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Adult Authors & Child Narrators: New Perspectives on Adult-Child Conversations

‘A queer combination of a child’s mind with a grown-up joke’: Dickens’s Child Narrators in Holiday Romance (1868)

Voix enfantines ou ‘plaisanterie d’adulte’ ? Analyse des enfants narrateurs de Holiday Romance (Dickens 1868)
Isabelle Hervouet


Peu connu, Holiday Romance (1868) est un recueil de quatre histoires pour enfants, dans lesquelles Dickens donne libre cours à sa passion pour les contes de fées et le jeu avec les mots. Quatre très jeunes enfants racontent tour à tour une histoire destinée à montrer aux adultes que l’imaginaire doit réenchanter le monde. Holiday Romance témoigne ainsi de ce que, quinze ans après « Fraud on the Fairies » (Household Words, 1853), Dickens continue de s’opposer au didactisme à tout crin qui, lui semble-t-il, menace la littérature de jeunesse et risque de priver les enfants des histoires qui nourriront leur esprit tout au long de leur vie. La voix narrative, ainsi confiée aux enfants, est une combinaison hybride et ambiguë, éminemment dickensienne, qui se plaît à mêler les conventions du conte de fées et de la fiction réaliste. Cet article tente de montrer que l’utilisation de pareille voix est le signe du très grand respect dont témoigne le romancier à l’égard de son jeune lectorat, à qui il parvient à montrer quel plaisir il y a à développer sa créativité et à nourrir son imaginaire.

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1Dickens’s critics and biographers alike have deliberately neglected his collection of four tales for children entitled Holiday Romance, first published in 1868. In addition to the too commonly-held belief in general literature studies that children’s literature does not deserve serious academic attention, the facts that the stories are extremely short and that Dickens charged an extortionate fee for them are often considered damaging to the reputation of ‘The Inimitable’. The collection was first published in the American magazine Our Young Folks, ‘An Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls’, and its first intended audience was, of course, children. This barely changed when Holiday Romance was published a year later in All the Year Round. True, Dickens’s weekly journal was calibrated mainly for an adult reading public, but as Immel, Knoepflmacher and Briggs suggest, the novelist assumed that the stories (especially since they were children’s stories) would be read to children by adults:

Written for what would now be called a ‘cross-over’ audience, Dickens intended Holiday Romance to amuse both parents and children: it first appeared in Our Young Folks in America and All the Year Round in Britain, both family magazines meant to be read aloud and enjoyed by all generations. (Immel, Knoepflmacher and Briggs 233‒41)

2Dickens wished Holiday Romance would mould (to a certain extent) the attitudes of his child readers. This paper will thus attempt to determine how he talks to children in Holiday Romance in order to do so, i.e. both how the stories’ implied child readers are addressed by author and narrators, and what Dickens’s treatment of his child narrators is.

3Holiday Romance is a stimulating collection in which Dickens indulges his penchant for fairy tales, child-like vision and verbal play. It features four child narrators, at a period (the 1860s) when ‘the act of chronicling events from a child’s point of view was still daringly experimental’ (Gubar 39). The four children (aged nine, eight, seven and six and a half) have embarked on a mission which is revealed in the first of the four sections: adults are at so great a remove from childhood that they are unable to see the importance of imagination and story-telling; the four children will have to reinvent the world and tell adults what it should be like. The collection thus targets not only children but adults too: children are addressed to as adults in the making and adults both as grown-up children and parents or parental figures taking care of children. This is made apparent in the four children’s desire to teach adults a lesson which Dickens endorsed repeatedly and emphatically in the last two decades of his life. Indeed, the collection presents distinct parallels with the 1853 article ‘Fraud on the Fairies’, in which Dickens speaks out against a tendency to deprive children of the type of literature for pleasure that (he thinks) feeds their imagination beyond childhood, and throughout their adult lives (see Dickens 1853a, 566‒72). In Holiday Romance, the traditional didactic function of children’s literature (to help children become adults) seems thus inverted, the purpose being both to help adults regain something of their childhood, and to help children not become like the adults featured in the stories. The first story serves as a frame story, an interpretative reading pact detailing the purpose of the three other stories, which is to ‘educate the grown-up people . . . hinting to them how things ought to be’ (HR 13). The four children, by refusing to behave like the adults of the fictional world, set an example to be followed by child-readers.

Far from denying the authoritative clout of adults, Holiday Romance chronicles the children’s efforts to usurp, deflect, or reverse that power. . . . Just as each separate story is a revenge fantasy in which the child exerts power over the previously dominant adult, Holiday Romance as a whole represents the combined effort on the part of the children to turn the tables on their elders by appropriating for themselves the role of sneakily didactic author[s]. (Gubar 51)

4The originality, appeal and ambivalence of the collection thus originate in the use of child narrators and in their avowed desire to teach adults a lesson, while also addressing child-readers, thus teaching adults-in-the-making. The first source of ambiguity is undoubtedly the nature of the narrative voice itself. Since Dickens uses child narrators (and not simply a child’s perspective, as in the first chapters of David Copperfield or Great Expectations), the hybridity of the narrative voice(s) is particularly apparent. The child’s voice is constantly amalgamated with that of an adult, resulting in an adult’s good-naturedly bringing to the fore his own perception of the children’s ingenuous vision of themselves. In a letter to Percy Fitzgerald, dated July 21st 1868, Dickens describes the narrative structure as ‘a queer combination of a child’s mind with a grown-up joke’.

