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley (1849), Phineas Fletcher in Mrs Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), George Eliot's hunchbacked Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss (1860) and of course Mrs Craik's later "parable for young and old", The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak (1875). Yet such figures came to exemplify a heroism to which many could aspire.

There have been fictional children like this before — Eugenia in Burney's Camilla (1796), for exmple, was injured when her uncle let her fall from a see-saw, and has hobbled ever since. Not only that: her face has been scarred by smallpox. A few stricken youngsters might be expected in the genre. In Martineau's case, there was a model for the amputee Hugh in a childhood friend of the author's, whose similar disability put a restraint on her own activities. Perhaps the increase in such characters reflects social conscience about the stunting of poorer, particularly working-class children: Mrs Gaskell's Franky in "The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh" waves a feeble hand from the widowed washerwoman's house to catch the attention not only of Libbie but of all compassionate readers. These figures may also suggest a new, more general sense of the disadvantages of childhood. However, the fact that these unfortunates are now almost invariably boys seems to speak particularly of the way the Evangelical movement was chipping away at the rougher edges of the male ego. Caroline Helstone is not alone in finding such lads conveniently manageable: "Listen, Henry," she tells Shirley's "poor unfortunate" little cousin, "I don't like schoolboys: I have a great horror of them. They seem to me little ruffians," she admits. But, she continues, "you are so different. I am quite fond of you. You have almost as much sense as a man (far more, God wot,' she muttered to herself, 'than many men); you are fond of reading, and you can talk sensibly about what you read" (Shirley 431). Caroline's private aside is even more telling than the comparison of Henry with his healthier peers.

"Smike" (uncertain attribution): note the too-small clothes. [Click on thumbnail for more information.]

Some weak boys in Victorian fiction remain weak, and there is much useful insight into their sufferings, and sympathy for them. Dickens's Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, is heir to the feeble-mindedness of Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy" in the Lyrical Ballads; but his deficiency is explained and explored here, with the realism encouraged by the linear narrative. To prepare it for such "a heavy sleep," says Dickens, preparing his readers in turn for later discoveries, "its growth must be stopped by rigour and cruelty in childhood; there must be years of misery and suffering lightened by no ray of hope; the chords of the heart, which beat a quick response to the voice of gentleness and affection, must have rusted and broken in their secret places, and bear the lingering echo of no old word of love or kindness" (476). As Freud himself acknowledged, in "knowledge of the mind" creative writers "are far in advance of us everyday people" (Art and Literature, 34). Then, since Smike's condition serves Dickens's humanitarian purpose in the novel, it is deplored as well as explored. Eighteen at the beginning like his cousin Nicholas Nickleby, this boy has been blighted because he was abandoned at such a young age at the very worst kind of fee-paying school.

Youths like Henry Sympson and Smike have no hope of becoming heroes. Dickens makes it clear that Smike cannot recover from such prolonged ill-treatment. Mrs Squeers has got him up in a small boy's suit, a huge pair of farmer's overboots, and his own superannuated child's neckfrill half covered by a man's neckerchief. As a result, his very clothes show him to be caught between the world of children and that of adults. Thus Dickens chooses the Apothecary's insignificant part for Smike in the Crummles's performance of Romeo and Juliet, while Nicholas (as ever) struts the boards. Contemporary readers pleaded with Dickens to spare the poor boy's life, says Forster (1: 103); but he must have felt that the Smike had no possible role to play in the novel's future. Once dead, he seems younger than ever, belonging to the generation not of Nicholas but of Nicholas and his beloved Madeline's children.

Left to right: (a) The Little Lame Prince sails above his difficulties in Etheldred B. Barry's frontispiece to Craik's parable (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1910 ed.). (b) Eddy, the narrator of Chantry House, shown here in W. J. Hennessy's illustration for the Macmillan ed. of 1889 (facing p. 154), will need operations to help correct his deformities, so that he can become a useful member of society. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

However, the weakness of other boys is not generally indulged. Mrs Craik puts it like this in The Little Lame Prince: "When we see people suffering or unfortunate, we feel very sorry for them; but when we see them bravely bearing their sufferings, and making the best of their misfortunes, it is quite a different feeling. We respect, we admire them. One can respect and admire even a little child." This comment is occasioned by the little prince's "patiently untying ... with firm determination" the magic travelling cloak which will enable him to escape from his childhood confinement in Hopeless Tower, and assume his responsibilities as a much-loved and wise king (70-71). Often interpreted now as an allegory of feminine entrapment and empowerment (see Showalter 33; Nelson 158-59), Mrs Craik's parable is in fact affectionately inscribed "to a dear little boy I know."

