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Marjory Fleming and Child Authors: The Total Depravity of Inanimate Things

  • Laurie Langbauer

…plus d’informations

  • Laurie Langbauer
    The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I. Introduction

Marjory Fleming (1803-1811) was a Scottish child who died before her ninth birthday. Her diary, published in England and America in competing editions from 1857-1934, became enormously popular, reflecting Victorian ideas about children, the past, and adult identity. Recovery of that work and its cultural centrality poses questions about how critics interpret children, especially child authors.

Victorian studies has seen much recent interest in the figure of “the child,” but, despite innovative work by Lee Edelman or Carolyn Steedman among others, the theoretical model for thinking about children remains largely unchanged since Jacqueline Rose’s 1984 landmark study, The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Literature. That study focused on the adult constructions of the child, arguing that adults objectify children by trying to speak through and for them. Rose asserted that knowledge of children themselves was “impossible,” always a projection, and that adults should acknowledge the child as an unknown and unknowable other. However useful this deconstruction of adult investments in children has been, it has proven less generative when considering another kind of “children’s literature,” literature produced by children who write. Indeed, scholars including Steedman, Cathryn Halverson, Juliet McMaster and Christine Alexander have recognized our neglect of child authors and worked to find methods that will engage the different questions their authorship raises.

In this essay, to provide another approach to children and child authors, I turn to redefinitions of objectification and material culture that Bill Brown, the synthesizer of such disparate strands in literary studies, has called “thing theory.” The success of his yoking of competing approaches into a movement suggests that thing theory’s influence might prove capable of shifting in productive ways our entrenched understandings of children’s objecthood. Such a theory unsettles the divide between subject and object by assuming an inherent “thingliness” (as Barbara Johnson calls it) within subjects, as well as a kind of agency and voice possessed by things. It allows critics to reconsider children’s objectification, children’s writing, and theories of reference. Thing theory offers something new to the critical debate because, rather than stopping short at objects’ referential elusiveness, it wonders at their practical vitality.

Such wonder, such vitality, confront readers as well when we consider the popularity in the nineteenth century of Marjory Fleming. Fleming left behind writing that became a touchstone of adult fantasies about children, certainly, about their desire to transform children into objects of their affection. But Fleming’s writing also articulates something more. Though contemporary readers often expressed a longing to hear in her writing a voice that would respond to their needs, they knew that wish was doomed, that this departed child, like all lost beloved things, was dead to their requests. But readers at the time were not simply the dupes of their own desire. We might also take seriously the reasons they gave for their interest in Fleming’s writing: they heard in it an individual and inimitable character—unanticipated, surprising, playful, unruly, at odds with or in excess of any preconceptions—which compelled them to accord this hauntingly absent child some remains of agency, some remnant of voice. Victorian readers were aware of the fantasy behind their prosopopoeia, the need that drove the trope whereby they imagined that the child—pet, toy, inanimate, lifeless, inert—could speak. But Fleming’s writing trumped their expectations: it spoke back—startling, delighting, and unsettling them. The Victorians’ capacity to meet such surprise with something beyond their fixed ideas might make scholars today more optimistic about our ability to change our preconceptions of children’s representational possibilities.

Our recent theories of “the child” have had a hard time hypothesizing any site for children’s voices. Attention to the “child author”—whether in the anthology by Alexander and McMaster or Karen Sanchez-Eppler’s investigations of children’s authorship “in nineteenth-century attitudes of writing more generally” (65)—suggests a demand for new ways to imagine the child’s contributions to the debate. Taking “the child” precisely as (precious) thing, and considering the peculiar question of how things might speak, provides another approach to children’s writing. In its own musings and its reception, Fleming’s text wonders about the very thingness within it. It contemplates the desire for this secret life of things. “The secret life of things” is also how scholars such as Mark Blackwell summarize the impulse behind “it-narratives,” that curious eighteenth-century genre of articulate objects (toys, money) who recount their own histories. Blackwell reads it-narratives through thing theory (9-14); other scholars explain that by Fleming’s time such objects’ accounts had become relegated to children’s literature. [1] Fleming enacts this collapse of children and speaking things; her text becomes the key exhibit in a museum of what Victorians saw as poignantly eloquent artifacts. They accorded it the same kind of material status they gave to Fleming’s own childhood books, which were exhibited in her hometown after her death and which one editor discusses as relics (MacBean 12, 16) . Those books included the it-narrative Adventures of a Whipping-Top (1780). Indeed, Fleming’s eerie thingness comes through the merging of author and text that keeps readers from distinguishing between them; in the same way, her very “writing” seems both spiritual and material, an outpouring that eludes us and a copybook we can hold. This essay considers how children provide a revealing site for understanding what Brown declares as thing theory’s focus: “the way subjects and objects animate one another” (Sense 16).

II. Thing Theory

There has been an explosion of recent scholarship in nineteenth-century studies devoted to the figure of the child. [2] Yet the theoretical model shaping such study was set a generation ago. In The Case of Peter Pan (1984), Jacqueline Rose deconstructs the adult investments underlying our predisposition to see children as the epitome of some real thing. Like Philip Aries’s Centuries of Childhood (1960), which claimed “the child” didn’t exist until after the seventeenth century (the new category of childhood reflecting the rise of bourgeois forces), Rose considers “the child” as a construction. For Rose, childhood is a fantasy mirroring adult desire, which the child resists through the metonymic slide theorized by Jacques Lacan. Though Aries’s approach is historical and Rose’s poststructural, these disparate works critique the ways adults appropriate children’s alterity to serve their own ends, and objectify children in the process.