5Since the point of this paper is to determine how Dickens speaks to children in the only collection of children’s stories he ever wrote, I will first address the narrative strategies used in the stories to construct the implied child reader, before turning to the rather unexpected representation of the ideal Dickensian child that Holiday Romance posits. I will conclude with a discussion of the strategies which Dickens has recourse to in order to ensure that the stories of Holiday Romance have the desired, long-term impact on both categories of his readership: adults and—above all, of course—children.

Constructing the Ideal Child

6If in the realm of fiction four children have decided to write stories for adults, the real-life, historical situation of utterance is that an adult, Charles Dickens, wrote stories intended primarily for children. Before turning to the ways in which Holiday Romance constructs its child-reader, it is important to specify that the first story, the ‘real’ one (HR 1) narrated by William Tinkling, is in the first person, whereas the others are all third-person narratives in which each narrator (Alice Rainbird, Robin Redforth and—arguably—Nettie Ashford) figures (in a fictionalised form) as hero or heroine. The familiar figure of the benevolent adult story-teller is thus replaced by four young children. Dickens’s decision to entrust four children with the narration of the stories tends however to blur the source of perspective. Access is given to a child-like vision of the events (each of the four narrators’, in turn), a vision which the child reader should quickly and easily adopt if we consider what Robyn Warhol describes as an ‘engaging narrator’ function:

[A] kind [of narrator], which I call ‘engaging’, strives to close the gaps between the narratee, the addressee, and the receiver. Using narrative interventions that are almost always spoken in earnest, such a narrator addresses a ‘you’ that is intended to evoke recognition and identification in the person who holds the book and reads, even if the ‘you’ in the text resembles that person only slightly or not at all. (Warhol 811)

7As early as the beginning of the first tale, the child narrator proves to be an ‘engaging’ one. Direct addresses to the reader abound: ‘you know . . . you must believe . . . else you won’t understand . . . ’ (HR 1). William Tinkling’s style is even conversational at times: ‘you must believe this most, please’ (HR 1). The other tales rely on less direct addresses like ‘[l]et us now resume our story’ (HR 18) or ‘[t]he subject of our present narrative . . . (HR 37) which strongly evoke stories told around the fireplace, direct communication and ‘engaging’ story-telling.

8The young narrators are ‘engaging’ ones, but the adult author, however, does not quite disappear. In The Hidden Adult, looking mainly at third-person narratives in which the narrator is an unidentified instance (contrary to those found in Holiday Romance), Nodelman develops the idea that children’s literature is characterised by the existence of a more sophisticated text unavailable to the child reader, a ‘shadow text’ (Nodelman 2008, 8) articulating ‘a shadowy second focalization’ (Nodelman 2008, 28):

These texts [third-person narratives] all seem to offer hints that the focalized child character is not seeing everything there is to see or possibly not understanding events in the various ways they might be understood. The narrator seems to see more and know more. . . . [We have to acknowledge] the possibility of two points of view, one innocent or ignorant and the other healthily or dangerously knowing. (Nodelman 2008, 20–21)

9U. C. Knoepflmacher also argues that:

It is a truth still insufficiently acknowledged that our finest children’s books are hybrid constructs that combine a child’s perspective with the guarded perspective of the former child we call ‘adult’. (Knoepflmacher 160)

10In each of the third-person narratives of Holiday Romance, the narrative voice is explicitly identified in the title as that of the child telling the story, and, at least in the first three tales, the very flattering portrait of the hero or heroine is associated with the child author-cum-narrator who thus figures in naively heroic situations. However, it is precisely the child’s artless self-portrait (brought to the fore and arguably held up to gentle ridicule), which points to the presence of another, more mature voice. The original storyteller’s agency is felt whenever the text is funny or ironic, especially when trivial, real-life details are woven into the high-flown fiction composed by the child author, and when the (mature) reader wonders if the child author is aware of the comic incongruity thus created:

It seems that our hero, considering himself spited by a Latin-grammar master, demanded the satisfaction due from one man of honour to another. Not getting it, he privately withdrew his haughty spirit from such low company, bought a second-hand pocket-pistol, folded up some sandwiches in a paper bag, made a bottle of Spanish liquorice-water, and entered on a career of valour. (HR 37)

11The adult perspective is as distinctly felt in the first story, narrated in the first person, as in the other three:

Under the desperate circumstances of the case, the active brain of the colonel, combining with his lawless pursuit (he is a pirate), suggested an attack with fireworks. This, however, from motives of humanity, was abandoned as too expensive. (HR 2)

12‘[F]rom motives of humanity’ is the child’s exalted reason, whereas ‘as too expensive’ reveals the child’s inability to completely disregard reality. This redundancy of reasons is particularly amusing, and the hidden adult’s perspective is thus momentarily revealed.

