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Stories For Children, Histories of Childhood. Volume II

Rosie Findlay
Sébastien Salbayre

Children Writing Childhood: Romantic Revolutions in the Imaginary Kingdoms of Thomas Malkin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Brontës

Joetta Harty


Children Writing Childhood: Romantic Revolutions in the Imaginary Kingdoms of Thomas Malkin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Brontës
This paper examines the representation of children and childhood in the imaginary kingdoms, or paracosms, created by children during the British Romantic period, roughly 1780 – 1840. It compares the way in which young writers represented childhood and children with the construct of the child in Romantic poetry or the didactic school of writing which produced stories for children. Authors whose work is considered include Thomas Malkin, Thomas and William De Quincey, and the imaginary kingdoms of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë.

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  • 1 In an undated letter, Thomas De Quincey reveals that he is familiar with Elizabeth Gaskell’s biogra (...)

1Quite a few British children had imaginary kingdoms during the Romantic period in British literature. “[G]overning imaginary kingdoms” wrote Thomas De Quincey, “... is a common resource of mental activity and of aspiring energies amongst boys” (88). De Quincey’s remark introduces the account in the Autobiographical Sketches (1853) of a childhood game of imaginary kingdoms that Thomas played with his brother William. It was also well-known, not just to De Quincey, but among the other members of the Lake District literary circle, that Hartley Coleridge had an imaginary kingdom “which he governed for many years”, although whether he “governed” it “well or ill” is more than De Quincey “can say”(88). A child world-creator features in William Wordsworth’s poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807). Possibly a description of young Hartley Coleridge himself, In the poem the child lies ‘mid work of his own hand...,/.../at his feet, some little plan or chart,/Some fragment from his dream of human life, /Shaped by himself with newly-learned art” (97). Benjamin Malkin, another Lake District inhabitant, made his son Thomas’s kingdom Allestone the subject of his book, A Father’s Memoirs of His Child (1806). And a few years after publishing the Autobiographical Sketches, De Quincey would read about the imaginary kingdoms of the Bronte siblings in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Biography of Charlotte Brontë.1

  • 2 The term paracosm originated in a survey conducted by British Broadcasting Company announcer Robert (...)

2Imagined in the window of time falling roughly between the French Revolution and Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British throne, these parallel, imaginary worlds or paracosms,2 reflect the politics and literary pretensions of the period. For British children of the Romantic period, creating and governing imaginary kingdoms was a game of sovereignty, kings, and queens, it was about controlling territories, populations, and military forces, often from a small island. It was also a game of domestic concerns, a play of happy, and not so happy, families. The literary sub-genre of imaginary kingdoms, of paracosms, is also about writing and the power of words to create worlds and control events. Examples of the way in which the children of this particular moment in British history wielded that power are examined here. In the act of forging literary empires, by taking up authorial roles traditionally assumed by adults and translating them into a game, these young Romantic writers represented their own positionality as children. Specifically, this paper looks at the paracosms produced in the imaginations of children in the fifty-year span between the 1790s and the 1840s – by the child-writers Thomas De Quincey, bom in 1785; Thomas Malkin, bom in 1796; and Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, bom in 1816, 1817, 1818, and 1820 respectively. To a certain extent, the childhood activities of all of these writers supports the image of the Romantic child. Examining imaginary kingdoms does not, however, glean a picture of what real Romantic childhood was like. Rather than trying to read for autobiographical insights in these highly imaginative stories, the concern of this paper are the ways in which the nineteenth-century, Wordsworthian constmct of childhood plays out in the writing of these children, as well as the possible moments when the counter-stream of influence of the more didactic, instructional tones emerges. For in the act of creating worlds, child writers responded to and simultaneously rewrote the two models of childhood generated by the adult writers of their time.

  • 3 For an argument on the difference between the didactic and evangelical schools see Brown, Penny. Th (...)