That understanding has shaped the discussion of the meaning of “the child” ever since. Subsequent influential work such as James Kincaid’s Child Loving (1992) has built upon this emphasis on adults’ instrumental use of children. Christine Roth, reviewing recent work, argues that Victorian studies still treats the child “as a tabula rasa, waiting to be inscribed with history and cultural meaning … an infinitely desirable Other … a blank space to be colonized … shaped by adult fantasies and anxieties” (148, 152). Though the books I listed as part of the recent interest in children are exemplary in tackling new issues and offering novel readings, criticism discussing children still spends a great deal of time warning against criticism discussing children—a necessary caution, no doubt, but also problematic. The idea that attending to children can only recycle adult fantasies has become so prevalent that Marah Gubar argues it overwhelmingly governs scholarship in the field of children’s literature. While she commends Rose’s caution against appropriating children (as do I), Gubar also thinks it is time to consider other possible meanings of the child (29-38).

Innovative work such as Steedman’s Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930 (1995) or Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) have suggested alternative historical and poststructural emphases that bypass or refuse a sense of the child as only a colonized other. Steedman urges us to retain the possibility of actual historical children, even if only as one fiction among many—she recounts searching census records and parish registers for the name of the watercress seller who speaks to Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor to recover some trace of the voices of Victorian working children (117-27). Edelman counters the notion of children as victims with a different kind of instrumentality that trades on protecting children in order to victimize others: the image of the child enforces for him a conservative regime that imposes a normative sense of self on adults who resist it (1-4). But no such alternatives have become widespread or prominent enough to shape scholarly discussion to the extent that Rose’s argument has.

In part, more attentiveness to Rose’s text might allow more nuanced responses. Rose stresses that misprision is an inescapable effect of signification—and so (she also stresses) is resistance to it. “Childhood is not an object” Rose writes, “although this is how [it is usually] understood” (12-13). She argues that the adult misprision of childhood is part of a fantasy of reference in which “objects speak directly” (47). In their own newness and clumsy grasp of language (the fantasy goes), “children are in touch with objects” (45) in a way adults have lost. This fantasy promises to “bypass the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the sign through the child” and “take language back to its [supposedly] pure and uncontaminated source in the objects of the immediate world” (47). Yet, for Rose, “the child” in this deluded sense also functions at the same time as what Slavoj Žižek calls a “‘sublime object’… [serving] to keep in social circulation what is most difficult and potentially unmanageable….” (xv). When adults regard the child as a thing in hopes of managing reference’s unknowable otherness, our reifications of the child also highlight its ongoing refusal of our definitions.

The complicated point of Rose’s poststructuralism is that critics cannot escape fantasies of childhood and reference. Rather than indicting others (as criticism on the child often nervously does in hopes somehow of avoiding their failures), she asks that we recognize that, as subjects constituted in language, we are implicated in paradoxes of representation. Such tricky nuance in Rose’s argument has been hard to retain in the debate influenced by her—like past scholars, I do my best to retain it here. What such qualifications suggest to me is that, rather than wring our hands about our implications in ideology or project it onto others, if critics were to acknowledge it as one of the conditions of analyses of the child, what different questions might we ask? What would it mean (to our theories of reference as well as about children) if we let things speak to us in language we did not—at least in our imagination of it— think we could control or even completely understand? What would happen if in certain contexts we raised questions about the distinctions we enforce between subject and object?

We might respond to Rose’s influence—regarding it not so much as rebuke but encouragement—by reassessing notions like “objectification.” We might reconsider Rose as a pioneer of an ongoing genealogy of objectification that includes Barbara Johnson among others. In Persons and Things (2008), Johnson asks “what if things are all we know?” (232). Working from Immanuel Kant and D. W. Winnicott, she argues that objectification is implicit within identity, and that “using people” is necessary to becoming one (94-105). How thingness constitutes the very subjectivity that defines itself by difference from it represents for her a generative rather than simply constraining paradox. What objectification might produce—not just identity, but thought, emotion, speech, action—has been the focus of recent scholarship in other disciplines. [3] That scholarship has become increasingly interested in what some practitioners of it see as things’ own material agency.” [4] Such inquiries explore not simply the reification of people or the personification of things but the undecidability of such distinctions.

In literary studies, a rethinking of the object’s supposed lack of identity, agency, and articulacy is “coming to be called ‘thing theory,’” John Plotz suggests in his review of this movement (“Sofa” 109). Indeed, “Thing Theory” is what Bill Brown unequivocally calls his introduction to the special issue of Critical Inquiry he edited in 2001 that consolidated the work of disparate scholars into a recognizable movement with himself at its head. By “thing theory” he refers to the philosophical trajectory he traced (and by doing so helped to forge) in that introduction and his subsequent book, A Sense of Things (2003), in which he juxtaposes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Marcel Mauss, Jaques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Lacan, Žižek, Georg Simmel, Jean Baudrillard, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Boris Arvatov, André Breton, Walter Benjamin, and Bruno Latour as just some of its practitioners, heaping up references to things in their texts in a list so rhizomic and proliferating that Geoffrey Harpham calls Brown’s “a work of scholarship in the age of Google” (140). Indeed, there were already scholars who had been carefully contextualizing the object in late eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century Britain when Brown burst onto the scene compared to whom his refusal to distinguish between varied, even antithetical, approaches, places, or periods may seem to some less judicious, even somewhat wild. [5] Brown acknowledges (and even asserts) his own belatedness, recounting how a colleague told him “things” had already been “the topic of the 1990’s” (“Thing” 13). But it is exactly this synthesis of unruly ways of reading into an unlikely movement with “thing theory” as its rallying cry that makes me want to retain this designation as audacious and forceful enough to perturb established ideas regarding children as things.

“Thing theory”—according to Brown (and John Plotz and Harpham)—moves out of the “object” (the unremarked detritus of the world, its peripheral clutter) into some understanding of the “thing,” defined, as Brown writes (paraphrasing Heidegger), as “the object materialized by human attention” (Sense 7). One of the writers Brown includes in his collection, Peter Schwenger, argues elsewhere that the attempt to imagine things outside our investments can only ultimately confront our inability to do so, as a “primal loss” or, worse (he quotes Giorgio Agamben), we attempt “to make an unobtainable object appear as if lost” (10-11). Nevertheless, thing theory implies that this doomed recognition of our desires for loved objects petitions the thing with different questions than a mute acceptance of its separateness and indifference might allow. Thing theory follows the “story of isolating and cherishing certain objects” (Brown, Sense 13), a story involving in part “a kind of prosopopoeia wherein the past comes to life again in the inanimate things left behind … [so that] things all but speak for themselves” (114).