13As Nodelman posits, ‘each children’s story reveals its author’s assumptions about childhood’ (Nodelman 1985, 98). In The Hidden Adult, he further suggests that contrary to what we may think at first, children’s literature expresses how central adult needs are:

. . . the constructedness of its child characters is a crucial consideration . . . , for a corollary of the idea that children’s literature constructs child readers is that it constructs child characters for readers to identify with, in order to satisfy adult wants and needs in regard to children. (Nodelman 2008, 161)

14Dickens’s understanding of childhood or children is central to the construction of the ideal child in Holiday Romance. Dickens’s constructed child is first and foremost innocent. Dickens needs to posit children as simple and pure, a traditional nineteenth-century vision sourced in Locke and Rousseau, whose works determined ‘[Dickens’s] conception of childhood as a special spiritual state of innocence’ (Peters xiii). More specifically, Dickens’s constructed child is innocent of the paradoxical or taxing ways of the (adult) world, ‘blissfully irrational, not-yet-fallen, not-yet-limited’ (Nodelman 2008, 167), i.e. as possessing instinctive understanding of what the world should be like, and more specifically of the importance of stories and imagination. Childish innocent good fun is depicted in Holiday Romance as a meaningful way of being and contrasted with the bitter lack of intuitiveness displayed by adults. The ‘fallen’ nature of adults is made quite obvious in the fourth story, since Dickens’s additions to ‘Miss Nettie Ashford’’s tale cannot have been intended for children. In what follows, the ‘children’ and the ‘boys’ are in fact adults:

So Mrs Orange went once again without Mr Orange to the room where the children were having supper, to see them playing at parliament. And she found some of the boys crying, ‘Hear, hear, hear!’ while other boys cried ‘No, no!’ and others, ‘Question!’ ‘Spoke!’ and all sorts of nonsense that ever you heard. Then one of those tiresome fat boys who had stopped the doorway told them he was on his legs (as if they couldn’t see that he wasn’t on his head, or on his anything else) to explain, and that, with the permission of his honourable friend, if he would allow him to call him so (another tiresome boy bowed), he would proceed to explain. Then he went on for a long time in a sing-song (whatever he meant), did this troublesome fat boy, about that he held in his hand a glass; and about that he had come down to that house that night to discharge what he would call a public duty; and about that, on the present occasion, he would lay his hand (his other hand) upon his heart, and would tell honourable gentlemen that he was about to open the door to general approval. (HR 69)

  • 1 Dickens, who worked for several years as parliamentary reporter, has David Copperfield say: ‘I am i (...)

15Dickens shows that he was well aware of the fact that he was writing for a ‘“cross-over” audience’ (cf. supra). Even if Holiday Romance adopts a child’s perspective in tales designed especially for children, it becomes apparent here that they were not supposed to be read only by them. Political comment constitutes an indirect address from one adult (Dickens, whose poor opinion of parliamentary debates is well known)1 to an implied adult readership, and is another clear indication that a hidden adult is writing a ‘shadow text’. The irony and criticism in this section may be enjoyed to the full only by adult readers, who also understand that they are confronted with a damning portrait of how inconsequential adult priorities are. As regards child readers, they perceive here that adults’ activities are portrayed as childish, frivolous and unimportant (this is stated explicitly by the narrator, since ‘playing at parliament’ is a silly game for ‘tiresome boy[s]’). Dickens here certainly also suggests that thanks to their partial vision, children’s conception of parliamentary debates (as silly games) is more accurate than the traditional adult perception of legislative activities. In any case, the section on parliament, if only partially understood by child readers, sharpens their critical vision of the adult world.

16The shadow text thus makes a significant point which is relayed by the young narrators, namely that adults have lost a sense of what the world should be. Dickens’s constructed child may be innocent, but he/she also knows instinctively ‘how things ought to be’ (HR 13). The use of ‘ought to’, rather than the modal ‘should’, is proof that the children are not expressing their own personal opinion. Changing the world is a moral obligation. Dickens’s ideal children are above all insightful and, as we will see, creative.

