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The buried life of the facts of life: Female physical development in nineteenth-century British coming-of-age literature

Jacqueline H Harris, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Scholarship on coming-of-age literature tends to occlude or suppress the fact that while characters embark on spiritual journeys to formulate identity, development during adolescence is also inherently physical. While nineteenth-century propriety dictated relative public and private silence regarding these transformations, audiences were aware that girls who become young women experienced puberty. I argue that euphemistic treatment of and concern with the female adolescent body pervaded medical texts and conduct books and that literature featuring the coming-of-age figure demonstrates a preoccupation with female sexual development. This interdisciplinary work brings together historical, medical, and social contexts with literary scholarship. Thus, this project seeks to expose signs of female physical development and maturation in Romantic- and Victorian-era literature: in other words, the buried life of the facts of life. ^ In Part One, "The Facts of Life," three chapters establish a foundation for the contexts necessary for proper literary investigation. Chapter One, "Historic Perceptions and Misperceptions of the Female Adolescent Body," discusses the historic significance of adolescence. In Chapter Two, "Societal Expectations, Idealization, and Advice from Conduct Books," I assess cultural conditioning of the physical coming-of-age experience. And in Chapter Three, "Nineteenth-Century Females' Coming-of-Age Practices," I report on day-to-day life. ^ In Part Two, "The Buried Life of the Facts of Life," I apply this framework to a variety of nineteenth-century literature written for and about female coming-of-age figures to reveal the buried physicality of these characters. Chapter Four, "Breeding Virtuous Young Women in Mary Martha Sherwood's Revision of The Governess (1820)," analyzes Sherwood's editorial changes to Sarah Fielding's pioneering children's story. In Chapter Five, "The Weight of Womanhood in George MacDonald's The Light Princess (1864)," I argue the author imbues his fairy tale with allusions to female sexual development. Chapter Six, "Differentiating Female Adolescent Bodies in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1864-65)," addresses the metaphoric representation of the Thames and the evolutionary representation of Jenny Wren. Last, in Chapter Seven, "Signaling Adolescent Transition in L.T. Meade's A World of Girls (1886) and Red Rose and Tiger Lily (1894)," I argue these school stories include signifiers of female sexual physical development.^

Subject Area

Literature, General|Women's Studies|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Harris, Jacqueline H, "The buried life of the facts of life: Female physical development in nineteenth-century British coming-of-age literature" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3689629.