Prosopopoeia, of course, has a long theoretical history, starting with Paul de Man, and continuing with J. Hillis Miller (1-12) as well as Barbara Johnson (12-23). In “Autobiography as De-Facement,” de Man suggests that giving voice to things is the trope underlying autobiography, another textual form that speaks on after its authors are lifeless and inert. For de Man, language is the response to something inanimate at the heart of what it means to be human. As Brown emphasizes, thing theory elaborates the prosopopoeiac gesture, how speaking things recount to us our humanness. Like de Man’s, his understanding of prosopopoeia unsettles our certainties that we control such rhetorical figures, that we confer voice through them, rather than that they confer life on us.

Literary criticism addressing the child author might also raise these issues as it recovers past texts it hopes may do more than simply confirm familiar preconceptions, texts that imagine instead the possibility of letting children speak for themselves. The intersection of thing theory and such recovery work could allow critics to negotiate the impasse of children’s reification; the shift out of object into thing doesn’t deny the thing’s excessiveness or incomprehensibility, but accords it some kind of agency nevertheless. “The story of objects asserting themselves as things … is the story of a changed relation to the human subject … of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation,” Brown writes (“Thing” 4). Such a shift could benefit childhood studies, stuck fast in its laudable resolve not simply to repeat the objectification of children. “We begin to confront the thingness of objects,” Brown adds, “when they stop working for us” (4).

III. Marjory Fleming

In 1808, a six-year-old Scottish girl was given a set of composition books in which to practice her penmanship. She wrote in them daily until her death at age eight from the complications of measles. With barely three years in which she was literate, hers makes the writing careers of her contemporaries Percy Shelley or John Keats (they would have been sixteen and thirteen when she started writing) seem ample, even leisurely, in comparison. Fleming completed three diaries, plus a book of poems; among her effects was a blank book with her name inscribed in it. Years later, the eloquence of its empty pages staggered her editors (MacBean 11). Her family saved her writing as a relic of her life.

Fifty years later, this writing—an amalgam of copybook and diary, its young writer’s refractory character literalized in a text that veers erratically from comic to poignant to unfathomable—became enormously popular. In 1847, after the writer H. B. Farnie was shown Fleming’s diaries, he published in the Fife Herald a short essay, Pet Marjorie: A Story of Child Life Fifty Years Ago. Farnie’s essay quoted little of Fleming’s text, but offered itself as that writing’s reliquary meant to memorialize the child. It inaugurated a series of substitutions in which editors inscribed their own stories over her (misspelling her name in the bargain). Farnie’s was reprinted as a pamphlet in 1858; the Edinburgh physician and writer John Brown published another version in 1863, fleshed out by a few more excerpts from her diaries. Brown’s essay (with a probably manufactured tale of Walter Scott’s love for her) became the preferred legend, and Fleming a “cultural phenomenon” that was to flourish throughout the nineteenth century (A. Johnson 82). The dailies reported that Fleming’s diaries had “attracted the notice of the Queen” (“Caledonian Notice”); the weeklies that one edition had sold over “fifteen thousand copies” (Masson 580).

Leslie Stephen gave Fleming an entry in The Dictionary of National Biography in 1898, claiming “[n]o more fascinating infantile author has ever appeared.” (281). Robert Louis Stevenson and Algernon Charles Swinburne paid tribute in their writing. Mark Twain learned of Fleming from Brown personally; after his own daughter’s death, he wrote an essay—“Marjorie Fleming: the Wonder Child” (1909)—introducing to America Lachlan MacBean’s 1904 biography of her. In his 1905 review of nineteenth-century literature, Andrew Lang summarized: “It is superfluous to quote from … Marjorie Fleming; every one knows about her and her studies” (73). In 1935, Walter De La Mare still thought her “almost too famous” (418). In 1934, Arundell Esdaile, once head of the British Museum, printed a collotype facsimile edition of Fleming’s journals and, in 1935, Frank Sidgwick provided a transcription of them, The Complete Marjory Fleming: Her Journals, Letters & Verses, making all her writing generally available for the first time. [6]

Fleming’s long, uneven progress into the public domain, from family relic to some thing “complete” in itself, the inaccessibility of her own words for much of this progress, parceled out in tightfisted excerpts by the editors who controlled them: all this acts out the unstable relationships between thing, writing, child to an audience that participates in that instabiliy. Fleming became a household name, a unique signifier of childhood innocence, early death, pathos, and regret, invested wth a public cathexis difficult today to appreciate. For the Victorians, Fleming was the touchstone of the romantic child; for modern feminist scholars, she has been the monitory image of the objectification inherent within that fantasy (A. Johnson, McMaster, Judith Plotz). Fleming’s diaries tell us about both the child and her writing as things, though the supposed self-evidence of the thing is precisely what texts like Fleming’s help to put into question. Rose warns that any adult attempt to define the child falls into an instrumentality that uses others for its own ends. Thing theory, on the contrary, influenced by Theodor Adorno’s contention that “granting the physical world its alterity is the very basis for accepting otherness as such,” finds its ethical impulse precisely through confronting thingness as important on its own terms (Brown, Sense 18). Attending to the child as thing opens up the nexus of self and writing as a conceptual problem—especially if we consider the scattered texts written by children and prized by adults as precious keepsakes, tokens of loss. Such things, things in general, seem important because we believe they remember something that we cannot.