Knowing Child Authors

17Nodelman has convincingly argued that the adult author or narrator of children’s stories inevitably sets out what a child should be like (Nodelman 2008, 43‒45). In Holiday Romance, the construction of child characters undoubtedly responds to Dickensian exigencies. Dickens was more than wary of the way 19th-century society ill-treated children by forcing them to grow up too fast and turning them into a readily available and inexpensive workforce. He was the acknowledged spokesman for the accrued protection of children’s innocence. Philip Collins argues that Dickens held a ‘recurrent view of childhood as pathetic’ (Collins 179) and that ‘[h]is more prominent child-characters, whether or not they die . . . are maltreated . . . , forced into a conformity which ignores their individual tastes and capacities, or into a premature state of adulthood . . . ’ (Collins 179). Further, the ‘Inimitable’’s belief in childhood saintliness could encourage an understanding of Dickens’s vision of the ideal child as one positing angelic goodness. John Carey’s study of Dickens’s literary imagination is a case in point here: ‘We think of Dickens as a manufacturer of model children, pious little monsters, moribund and adult’ (Carey 131). Carey describes them as ‘plastic children’ or ‘dwarfs’ (136). Starting with Nell, the most plastic of them all, he argues that:

Dickens is pretending that children are small adults. Their thoughts, he makes out, are like those of adults, only purer. . . . Such plastic children bring tears to the grown-up eye, because they represent an innocence which the grown-up wrongly imagines he once possessed himself. Tears of this kind are especially enjoyable because they are tears of self-pity without seeming to be so. . . . Fictional children thus constructed are purely an adult amenity. (Carey 136)

  • 2 ‘Children need to be innocent less than adults need to believe that children are innocent’ (Nodelma (...)

18As we can see, Carey’s analysis of Dickens’s fiction intended for adults is very similar to Nodelman’s general analysis of children’s literature—both argue that children are constructed as innocent in order to meet adults’ needs.2 Carey goes on to compare Dickens’s ‘dwarfs’ to his ‘real children’, numbering only two, namely his male first-person narrators David Copperfield and Pip. He also shows how Dickens’s ‘real’ imagined child is in fact a self-portrait, as is made clear in the autobiographical fragment (see Carey 143). These ‘real children’, contrary to the ‘dwarfs’, are perceptive, never taken in by adult pretence, and never idealised.

19The would-be authors of Holiday Romance are perceptive children, the type described by Carey as ‘real children’ rather than the ‘monsters’ of idealised innocence. The last two tales, for example, are narrated by children who express their imaginative delight in recording barbarous acts, a feature Catherine Waters also detects in Pip’s narrative (see Waters 153):

The ringing voice of Boldheart was lost in the report of the guns and the screeching of the savages. Volley after volley awakened the numerous echoes. Hundreds of savages were killed, hundreds wounded, and thousands ran howling into the woods. The Latin-grammar master had a spare night-cap lent him, and a long-tail coat, which he wore hind side before. He presented a ludicrous though pitiable appearance, and serve him right. (HR 49)

20It must be the reliance on a child’s perception of the world, combined with the distance taken with adult longing for childhood innocence, that allows Dickens, in David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Holiday Romance alike, to steer reasonably clear of the manufacturing of angels. In Holiday Romance, the canny child authors create characters who delight in exercising adult-like control. The only ambiguous heroine is Alicia, in ‘The Magic Fishbone’, a dutiful daughter with a weak father, whose prime responsibilities are domestic: she looks after her eighteen brothers and sisters. If Alice, the author of the second tale, is a sharp-witted little girl and a ‘real’ child, her fictional double Alicia seriously runs the risk of turning into one of Dickens’s ‘plastic’ characters, in spite of her grown-up role in which she has control over adults. In the three other tales, narrators and heroes refuse to allow adults to mould them to their liking. The first narrator, William, wants to be an editor (‘I am the editor . . . . Bob Redforth . . . wanted to be the editor . . . ; but I said he shouldn’t because he couldn’t. He has no idea of being an editor’, HR 1). Nettie arguably gives herself real-life adult airs by staging a ferociously high-handed heroine in the fourth tale. Mrs Orange lives in a world where adults and children have changed places, ‘a utopia for children that turns into a dystopia for the subjugated parents under their total control’ (Immel, Knoepflmacher and Briggs 233). Her less-than-selfless goal (she longs to rid herself of her parents, whom she refers to as her ‘children’) is very un-Dickensian, if we think in terms of Dickens’s fiction for adults. Finally, Boldheart, the young pirate created by nine-year-old Robin in the third tale, ‘relish[es] the unexpected acquisition of a pre-eminence denied to [Robin] in real life’ (Immel, Knoepflmacher and Briggs 233). He exerts control over a crew of sailors, his family, the mayor of Margate and the infamous Latin-grammar master.

21Dickens’s inventive and energetic child narrators resist manipulation by adults. They are eager to adopt adult roles, though they do not want to become typical adults. The adult world they construct in the tales may well be Dickens’s ideal adult world, a world fully ordered by child-like imagination.

