Juvenile agency and the making of political elites: subversion and the childhood archive of Eva Knatchbull-Hugessen (1861-95)

Kathryn Gleadle (Oxford)
4 February 2016

The nineteenth-century was the age of writing and Victorians were avid archivists of their own words. What is especially striking is the extent to which juvenile material was incorporated within family collections. As Sanchez-Eppler has observed [2005], the universality and temporary nature of childhood makes it an especially valuable tool with which to probe the construction of class and identity. Juvenile texts enable us to explore how these subjectivities were expressed and reaffirmed in familial manuscript practices. In so doing it will consider how children themselves were active participants in the creation of family and literary cultures. In the process, the young not only passively reproduced, but also questioned, mimicked and satirised family norms.

The paper will take as its focus the extraordinary juvenile archive of Eva Knatchbull-Hugessen. Eva’s extensive literary corpus enables us to reassess our understanding of Victorian girlhood. New opportunities for female education are seen to emerge out of the agency of girls themselves, and not just from the activities of adult campaigners. Eva was one of a generation of girls to participate in national networks of manuscript magazines, for example, - a vast and diffuse literary genre which literary historians are yet to explore. She devised a diary code to covertly record her secret study of the classics – a project which was to eventually win her a place at Newnham College, Cambridge. In many ways Eva reproduced elite behaviour and norms within her local parish in Kent. Yet her pioneering literary forms, including her uproarious cricket journals, simultaneously functioned as a perfect example of child critique. Here she employed strategies of the “makeshift creativity” of everyday life to puncture the smooth authority of masculine performance.

Eva’s rich archive also functions as a telling case study for the complex ways in which family identities are recorded and remembered. Comparing her diary entries with those of her father for the same day reveals how Eva was able to make subtle, but telling criticisms of him during a period in which she was expected to act as a formal archivist for the family in compiling a scrapbook of his achievements. Our story is further complicated by the fact that Eva was the great great-niece of novelist Jane Austen. This proved to be a diverse legacy. Whilst Eva’s father sought to repackage Jane Austen as a unique forerunner of this Kentish branch of the family, for Eva she was an inspiring model of female authorship. As such, the Austen heritage was a further source of Eva’s emergent cultural citizenship, as indeed she was to many young girls of her generation.

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