We have Fleming’s writing at all because it was writing at its most material—not literary production but handwriting exercises. Fleming’s text is a homemade copybook, one book among several, part of her own collection of cherished things. Her cousin and tutor Isabella Keith set her daily to write in it to practice her letters; Fleming delighted in the exercise so much that, on several occasions, Isa disciplines her by forbidding Fleming to proceed “till she writes better” (Sidgwick 88). We can read that prohibition both literally and metaphorically; the materiality ascribed to Fleming’s “writing” collapses both, performing that “peculiar ‘spectralization of the other’ that Terry Castle … has identified as a profound development of the late eighteenth century, a cultural disposition whereby … the other is … more fully present via material objects … associated with him” (Campbell 281). Campbell moves here from Castle’s suggestion that the gothic novel (its characters haunted by images of those they love) uncannily collapses the psychic and physical worlds to argue that the same economy determines other contemporary forms: ads for lost objects and it-narratives. The “mysterious power of loved ones to … ‘appear’ when one contemplates the objects with which they are associated” (Castle 127-28) suggests to Campbell that things especially conjure up this entanglement of spectral and material.

Fleming writes from the faultline between them. “Marjorie’s journals are full of surprises,” one editor writes (MacBean 72). She “mix[es] up curiously the spiritual and the material worlds” (111). In Fleming’s orthographic inability to distinguish between “thing” and “think,” for instance, stumbling over the difference between “g” and “k” (Sidgwick 55, 65), her writing performs an unheimlich intermingling of subject and object, life and death, which helps to explain some of the spookiness of Fleming’s critical heritage: this small, noisy ghost made to figure loss and lack. Fleming’s mother, writing after her death, says “never did I behold so beautiful an object. It resembled the finest wax-work” (Sidgwick 149). The force of her story for her editors is that “this dainty, bright thing” comes “quick to confusion” (J. Brown 193). They assert Fleming understood herself as thing, imagining her lying on her deathbed, savoring that she “had been the loved object which … invoked” affection (J. Brown, 72).

Fleming’s writing calls forth these traditional investments in the child that Rose highlights, but it also anticipates and exposes this conventional way of making sense of children. “Objects have a Perfectness,” Schwenger argues, “a vivid and indifferent presence that sets off … the very opposite of indifference [in the perceiver]: a kind of longing towards something that continuously recedes into dimensions of loss” (6). For the Romantics, we imagine, dead children were perfect in just this way. Otherworldly, intangible, reflecting the heartfelt lack of mourners nostalgic for an unobtainable state, never realized, always gone—Frances Ferguson finds it “uncontroversial” that critics locate within Romanticism this new attitude to childhood: “the child is unrepresentable,” she argues, is, in fact, a figure for such unrepresentability (215, 232). For Bill Brown, however, the child is not thing but agent, a small theorist, a thing theorist (Sense 6-7). [7] It is through children’s deliberate misuse of things (the first dada-ists, for them a truck can magically become a table) that they defamiliarize the object and reveal the codes that have trapped its identity (6-14): “Children,” he argues “are adept at exposing the secret life of things” (“How” 954).

This is as much an adult fantasy of children—making the child into a puppet ventriloquizing thing theory’s truth—as any emphasis on their inanimate perfection. The child as theorist has a heritage that goes back through Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud, as far back as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s objectification of Hartley Coleridge. Nevertheless, to emphasize that children expose as much as they figure in the secret life of things keeps hold of a perplexity that can easily get over-simplified. This multiplicity of meaning was part of Fleming’s romantic heritage.

In considering the birth of the consumer society before the nineteenth century, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb locate children as both subject and cherished object. Children began to be offered such commodities as their own books, for instance, because, by the early 1800s, “children … had become luxury objects” too, on which their parents lavished money: “they had become superior pets—sometimes spoilt excessively … sometimes treated with indifference or even brutality, but usually, as with pets, betwixt and between” (312). [8] To constitute pet children as betwixt and between—thing and human, object and subject, dead and immortal—and to imagine their ultimate indifference to such investments: this was the nostalgic memorial to nineteenth-century childhood that J. M. Barrie would inscribe in 1904 in Peter Pan.

But this meaning of the child imposed retroactively upon the nineteenth century was also a meaning transpiring within that period. For Judith Plotz, the romantic child appears at the juncture between the Romantics and Victorians but is original to neither (Romanticism 4-5). Fleming’s writing became emblematic for Victorians’ own romantic childhoods (“tis fifty years since”), the bad bargain they made with their own past, conjuring a “timeless figure of essential childhood” in the face of material changes they preferred to ignore (including “the … ugliness of child exploitation” that came from treating children as things) (5, 39). Catherine Robson argues that nineteenth-century writers such as Lewis Carroll conjured perfect little girls as stand-ins for everything they had lost. [9] Victorians sought out diaries by girls as mementoes of loss—Fleming’s was only the most famous. [10] The recovery of such texts does not depose categories like the romantic child nor offer direct access to an actual romantic child, talking back. Instead, aligning such childhood explicitly with the life of things suggests a different constitution of that life.

Her Victorian editors, like all adults, quoted the bits of Fleming’s writing that fit their preconceptions of what a child should be. Their reification of her into an immortal souvenir of times gone by was founded on their repeated assertions of the materiality of her crumbling copy-books. They mention the traces of Fleming’s dead hand haunting their days, the poignancy of her faded letters. When her manuscripts are for a time lost, they long for them, sure they could provide a more direct connection than the faithful transcripts Brown had passed down (MacBean 133). The sense that Fleming’s handwriting itself was important lay behind the decision, once the National Library recovered the original manuscripts, to bring out the first full edition in “the photographic verisimilitude of the collotype process” (Sidgwick v). Afterwards, although there was no longer any practical need for it, Sidgwick still argued that “the ideal way to study Marjory’s work is … [to] peruse the originals” (v).