22In the fictional world of Holiday Romance, children write stories for adults, and the four shrewd authors declare their intention to teach adults a lesson. Adults ‘have changed the times’ (HR 11), and their world is deprived of fairies, of imagination and stories. In the initial story, Alice explains:

‘The grown-up people are too strong for us. They make us ridiculous. Besides, they have changed the times. William Tinkling’s baby brother was christened yesterday. What took place? Was any king present?’ . . . ‘No’ . . . ‘Any queen?’ . . . ‘Any fairies?’ ‘None that were visible’. (HR 11)

23There is thus a pressing need to educate adults or parents about fairy-land and what the world should be like. Alice continues (and the anaphoric repetition of ‘we must’ shows how urgently this needs to be done):

‘We must educate, we must pretend in a new manner, we must wait. . . . Educate the grown-up people, . . . throw our thoughts into something educational for the grown-up people, hinting to them how things ought to be’. (HR 13)

  • 3 For a complete history of the dispute, see Harry Stone’s ‘Dickens, Cruikshank, and Fairy Tales’.
  • 4 ‘Seriously, I mean to protest most strongly against alteration—for any purpose—of the beautiful lit (...)

24In a section of his study based of Dombey and Son and Hard Times, Philip Collins examines Dickens’s ‘abhorrence of . . . neglecting or thwarting [children’s] imaginative faculties, exalting Fact over Fancy’ (Collins 188). Dickens’s staunch defence of ‘Fancy’ (he makes no distinction between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’) dates back to his childhood and his debt to fairy tales. He was particularly vociferous on this point at the time of the dispute with Cruikshank.3 In the early 1850s, George Cruikshank began his rewriting of fairy tales, a project that was supposed to culminate in the publication of George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library. Dickens’s angry reaction to Cruikshank’s version of ‘Hop-o’-my-Thumb’ reveals his deep disdain of his former illustrator’s habit of inserting didactic messages in his reworking.4 In 1853, this led to the publication in Household Words of the well-known ‘Fraud on the Fairies’, in which Dickens called for the recognition of children’s stories as of fundamental public utility, protesting virulently against any attempt to reduce fairy tales to base didactic purposes:

  • 5 Other texts by Dickens bear witness to his life-long attachment to fairy tales, and his idea that t (...)

In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected. . . . a nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun. . . . The little books themselves [fairy tale books] nurseries of fancy as they are, should be preserved. . . . they must be . . . preserved in their simplicity, and purity, and innocent extravagance, as if they were actual fact. (Dickens 1853a, 566‒67)5

Implied Readers

25If Dickens’s didactic project is to convince adults of the importance of fairy tales or tales of adventure, how does he hope to shape the impact that they are to make on adult readers? What of the proportion of child-readers? What is the nature of their reaction to be?

26Let us start with adults. How are adults supposed to understand ‘how things ought to be’, i.e. to recapture their childlike vision and imagination, from reading the stories of Holiday Romance? What is the link between the latter and this associated didactic objective? In response to these questions, it may here be argued that child-like imagination will be retrieved precisely thanks to perception of the ‘hidden’ adult’s voice, specifically through double entendre, humour, irony and the delight felt at reading unexpected narrative segments such as: ‘the way [Alicia] came to be doing that was, that the king’s cook had run away that morning with her own true love, who was a very tall but very tipsy soldier’ (HR 27‒28), ‘[Alicia] put the wounded prince’s hand in a basin of fresh cold water, while [her seventeen brothers and sisters] stared with their twice seventeen are thirty-four, put down four and carry three, eyes’ (HR 26).

  • 6 What Kucich calls an innocent character has nothing in common with Carey’s ‘plastic children’. An i (...)

27The humour and fun originating in the profusion of detail and the energy released when unnecessary information is provided (like the mention of the ‘very tipsy soldier’, who makes the briefest of appearances before completely disappearing off the scene) are ample evidence once again of the child’s voice being constantly combined with an adult’s, or rather of an adult voice adopting a child’s perspective. Such combination is in fact Dickens’s style. The style of the four stories is Dickens’s own and corresponds to what John Kucich calls ‘mechanical style’ (see Kucich 195‒242), a distinct feature of Dickens’s style being this sheer release of energy as a source of gleeful entertainment. Kucich describes such segments as signalling ‘pure, innocent vitality. . . . that is exactly the quality we associate with Dickens’s own prose. The innocent exuberance of his predictably burlesque, tongue-in-cheek tone becomes a signal as to the innocence of his characters’ (224‒25).6 The adult reader experiences unforeseen delight in the literary presence of such profusion and energy precisely because imagination and fun are being properly deployed. It can thus be argued that child-like imagination will be retrieved by adult-readers when they see it displayed in the four tales.

28Marah Gubar further looks at a very interesting feature of Alice’s story (the second in the collection):

Since adults have already established their primacy and power as the producers of fiction, the children must use the tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house. Thus, Alice borrows the basic framework of the fairy tale for her story but comically subverts it by unexpectedly juxtaposing realistic and fantastic elements . . . . (51‒52)

  • 7 Of course children like to pretend, so they like falsehood, but this is not what Carey means. He me (...)

