Nesbit and the Legal System and honoring Marilynne Robinson: MLA Day 3

by Anna Blanch on December 30, 2008

I presented a paper this morning in a session on Children’s Literature and the Legal System. This heralded a number of firsts for me – It was the first time I had presented at the Modern Language Association’s Annual Conference, the first time I have presented in a session devoted to Children’s Literature, and the first time I have presented an academic paper combining my legal training and my training as a literary scholar. Rather than rehashing my paper I will include an abstract – I am more than happy to discuss the full paper with those interested.

Children and the ill-used Judicial System in E. Nesbit’s Railway Children and The Magic City


The value of education and intellectual development in Nesbit’s work is readily apparent, and is particularly supported by the privileging and exalting of the child’s point of view and intellect, as opposed to that of the “grown up.” Nesbit’s realistic depiction of the English Legal system drawing upon events in the public consciousness, in Railway Children, is starkly juxtaposed in her work with the fantastic employment of the oppressive and tyrannical judicial as illustrative of dystopia, in The Magic City. Integrating such provocative and subversive depictions of the judicial, both in the midst of fantastic secondary worlds and a savagely realistic England, with the experiences of the children in these two novels heightens their narrative and illustrates Nesbit’s commitment to the education of children and the development of their political and social consciousnesses. In the context of recent scholarship and theoretical approaches to Law and Literature, this paper will examine Nesbit’s fictional depiction of a father imprisoned falsely in light of the legal cases that incited contemporaneous public debate about political freedom, as is explored in Railway Children, while also interrogating the, not so much corrupt as, fundamentally flawed Justice system of The Magic City. The unintelligibility of prophecy as a metaphor for the inaccessibility of legal language to the layperson is but one example of Nesbit’s multifaceted commentary on the judicial system. While the judicial and legal elements function as plot devices – to remove a parent and to subvert any hierarchy in which the “grown up” is preeminent – they are also intrinsic to Nesbit’s underlying social and political ideology. Nesbit’s ardent socialism deeply motivated her interest in political and social reform and impacted her assessment of a rapidly changing Victorian society.

I also had the privlege of attending a lunch hosted by the Conference on Christianity and Literature which honored best-selling author, Marilynne Robinson, with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Not only was it a wonderful lunch, it was a great opportunity to meet with colleagues from across the United States and to meet and speak with Marilynne Robinson. It was a consolation given that was unable to attend her reading as it was at the same time as the session in which I was presenting.

Not to be outdone, my final conference activity for the day was a session on “Religion and the English National Identity” – this was the session that most closely related to my own interests thus far. While I found Timothy Rossdale’s paper on the Book of Common Prayer fascinating it was Maria LaMonaca’s paper “Recovering the Sacred: National and Religious Identities in Victorian Britain” which, in part, examined the phenomenon of anti-catholic sentiment resulting in women, particularly, feeling more comfortable with appearing to be atheist rather than publicly acknowledging their conversion to Catholicism, which really caught my attention. LaMonaca explored, briefly, the wave of conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism in the mid nineteenth century – particularly in the context of women’s writing. Her new book Masked Atheism, published in June 2008 by Ohio State Press is one I hope to get my hands on soon!

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