Nineteenth-century poets such as Anna Letitia Barbauld compose lines on ladies’ neat handwriting, suggesting it is the trace that speaks for the self. Critics of children’s writing have examined their marginalia—the writing children produced within the writing they had to read—as “clues to the hidden history of childhood” (Adams 39). The material fact of Fleming’s handwriting supposedly ensures the authenticity of her meaning (MacBean, when the original was unavailable, even prints as next best a collotype example of Brown’s handwritten transcription). Modern editors offer the reproduction of her writing as preserving the trace of Fleming’s hand—supposedly providing a less obstructed apprehension of the thing itself, a corrective to “the ‘fog of sentimentality’ in which Marjory’s Victorian editors swathed her” (Sidgwick vi).

Yet the very blots and squiggles of Fleming’s writing that testify to her identity as child also call it into question. Barbauld’s poetry on handwriting implies that handwriting’s illegibility can unsettle representations of the self. [11] For some literary critics, the thingness of writing within this period evacuates its potential; its possibilities “dwindle to the material traces of writing. The object replaces the subject” (Benedict 203). Historians of penmanship argue it is tied to problems within identity: the emphasis on good penmanship in the nineteenth century was “premised ... [on] the fraught question of personal agency and technical mastery. Am I skilled enough for the modern world?” (Dierks 488). [12] Writing can trace the poignancy of identity’s lack.

The growth of print culture in general and autobiography as a genre in particular just at the time Fleming was writing, scholars suggest, grow out of modern ideas of the self (Hess), but few scholars have paid specific attention to child authors’ place in that process. [13] I would argue that children’s manuscripts are a key symbol of the fantasy that an archaic mode of literary production—symbolized by children’s uncertain mastery of the very handwriting that mechanical print supplanted—still resides in print culture. The emotional investment editors brought to Fleming’s penmanship reflects this nostalgia for an idealized pre-capitalist, pre-commodified past. Children’s labored scrawl provides a mark of the hand (readers hoped) that guaranteed an authentic social or individual past, no matter how far modern adults had fallen from it. The evidence of her handwriting as guarantor of authenticity—attesting that she was truly a child, but also inscribing the outlines containing identity itself and marking its relation to embedded social practices (such as literacy)—was only one of the first in what became a convention of children’s texts; Sarah Fairfax and Mary Paxson are among the scores of subsequent child authors whose texts contain facsimiles of their handwritten manuscript. In fact, any child authored text, whether journal, fiction, or poetry, that did not include this sign of itself became an exception.

The need for handwriting as mark of childish identity, however, comes out of a romantic history of child authors that undercuts the certainty of that evidence. As much as any hope for authenticity, the spuriousness of simulacra (copies without an original) prompted the need to replicate the child’s hand. That “marvellous boy,” Thomas Chatterton (as Wordsworth called him)—an adolescent author still well known in literary circles when Fleming was writing, who shaped the reception of children writing ever after—presented his juvenile manuscripts (some written when he was twelve) as works he had discovered by a medieval priest, Rowley. “Anti-Rowleians,” including Horace Walpole and Charles Lamb, insisted on Chatterton’s forgery by pointing to the penmanship of the manuscripts (Chatterton supposedly overdid his faux black letter script, flourishing his “e’s” seventeen different ways, for instance, rather than forming them consistently). [14]Yet, rather than somehow discrediting him, for the Romantics Chatterton’s ability to carry off the impersonation paradoxically confirmed the boy as poetic genius. Children’s handwriting can be an authentic sign of inauthenticity too, a proof of how their imagination (and perhaps ours in dwelling on them) can outdo reality—which then becomes the basis of their writing’s distinctive identity.

IV. The Total Depravity of Inanimate Things

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a letter to the New York Times, answering an earlier query about a catchphrase of the day—“the total depravity of inanimate things”—mistakenly attributes it to John Brown, (mis)identifying it as the title of another essay in the collection containing his account of Fleming (Bliss). The Victorians meant by the depravity of things something like Murphy’s law, except they located within things themselves the propensity for things to turn out badly, located it within things that knotted, unraveled, twisted, tripped and ensnarled them, that heavy presence of objects that is to us one hallmark of the period. [15] Brown, despite the Times’ attribution, never wrote an essay of this name, perhaps never used this popular construction at all, at least as far as I can tell through my researches. Yet it makes sense that readers would associate the writer known for popularizing Fleming with the depravity of things, not just because some Victorians were horrified by Fleming—Dinah Craik, for instance, found her lack of self-control immoral [16]—but because Fleming’s writing opens up the meaning of “depravity” through its depiction of what the otherness of childhood could mean.

“My dear Isa,” Marjory Fleming wrote to her sister, sometime around 1809, when she was six. “I now sit down on / my botom to answer all / your kind and beloved / letters which you was so / good as to write to me./ This is the first time / I ever wrote a letter / in my life” (Sidgwick 157). Brown decorously omitted “my botom,” though later editors did not, but to do something “on one’s bottom” was a nineteenth-century idiom; it meant to do it independently. [17] Brown could only read it literally and Twain too, though he cited it as precious, responds as if Fleming’s use of it filled up an otherwise empty phrase, resuscitated a dead metaphor: the sturdy little figure plunked determinedly on her seat. This fantasy of the child, somehow closer to the clouds of glory of the referent, is as Rose has argued a fantasy of language. The language of Fleming’s text comes to seem to its readers a material object itself—her writing “is about as clever a thing as we know of” a reviewer writes in 1864 (“Clever” 580) [18]—and the child it conjures is the most palpable item in its inventory.

But also depraved in the sense of lacking restraint, though her editors, unlike Craik, appreciated this shortage. They laud the artless vitality of her writing. They call her “a merry inconsequent babbler” (MacBean 1), “passionate, wild, wilful, fancy’s child” (Brown 207). They speak of her ingenuous “prattle” (Brown 221) and her unconscious facility: “Indeed yes; when she sits down on her bottom to do a letter, there isn’t going to be any lack of materials, nor of fluency,” Twain writes (362). Yet Fleming recounts instead her painful training in restraint and control, her own sense of depravity in need of correction. “[T]here / is a new novel published nam- / ed selfcontroul a very goo[d] / maxam forsooth” (Sidgwick 100), she tells us. She tells over and over her recalcitrance and corruption: she calls someone a “bitch,” flings her work down the stairs, is dragged roaring from the room, throws a book—and in recounting every miscreancy she “fall[s] a victom to remorse.” A depraved thing herself, she finds that “remorse is the worst thing / to bear” (92).

