chapter  3
32 Pages

The Empire at Home: Burnett and Nesbit

Juvenile domestic fiction of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, aimed primarily at girl readers, differed significantly from the adventure tales of Ballantyne and Marryat and their peers, tales primarily intended for boys. Foster and Simons provide a convenient brief description of domestic fiction, a fiction that “emphasized feeling and emotional or psychological development in the private sphere of home and family, and portrayed the heroine’s growth to ideal womanhood.”1 Such domestic fiction grew out of evangelical writing earlier in the nineteenth century, writing that emphasized the moral and spiritual growth of characters in didactic ways. The most famous of these is probably Mrs. Sherwood’s The Fairchild Family (1818) in which the sections have titles like “The All-Seeing God” and the children are taken off to view a public hanging in order to impress upon them their probable end if they do not redeem themselves morally for various mild childhood transgressions. As was true for juvenile fiction as a whole, domestic fiction becomes less overtly didactic and evangelical over the course of the century, at the same time that sharper distinctions are being drawn between fiction for boys and fiction for girls. Girl heroines must still learn lessons, but the lessons become more social than theological. Ethel May, in Charlotte Yonge’s influential The Daisy Chain, or Aspirations (1856) must give up her scholarly ambitions in order to help support her orphaned siblings, which she does cheerfully. In most domestic fiction for girls, the heroines must give up aspirations for a more public life, or give up “madcap” or tomboy ways, or give up hopes for further education, in favor of the challenges and joys of domestic life. For girls, family life is not something to run away from (as it often is in adventure tales for boys) but rather is “as eventful and exciting as a voyage into the unknown.”2