29Gubar points to the fact that the fairy tale ‘The Magic Fishbone’ features a king and his queen who turn out to be ordinary people waiting impatiently for quarter-day: ‘One day the king was going to the office, when he stopped at the fishmonger’s to buy a pound and a half of salmon not too near the tail, which the queen (who was a careful housekeeper) had requested him to send home’ (HR 18). The juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary, again, is a characteristic of Dickens’s style, which John Carey calls ‘literalism’ (Carey 56): Carey analyses ‘a crucial aspect of Dickens’s humour . . . , the ability to see through pretence’ (Carey 54), which consists in ‘seeing what is actually there instead of what convention has agreed to pretend is there’ (Carey 55). This ability has been kept alive from childhood, from the time when the child ‘has not been educated to accept falsehood, and is utterly literal’ (Carey 54).7 ‘Literalism’, thus, was an essential trait of Dickens’s humour throughout his career. It is identifiable in the other stories of the collection, as is apparent in the following examples: William Tinkling writes: ‘Seeing that all was for the moment lost, I fought my desperate way hand in hand to the lane. Through taking the back road, I was so fortunate as to meet nobody’ (HR 3), and Nettie Ashford: ‘Mrs Orange’s baby was a very fine one, and real wax all over. Mrs Lemon’s baby was leather and bran’ (HR 57).

  • 8 See the example taken from Chapter 24 of Nicholas Nickleby, in note 7.

30What is of interest here is that in Dickens’s novels, literalism is common to both a child’s perspective and when he uses an omniscient, all-powerful narrator. Literalism, which mixes reality and imagination, the source of incongruity and enjoyment, is the position that David Copperfield and Pip both take up, and according to Dickens it conveys an eminently child-like perception of the world. The omniscient narrator of the novels also engages in literalism.8 Dickens’s fiction is thus the very example of an adult’s ability to retain something of his childish imagination and perception of the surrounding world, both naïve and shrewd but also a source of endless fun. In Holiday Romance again, access to the form of the shadow text (its irony, as well as the humour resulting from excess and literalism), allows adult readers to gain access to the didactic message.

31This discussion of form and readership must be extended to a consideration of how Dickens engages with child-readers’ reactions to the stories, in order to understand how he talks to children. Children are ascribed a duty, which in Dickens’s heart of hearts is to keep being children. Again, the ideal child, or rather ideal implied child reader, is not necessarily Carey’s innocent ‘monster’.

  • 9 Coming from Dickens however, the message remains ambivalent. That it is enjoyable to parent one’s o (...)

32First, children reading Holiday Romance are taught a lesson on power. They are told that they have something to impart to adults, that is, that adults must preserve their childhood innocence and (above all) imagination. But they are also taught that it is desirable to take on adult roles (William in the first tale wants to be an editor, he says), that it is enjoyable to dictate to one’s father (‘The Magic Fishbone’), or to adults generally speaking (the pirate’s tale, Nettie’s tale), that it is possible to be more sensible than adults.9 Children nurture their parents or, in the case of the young pirate, outsmart dim-witted adults.

33In Between Generations: A Study of Intergenerational Collaborations, Victoria Ford Smith, taking cues from Nodelman and Knoepflmacher, argues that ‘an adult author interpolates adult and child subjectivities into a single text’ (Ford Smith 15). Ford Smith investigates the possibly condescending nature of Dickens as the ‘hidden adult’ and argues that ‘Dickens’s attempts to represent the children as viable authors are at odds with those moments when he undermines their seriousness’ and that children are ultimately incapable of securing adult authority (Ford Smith 147‒48). To perceive Dickens, the adult storyteller, as attempting to keep naïve children in their place, or to dominate them with condescending adult irony, is―it seems―to disregard the specificities of Dickens’s conception and opinion of a child’s perspective and, generally speaking, the idiosyncrasies of his style. The implied child reader learns about power, as we know. Is such power (as Ford Smith argues) entirely diminished because children are the putative targets of adult irony? It may be considered that irony is not necessarily a marker of condescension, as long as it is perceived and understood by the child-reader. What needs to be assessed therefore (and it is a crucial issue when trying to understand how Dickens talks to children) is the extent of the child reader’s access to the excess and entertainment value of the shadow text, at least according to Dickens. John Carey addresses this issue at some length with regard to Dickens’s real-life experience of one particular child’s sharp-wittedness. One example sheds light on what Dickens most probably thought of his implied child-reader’s abilities:

Nell’s willingness to be exploited by her grandfather is the reverse of the natural pattern. It is natural for children to exploit adults. To this end they will do their best to gratify adult expectations. If, for example, they observe that an adult enjoys reading them childish stories, they will, if anything is to be gained by it, encourage this taste by acting the part of the delighted audience. . . . Dickens . . . recollects his hypocrisy as a child. At church there was one preacher who made a point of addressing the infants in the congregation. ‘At this present writing’, says Dickens, ‘I hear his lumbering jocularity (which never amused us, though we basely pretended that it did)’. This trait passes into David Copperfield . . . [and] Pip. (Carey 141)