The same hard-won regulation with which she patches together recalcitrant impulses wrests out of the chaos of her materials through the logos of her writing a self recognizable in its materiality—this struggle is the principle informing her journals. Riot and restraint consort throughout them. Her cousin’s complaints that she “dis- / turbed her repose at night by contu- / nial figiting and kicking” (24) and that “she cannot Sleep with me. I’m so very restless. I danced over her legs in the morning and she cried Oh dear you mad Girl, Madgie!” (162) provide some sense of the tempo and movement of Fleming’s writing. Fleming writes often about the pleasures of crawling into Isabella’s warm bed, in part, like Pygmalion, to transfer some of her own dynamic life to her inert and unreceptive Galatea: “I went into Isabellas bed to make her smile / like the Genius Demedicus the statute in an- / -cient Greece” (8). She is incensed when Isabella keeps on sleeping. But she also recounts on those double-ruled lines in her labored hand the intricate discipline of her love for her cousin, lying awake and holding herself still, making herself into a statue, simply to please her: “Every Morn I / awake before Isa & / Oh I wish to be up / & out with the turkies / but I must take / care of Isa who / when aslipe is as / beautifull as Viness / & Jupiter in the / skies” (67-68). Fleming casts herself and Isabella as effigies, transforms them both into things, precisely to commemorate their mutual cherishing.

But such effigies can seem to the audience circling outside them mute, unresponsive, inscrutable: how do these silent forms tell us what we need to know? Brown recounts a fabulous tale of Fleming schooling Scott in nursery and counting rhymes, ticking off on her fingers the nonsense syllables upon which he founders as, tables turned, he stands before her to his lessons:

Wonery, twoery, tickery, seven;
Alibi, crackaby, ten and eleven;
Pin, pan, musky, dan;
Tweedle-um, twoddle-um,
Twenty-wan; eerie, orie, ourie,
You, are, out.


Just as Brown tries to make “Musky Dan” into something material, a legible character (“bringing up [in Scott’s mind] an Irishman and his hat fresh from the Spice Islands and odiferous Ind” [205]), Brown tries to make sense of Fleming’s otherness by invoking similarly impoverished stereotypes: romantic child, haunting ghost, waxwork girl. But making Fleming into something concrete and recognizable in order to pin her down rarely works for these Victorian editors. The eeriness of the spectralized other shows that her auditors and readers—as much as she—are ultimately out: outside the firelit room, our small span in the mortal realm, outside of meaning itself, dispossessed by the very things they possess. “What did Marjorie think she was saying?” MacBean muses over some addled word. “[D]id she use it without attaching any meaning to it at all? Children sometimes do such things. The word is at first quite empty, but it becomes filled with a mental content in the using” (43).

Initially, the irony in Fleming’s text seems all at Fleming’s expense; editors grin fondly at her unintentional misuses: “Isabella this morning taught me / some Franch words one of which / is bon suar the interpretation / is good morning” (Sidgwick 127); the “‘interpretation’ is not very exact,” MacBean comments dryly (37). Editors enjoy too Fleming’s contention that “Expostulations of all kind are very / frivolous Isabella thinks this nonsense / so I will say no more about Expos- / tulations” (Sidgwick 112). Perhaps Fleming just wisely holds her council here: for a child much expostulated with by adults, their reproofs and admonishments must sometimes have seemed to her both silly and in vain. To call them frivolous is, in fact, to accord them a generous interpretation, to translate them into a kind of misguided frolic, to imagine adults engaged in child’s play. In a letter to Fleming’s mother written after the child’s death, Isabella Keith indeed laments her expostulations (she was herself just seventeen when she started tutoring Fleming)—“the strictness and severity of the mistress which I have often found a painful restraint on my affection. I should have enjoyed her society as a companion and a playmate; it is foolish and needless to harass myself with such regrets” (Sidgwick 182).

But out of those regrets might grow a nuanced response to the unruliness of the child, the total depravity of inanimate things, that yields respect for the difficulty and necessity of taking any place in the symbolic: what if the thingness of the child, breaking down subject and object, might show us our place better than we imagine? In her very first letter, Fleming writes:

Potune a Lady of my
acquaintance praises me
dreadfully—I repeated
something out of Deen
Sweft and she said
I was fit for the Stage
and you may think
I was primmed up
with majestick Pride
but upon my word I
felt myselfe turn a
little birsay birsay is
a word which is a word
that William [her brother, ten years old at this time] com
posed which is as you
may suppose a little
enraged.—This horid
fat Simpliton says
that my Aunt is
beautifull which is intire
ly impossible for that
is not her nature.—


She writes elsewhere: “Miss Potune is very / fat she pretends to be very / learned she says she saw a / stone that dropt from the / skies, but she is a good christian” (98-99). Twain felt children’s sharp noticing of adults to be instructive; he included his daughter’s biography of him in his autobiography, and mimicked this trenchant voice in Huckleberry Finn. He finds Fleming’s dismissal of Miss Potune irresistible, an instance of that “pepper, or vinegar, or vitriol … employed by genius to save a literary work of art from flatness and vapidity. And as for judgments and opinions, they … have weight, too, and are convincing…. [F]or thirty-six years they have damaged that ‘horid Simpliton’ in my eyes” (362). That damage also complicates attempts to find a weight in Fleming’s words that make them into something concrete, the stone dropped from the skies that theorists kick to prove the actuality of childhood, or of adulthood for that matter—for adults, it should be stressed, occupy a subject position equally illusory, although with more at its disposal.

