Research paper

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Margaret Mahy and the Golden Age of Children's Literature

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Proffitt, Catherine

Margaret Mahy’s novels contain numerous allusions to the classics of Victorian fiction for children. Some of these take the form of passing references; in 24 Hours, for example, protagonist Ellis thinks of himself as “Ellis in Wonderland.” But Mahy also draws on Victorian precedents for some of her settings, taking imaginary islands from Peter and Wendy and Treasure Island, and the secret garden from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name. She also invokes the forest of the fairy tales that (although they were not invented by the Victorians) featured so prominently in the reading of Victorian children. To date, little attention has been paid to what might be described as the “Victorian dimension” of Mahy’s work. In what follows, I examine its function in five novels. It emerges that Mahy’s response to the values embodied by her Victorian texts is critical on at least three counts. Mahy’s heroines (or, rather, female heroes) reject the passivity and silence exhibited by fairytale characters such as Jorinda in the Grimms’ ‘Jorinda and Joringel’, and the lack of emotional growth displayed by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. They are also shown in the process of leaving childhood (nostalgically idealized by Carroll, J.M. Barrie and other Victorian authors) behind. Moreover, this thesis exposes the tension between Mahy’s insistent allusion to quintessential fantasy spaces such as Wonderland on one hand, and the distinct anxiety present in her work about the dangerously isolating nature of fantasy on the other. While for Mahy’s teenage protagonists the domestic “real” wins out more often than not over the fantastic but dangerous “true”, the transformative journey of maturation that each undergoes is figuratively sparked by their belief in the Red Queen’s “six impossible things before breakfast”. Perhaps by the same token, they learn that fantasy worlds (like Barrie’s “Neverland”) can be dangerously isolating.

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