34It seems unlikely that Dickens considered child and adult readers as radically different, that is the former as being naïve, able to access only the explicit, superficial, unironic content of the tales. He would certainly have argued that the irony in the narratives was perceptible to them since it is clear that he considered a (real) child’s vision as naturally combining elements from both reality and full-scale fantasy. There is little doubt that in Dickens’s view, his implied child reader is entirely capable of appreciating the comic value of the following: ‘Some difficulty was found in composing the court, on account of the Emperor of France’s aunt refusing to let him come out’ (HR 5). The discrepancy between the supreme authority wielded by an emperor and his subjection to his aunt is a transparent expression of the real-life situation: the children’s make-believe is confronted to reality. The sudden introduction of down-to-earth reality into high-blown make-believe creates a sudden, unexpected contrast which generates humour. This is an instance of literalism, a narrative device, one can argue, easily understood by children. Like irony, literalism is the ability to seize two (contrasting) levels of reality simultaneously.

  • 10 The only section not fully understood by child readers is—arguably—that on parliamentary debate.

35If the young would-be authors of Holiday Romance were blind to the humour generated in their texts, it might still be argued that the child-reader’s identification with them need not be unreflective. But the four children are depicted as quite capable of distinguishing reality from fiction; William Tinkling writes: ‘Feeling that I must for ever tread the earth a branded boy―person, I mean―or that I must clear up my honour. . .’ (HR 4‒5); Alice depicts Princess Alicia’s future husband, Prince Certainpersonio, as a combination of Prince Charming and a little boy: ‘Prince Certainpersonio was sitting by himself, eating barley-sugar. . . . The moment the fairy said those words, Prince Certainpersonio’s face left off being sticky. . . ’ (HR 34). Earlier, Alice clearly defines the four children’s mission: ‘We must educate, we must pretend in a new manner. . . ’ (HR 13). Writing stories which combine realism and fantasy, thus deploying imagination and generating fun, corresponds to ‘pretend[ing] in a new manner’. The young authors are competent authors, their implied child-reader is a competent reader. The first story, which serves as a reading pact, shows how these child authors too ask their implied readership to willingly suspend disbelief, opening with ‘This beginning-part is not made out of anybody’s head, you know. It’s real. You must believe this beginning-part more than what comes after’ (HR 1) and ending with ‘This is the end of the beginning-part that you were to believe most’ (HR 17). Thus, real children are clearly understood by Dickens as being competent readers of―at least sections of―the shadow text.10

36Holiday Romance presents many features of much of Dickens’s fiction: everyday realism and fantasy function in dynamic relationships to one another. The voice(s), the tone and the exuberant fun are thus distinctly Dickensian. Despite the ‘grown-up joke’, Dickens never loses sight of his original intention, manipulating generic hybridity to teach children and to remind adults that the real world cannot be shorn of stories and imagination. The humour generated is the type of enjoyment induced by creativity, which foregrounds the importance of kindling imagination in both children and adults. As we have seen, child narrators and child readers alike seem to have access to the irony, humour and fun of the ‘grown-up joke’, the ‘hidden adult’’s ‘shadow’ text of Holiday Romance. This is most certainly one of the prime defining characteristics of the collection of stories.

37The narrators in Holiday Romance, David Copperfield and Pip, in terms of their intuitiveness and ability to ‘cope with [adult] pressure in creative, subversive ways’ (Gubar 52), are of a kind, distinct from the stultified child characters like Nell or Oliver Twist, who are not, parenthetically, endowed with the responsibility of telling stories. Dickens presents his child readers with complex and sharp-witted child narrators, products of his characteristic literary genius, who are not afraid of challenging adult authority. The conversations with the implied reader(s) are stylistically very similar to those held by Dickens’s adult narrator. Despite the occasionally simple style used in Holiday Romance, Dickens adopts an empathetic representation of a child’s point of view and treats his narrators and his child readers alike with the utmost respect.

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Carey, John. The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.

Collins Philip. Dickens and Education. London: Macmillan, 1965.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. 1850. New-York: Norton, 1990.

Dickens, Charles. ‘Fraud on the Fairies’. 1853a. Selected Journalism 1850–1870. London: Penguin, 1997, 566‒72.

Dickens, Charles. ‘Nurse’s Stories’. 1860. Selected Journalism 1850–1870. London: Penguin, 1997, 92‒101.

Dickens, Charles. ‘Where We Stopped Growing’. 1853b. Selected Journalism 1850–1870. London: Penguin, 1997, 30‒34.

Dickens, Charles. Holiday Romance. 1868. Marston Gate: Amazon, 2006.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. 1865. London: Penguin, 1997.

Ford Smith, Victoria. Between Generations: Collaborative Authorship in the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2017.

Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2009.

Immel, Andrea, U. C. Knoepflmacher, and Julia Briggs. ‘Fantasy’s alternative geography for children’. The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Ed. M. O. Grenby and Andrea Immel. Cambridge: CUP, 2009, 226‒41.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. ‘Children’s Texts and the Grown-Up Reader’. The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Ed. M. O. Grenby and Andrea Immel. Cambridge: CUP, 2009, 159‒73.