The handicaps of of fictional children are not necessarily physical ones. While Charlotte Yonge encourages girls to quell their rising ambitions, she offers encouragement to boys afflicted by a range of weaknesses: they can surmount them, she says, and contribute usefully to the world. This author recalled having "first discovered that [she] could read the letterpress in a great quarto edition of Robinson Crusoe, close to the point where the print shewed him clinging to a rock among the breakers" ("Lifelong Friends," 181). Nothing could have made a more appropriate start for this part of her literary enterprise. In Chantry House, her family of child protagonists are all among the breakers. Clarence is beset by moral frailty, which shows itself in small sins like lying and sneaking, and makes him an obvious target for the bullying at Harrow. Embarked on a career at sea, the youth disgraces himself yet again, succumbing to his old weakness under the pressure of a sudden and fearful naval engagement. But it is never too late to make up lost ground, suggests Yonge: he settles down at last when given the chance of an office job. To drive home her message of hope for poor starters, Yonge contrasts Clarence's eventual success with the moral collapse after Oxford of his far more confident and popular elder brother, Griffith. Meanwhile, the narrator of this family history, the boys' brother Eddy, undergoes painful and unavailing treatments for his many and various physical deformities. Like Mrs Craik's Phineas Fletcher, he manages to survive and even to become what he calls self-deprecatingly a "fairly useful" young man (2: 228). Of course, these three boys are far too obviously the vehicles of Yonge's didacticism: Yonge said herself that "[a] woman cannot do a man truthfully from within" ("Authorship," 192); but her work accurately captures the spirit of the age.

In The Little Lame Prince and Chantry House, both Mulock and Yonge have a message for older readers, too: the rocks to which their boy characters cling are loving adults, in the little prince's case a fairy godmother, in Clarence's case, an elderly governess whose wise teachings at last bear fruit.

Other young heroes' defects may lie not in themselves so much as in some aspect of their upbringing or schooling. Fortunately, Bulwer-Lytton's Mr Caxton notices that his little boy is drooping under his routine of home tuition, and sends the "quiet, sedate, and thoughtful" seven-year-old away to school to recover his spirits (The Caxtons 20). However, school does not always answer either, as Pisistratus Caxtus himself discovers at his second school, Dr Herman's Philhellenic Institute, run on the power of the lash. Boys under more relaxed regimes might still find themselves ill-equipped to tackle their entry into the adult world. When Tom Tulliver leaves Mr Stelling's in The Mill on the Floss, and goes to ask his uncle Deane for a job, the "Latin and rigmarole" which he acquired with such pain are dismissed witheringly: "Why, you know nothing about book-keeping to begin with, and not so much reckoning as a common shopman" (315). Much the same happens when the recently graduated Fred Vincy goes to work for Caleb Garth in Middlemarch: his handwriting proves to be illegible.|

Such handicaps might seem minor, but they hit youths on the brink of their independent lives; here again encouragement, not debilitating sympathy, is the order of the day. With little to support him but "his own brave self-reliance," Tom Tulliver is shown applying himself diligently to "make iverything right again" (309, 454). His efforts are on behalf of his family, not himself, and when they are crowned with success both Maggie and her creator have the utmost respect for him: it is Tom who is the hero of his sister's story. Here Eliot is not so much echoing Smiles, whose Self-Help was published in 1859, the very year she began writing The Mill on the Floss, as following Emerson, whom she had met and whose writings she found deeply inspiring. To Emerson in "Self-Reliance" (1841), the "sturdy lad" has "not one chance, but a hundred chances" (161); regret and self-pity are no part of his book. Again, the message is clear: the past, however trying, must be put behind the youth who has to make his way in the world.

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Last modified 15 January 2011