Critics wishing to hold open some possibility of “the child” assert the child’s own theories transform scripts written by adults. Carolyn Steedman claims that, although “[a]dults wanted children to write … [to further] the establishment by adults of a set of theories about childhood,” nevertheless, children’s writing—whatever else it may be—is also a kind of reciprocal theory about adulthood: “a kind of theoretical construct” (Tidy 64, 61). For Ferguson, the Romantic “introduction of a divide between adults and children” rests squarely in this: that “the two groups may speak the same language and, indeed, use the same words, but that the child will not mean what the adult does by them” (223). Fleming’s picture of Miss Potune is one such theory by the child, who while performing for the adult imagination solidly remakes its language to turn the tables upon it.

As Fleming recognizes, however, mimicry that destabilizes is precarious. “The Monkey gets as many vi- / -sitors as I or my cousins,” she confides to her journal (Sidgwick 5), attesting to the appeal of Pug’s irreverent impersonations. In her poem on this monkey, however, she emphasizes simultaneously this “thing’s” exposure to his audience’s criticism along with his rebuff of it: “There is a thing I love to see / That is our monkey catch a flee / With lo[o]ks that shews that he is prou[d] / He gathers round him such a crowd / But if we scold [him] he will grin / And up he…ll jump and make a din” (22). The monkey is simple enough initially to feel pride in his aping, which Fleming is not, and she is right, for adult admiration can quickly turn to expostulation. [19]

Fleming has been characterized as a pet, the epitome of pathos, a brief thing gone too soon, but she anticipates and to some degree refuses this response by her reflections on pathetic creatures: she prefaces her remarks about Miss Potune with references to such creatures: “There / are a great many / Girls in the Square / and they cry just / like a pig when we / are under the pain / -full necessity of putting / it to Death.” (157-58). “There is a dog that yels continualy / & I pity him to the bottom of my heart / indeed I do,” she writes (4). These wailing creatures, full of pain and passion but still dumb, seem to figure Rose’s notion of the impossibility of the child’s voice. They forever mouth as if it were their own fantasies of what others think they would say. Yet Fleming’s poem on the monkey, or on the dead young turkeys whose mother “did not give a singel dam” (29) about their passing (proverbial in its time), bristles up at the sentimentality of prevailing theories of the child (as Twain well knew) and suggests other motives for these vexing things’ lack of speech (such as indifference).

Fleming to some degree reinvents her language: birsay and beautifull seem less accidental than purposeful code shared with her siblings to elude the judgments of the learned. “Birsie” may indeed be a Scottish word meaning “to bristle,” as Sidgwick writes (198 n159-9), but just how devastating to her aunt is Fleming’s judgment that being “beautiful” is not in her nature we will never know; we can only hope never to be sized up thus ourselves. This notion of language as material, palpable, sufficient to itself—“a word which is a word” as she calls it—infects Twain too: “[Marjory’s judgments] have even imposed upon me—and most unfairly and unwarrantably—an aversion to the horid fat Simpliton’s name; a perfectly innocent name, and yet, because of the prejudice against it with which this child has poisoned my mind for a generation I cannot see ‘Potune’ on paper and keep my gorge from rising” (362-63). The mangled state—morally or orthographically—in which we find Potune after Fleming has at her engulfs adult prerogatives and complicates her editors’ attempts to locate her childishness in her cute misspellings. In glossing Fleming’s handwriting, Sidgwick writes: “The name is quite clearly written: Brown printed ‘Portune.’ ‘Fortune’ is possible.” (194 n198-10). If Miss Potune is perhaps Miss Fortune, then the palpableness of the misery she creates is indeed written out on the very flesh: “it was the very / same Divel that tempted / Job that tempted me … but he resisted satan / though he had boils and many other mis- / fortunes which I have es- / caped,” Fleming writes (46; emphasis added), and later she repeats: “I [am] very very / glad that satan has not ge- / ven me boils and many other Misfortunes” (50; emphasis added).

The child becomes textualized, the text becomes material, oozing meaning. Adult mis-fortune is tempted at this border, even though we see behind its enticements the very devil that is death. The Victorians attempt to domesticate an eerie otherness by reviving their childhoods through Fleming’s, but read it knowing death wrote its finish. Fleming’s text too, as much as her biography, is a memento mori which ends in vanitas: readers turn the last page of her diaries to come with a start upon a strange copy exercise in which she traces repeatedly the spare message “Amend Bone / Amend Bone / Amend Bone” (Sidgwick 154) until the book and all writing end in a final transcription of her name.

Three months before she died of measles, Fleming wrote to Isabella:

 We are surrounded with
measles at present on every
side for the Herons got it an[d]
 Isabella Heron was near
deaths door and one night
her father lifted her out of bed
And she fell down as they thou[ght]
 lifeless Mr Heron said that lassie
is dead now she said I’m no dead
yet she then threw up a big
worm nine inches and a half

Sidgwick 166-67

The ironies here are poignant—this stand-in’s purging of death’s worm wishful—all of it too insistently corporeal to be pleasant. Indeed these stories have a counterphobic graphicness that undermines the sentimental depiction of Fleming as ethereal specter. Discomfort, queasiness, even recoil all seem possible responses—pathos and nostalgia much harder to manage in the face of them. “A great many authors have expressed / themselfes too sentimentaly I am stu- / dying what I like,” Fleming writes (105).

Rather than considering herself, a child, as ghost, she figures Isabella as one—not just in this letter in her child-double (Isabella Heron’s) name, but also in a story she recounts about her cousin Isabella:

Some days ago Isabella had a tereable fit of the
toothake and she walked with a long nightshift
at dead of night like a gost and [I] thought she
was one she prayed for, tired natures sweet
restorer bamy sleep but did not get it
a ghostly figure she was indeed enough to ma[ke]
 a saint tremble it made me quever & shake
from top to toe … Superstition is a very very mean thing.