Kucich, John. Excess and Restraint in the Novels of Charles Dickens. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1981.

Nodelman, Perry. ‘The Case of Children's Fiction; or, The Impossibility of Jacqueline Rose’. Children's Literature Association Quarterly 10.3 (1985): 98‒100.

Nodelman, Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008.

Peters, Laura, ed. Dickens and Childhood. London: Routledge, 2016.

Stone, Harry. ‘Dickens, Cruikshank, and Fairy Tales’. The Princeton University Library Chronicle 35.1/2 (Winter 1973–74): 213‒47. JSTOR, 25 Sept. 2018.

Warhol, Robyn R. ‘Toward a Theory of the Engaging Narrator: Earnest Interventions in Gaskell, Stowe, and Eliot’. PMLA 101.5 (Oct. 1986): 811–8. JSTOR, 16 March 2015.

Waters, Catherine. Dickens and the Politics of the Family. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

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1 Dickens, who worked for several years as parliamentary reporter, has David Copperfield say: ‘I am in high repute for my accomplishment in all pertaining to the art, and am joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a Morning Newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words. Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape. I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted’ (David Copperfield 528).

2 ‘Children need to be innocent less than adults need to believe that children are innocent’ (Nodelman 2008, 167).

3 For a complete history of the dispute, see Harry Stone’s ‘Dickens, Cruikshank, and Fairy Tales’.

4 ‘Seriously, I mean to protest most strongly against alteration—for any purpose—of the beautiful little stories which are so tenderly and humanly useful to us in these times when the world is too much with us, early and late’ (in a letter to Wills, 27th July 1853).

5 Other texts by Dickens bear witness to his life-long attachment to fairy tales, and his idea that they are fundamental in nurturing a child’s imagination, an essential prerequisite of life. See ‘Nurse’s Stories’ (1860) for example, or ‘Where We Stopped Growing’ (1853), in which Dickens wrote: ‘We have outgrown no story of voyage and travel, no love of adventure, no ardent interest in voyagers and travellers. . . . Not to be too wise, not to be too stately, not to be too rough with innocent fancies, or to treat them with too much lightness–which is as bad–are points to be remembered that may do us good in our years to come’ (Dickens 1853b, 34).

6 What Kucich calls an innocent character has nothing in common with Carey’s ‘plastic children’. An innocent character is one who displays openness and vitality, like Mr Dick in David Copperfield (see Kucich 220‒32). Dickens’s ‘real’ children are therefore more ‘innocent’ than his ‘plastic’ ones. They are ‘blissfully irrational, not-yet-fallen, not-yet-limited’ (Nodelman 2008, 167, qtd supra).

7 Of course children like to pretend, so they like falsehood, but this is not what Carey means. He means that growing up, children have to accept what adults pretend is there rather than what is actually there. Carey gives several examples of Dickens’s ‘deflatingly literal treatment of dramatic art’ (Carey 55) to show what literalism is. For instance, taken from Nicholas Nickleby: ‘There was a gorgeous banquet, ready spread for the third act, consisting of two pasteboard vases, one plate of biscuits, a black bottle, and a vinegar cruet; and in short, everything was on a scale of the utmost splendour and preparation’ (Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 24, quoted in Carey 55). On can also think of Pip famously literalising the meaning of ‘brought up by hand’ in Chapter 2 of Great Expectations.

8 See the example taken from Chapter 24 of Nicholas Nickleby, in note 7.

9 Coming from Dickens however, the message remains ambivalent. That it is enjoyable to parent one’s own parents is evocative of Our Mutual Friend, in which the omniscient narrator comments on ‘the dire reversal of the places of parents and child’ (Dickens 1865, 241), a very Dickensian obsession since the days when Dickens, aged twelve, had to work in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse to help with the family’s disastrous financial situation.

10 The only section not fully understood by child readers is—arguably—that on parliamentary debate.

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Référence électronique

Isabelle Hervouet, « ‘A queer combination of a child’s mind with a grown-up joke’: Dickens’s Child Narrators in Holiday Romance (1868) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 92 Automme | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 19 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Hervouet

Isabelle Hervouet is Senior Lecturer in British Literature at UCA in Clermont-Ferrand. She wrote her PhD on the Gothic novel in Britain (1764-1824) and has published several articles on the persistence of the Gothic in the Victorian novel. Her research now focuses on Dickens and Charlotte Brontë.
Isabelle Hervouet est agrégée d’anglais et maître de Conférences en littérature britannique à l’université Clermont-Auvergne. Elle est l’auteure d’une thèse de doctorat sur le roman gothique anglais et a publié de nombreux articles sur le roman gothique ainsi que sur le roman victorien, en particulier sur Charles Dickens et Charlotte Brontë. Elle est membre de la SFEVE.

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