Ghosts haunt us by their material undecidability—are they real or not? Indeed, they translate human corporealness from object into thing by retaining some trace of materiality, whether imagined as ectoplasm or the faded traces of a child’s hand, whatever element we invest with their (de)composition.

Such material undecidability provides another arresting moment:

every thing bears a pleasure to the
eye when we look on them
Th[e]re is some beautiful trees behind the house &
before the house which makes it very
I have been a Naughty Girl
I have been a Naughty Girl
The lofty trees their heads do shake…


Sidgwick suggests that the double “I have been a Naughty Girl” records different voices, that for some infraction of Fleming’s Isabella has written the first line and compelled Fleming to copy it below (189 n28-1). Of all the moments in the text, this one seems the most perturbing; its undecidable play of citation and use highlights the sadism always potentially structuring the roles of adult and child. This moment of asymmetry unsettles the text enough to imagine a gap in which, if we listened, we might in the silence imagine a different voice, even if all we can do is represent it (sentimentally, yes, but also no) through its cries and lamentations. This would be neither the authentic voice of the child nor the echo of adult desire. It would articulate rather the relationship between child and adult that shapes both positions, the language which summons them and is the ether in which they can rise up, the language perhaps in which “every thing [might bear] a pleasure” rather than a sorrow if we knew how to keep the child’s writing (any writing) from such interruptions.

Adults desire the child as the thing par excellence to ensure the authenticity of identity, and gesture to material evidence such as the concreteness of their immature and faltering scrawl. This propensity of things to narrate their (and thereby our) autobiographies is already inscribed within the story her editors tell about Fleming. As substantiation of it, MacBean offers examples of the materiality of other writing: in addition to reproducing a page of Brown’s transcription of her journal, he also reproduces the front pages from a book supposedly owned by Fleming, Mary Ann Kilner’s “it-narrative,” The Adventures of a Whipping-Top (1780), “with Stories of Many Bad Boys, who themselves deserve Whipping, and of some Good Boys, who deserve Plum-Cakes, Written by Itself” (MacBean 16). These metonymic substitutions for the fact of Fleming’s writing offer their thingness, any thingness, as long as the writing is “written by itself,” as testimony to its genuineness, fidelity, veracity, actuality—to whatever abstract or spiritual quality it is that endows such things with life.

Campbell and Jonathan Lamb have explored the crying of lost things implicit within it-narratives; they argue such narratives are infused with conventions taken from eighteenth-century newspaper advertising—a highly conventionalized form, often concocted entirely out of whole cloth while presenting itself as if about real missing things. The wish behind such mystified conventions, Campbell argues, is that “through detailed, particularizing description in the public realm of print, … the personal losses, needs, or wants of individuals—their incompleteness as private selves—may be mended, remedied, or resolved” (252).  [20] It makes sense that Fleming’s account was first introduced in the pages of a newspaper, the Fife Herald. It was offered as a kind of advertisement for a time and way of life lost to mid-century British Victorians, its remnants just perceptible in the byways of Scotland, in the forgotten customs and phrases of past times (Farnie x-xi, 14, 42-43, 61-62). W.J.T. Mitchell argues that the Romantics were obsessed with childhood itself as trace of a “lost world;” critics, he implies, repeat the gesture of the text when, “not content with historicizing romanticism, we seem to want it to do more for us, to revive or renovate our own time” (184).

Fleming’s editors told over and over again to a Victorian generation eager to read it the story of a lost thing, a dead child, written by itself. Fleming, as we have seen, often wrote explicitly about “thing-ness,” by which she came largely to mean sentiment: “Sorrow is a thing that sadines / the heart” (108); “love is a very papithatik thing as well as / troubelsom & tiresme” (109); “O passion is a terrible / thing for it leads people from sin to sin” (110). “God Almighty,” she writes near the end of her journals, “knows every / thing that we do or say & he can kill you / in a moment” (131). To read in Fleming’s story the crying of a lost thing, to imagine it recording its secret life, is nowhere more insistent than in one of the most frequently quoted passages from Fleming’s writing, remarked on for its pathos. In the midst of her litany of childish failings, she confesses that:

I have been
more like a little young
Devil than a creature for
when Isabella went up
 the stairs to teach me … to be good
and all my other lessons
I stamped with my feet
and threw my new hat
which she made on the
ground and was sulky an[d]
was dreadfully passionate
but she never whipped me
but gently said Marjory
go into another room and
think what a great crime
you are committing
letting your temper
git the better of you
but I went so sulkily that
the Devil got the better of me
but she never never whip[s]
me so that I thinke I would
be the better of it and the
next time I behave
ill I think she should do it.


This passage records what we (readers and critics) think we want to hear, the wish of that which we treat as thing to be animated by us—a dutiful student of the mechanics of the whipping top, what makes it go, Fleming writes down for her tutor to read her own wish to be whipped. The imaginative capacity to hear the language of things, to read what is “written by itself,” may very well (despite its wishfulness) recast the potential of the object. Nevertheless, that willful imposition writes its force onto the story, makes the object carry the burden of its power (like her early editors, we still insist that Fleming see her self as an object; we remark at the poignancy that she wishes her elders to punish her).

Thing theory helps us to consider the objectified child as speaking thing, to explore its uncanny, inhuman agency. After all, “the process of attributing language and intentionality to objects can be referred to as interpretation” (Tamen 118; emphasis added); whipping things up to speak is what we as critics do. Through our prosopopoeia, we wish to hear the child, we strive to remember her, we hope to find her speaking in a different register of a life we too once had, the secret life of things. Things in their “depravity” strike us as “corrupt”—the standard meaning of the word records our need to try to purge the worm within ourselves. But another meaning of the word—as “perverse”—registers as well our understanding that they will refuse such desires. The OED tells us that “depravement” also means ”misinterpretation;” “to deprave” can mean to corrupt the meaning of a text or word, to misconstrue. Things in their total depravity help our interpretations of the child best when they leave us with questions about where we began and what we know.

Parties annexes