3Key to this discussion is recognition of the period in which these worlds were created. The basis for many of the characters and events in the imaginary world can be found in history, and none of these child writers are immune from the influence of Romantism. William Wordsworth is an important figure here, for not only is he a founding father of British Romanticism, but he is one of the four male writers responsible for constructing and placing high value on the Romantic ideal of the child and childhood. Children’s literature scholar Judith Plotz has identified two different camps, or nineteenth—century approaches, to childhood and the idea of the child. While women writers participated in the nineteenth-century’s special interest in children, their objective in producing works for children was of a distinctly different nature than that of their male contemporaries. Their instructional tales about and for children were part of didactic, and evangelical approaches to the moral and ethical education of children. They perceived the child not apart from but part of the adult.3 Childhood and adulthood were a continuum for the female faction, represented in states and stages of becoming (Plotz Romanticism xv). Popular books by female contemporary children’s writers such as Hymns in Prose for Children (1781) and Evenings at Home, or, the Juvenile Budget Opened (1792) by Anna Barbauld; Maria Edgeworth’s numerous works including Moral Tales (1801); Original Stories from Real Life (1788) by Mary Wollstonecraft; and the dozens of instructional tales produced by Barbara Holland, present childhood as continuous with rather than distinct from adulthood.

4Male writers, and in particular Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey, and the Coleridges, Samuel Taylor and his son Hartley, had a different agenda. They were interested in “staging” or “fixing” the child in what Plotz has identified as a “decontextualized state of being” (Plotz Romanticism xv). For these Romantic figureheads, the textual representations of the Child is “not integrated into the social realm but [...] a race apart” (Plotz Romanticism xv). This “race apart” inhabited a land apart, for childhood and every child was “an island – at any rate a peninsula, separate from the adult world and from its own adult self”(Plotz Romanticism 3). Romantic childhood “operates.... as an adult imaginary kingdom.... figured as a lost garden paradise presided over by a child-redeemer or child idol.” This applies to both the imaginary kingdoms created for and by nineteenth-century children as, “[I]n the many imaginary island kingdoms... the children or their surrogates are emphatically enisled and separated off from the adult world as if the inhabitants belonged to a different species from adults” (Plotz Romanticism 3). Beginning with the construction of children as a “different species” and childhood as different world, an examination of the worlds created by children, rather than for them, shows how they both participate in and explode the ideals of both the male and female constructors of nineteenth-century childhood.

5Represented here are three different ways in which children depict childhood. In the first type, modeled in the paracosm of Thomas Malkin, happy families reside in utopias where good children are able to resolve their domestic issues and tragedies. Secondly, the world of strife depicted by Thomas De Quincey forms part of an autobiographical project in which he writes himself as a Romantic child-figure. Finally, read as a satirical reply to the didacticism of female writers like More, the depiction of children and childhood in the imaginary kingdoms of the Brontë children both explode and reaffirm the construction of the Romantic child. How did these real nineteenth-century children exemplify and also challenge the image of the Romantic child and his childhood set forth by the contemporary male writers later acknowledged as important influences on their adult writings? By taking on the Tiger of Mysore like Thomas De Quincey, or reducing adult political figures to childage caricatures of themselves, as the Brontës do in their Islanders tales, children reverse child-adult relations in these imaginary spaces. In the representation of imaginary children in imaginary worlds, these paracosms participate in a mockery of adult perceptions of children and childhood, emphasizing the savage nature and also inspirational potential of les enfanst terrible. At the same time, in the boy Thomas De Quincey’s unwilling participation in his brother’s battles, or by educational institutions where children are abused, as the Brontës do, these paracosms simultaneously expose the potential powerlessness of children in societies real and imagined. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the utopia imagined by Thomas Malkin reinforces the Romantic character known as the Child with a capital “C”.


6Significantly younger than the other child writers, Thomas Malkin was only five years old in 1801 when he began drawing maps and writing stories about the imaginary kingdom of Allestone. The eldest child of a Lake District schoolmaster, book collector, and travel writer, Thomas created a “plan of an imaginary country, somewhat similar to Utopia” that he christened Allestone. Evidenced on the map of Allestone are young Malkin’s cartographic skills, for as his father notes, “[h]e had acquired a most happy art in copying maps, what neatness and accuracy, an idea of which I have no means of conveying to the reader” (31). Also evidenced on his map and in the Allestonian stories are Thomas’s Latin and history studies. An imaginary island kingdom crossed by numerous rivers, dense with towns and cities bearing Latinate names, and ruled by a just and honorable king, Allestone takes the form of an island-based Utopian society. Likewise, in his father’s memoir, Allestone’s creator, Thomas Malkin, becomes the embodiment of the perfect Romantic child: imaginatively intelligent, intellectually curious, and forever untainted by the less-pure drives and desires of adulthood.

7Like the posthumous construction of Thomas’s childhood by his father, the geography of his imaginary world is important. As with Thomas De Quincey’s kingdom of Gombroon and Vision Isle, where the Brontës envisioned a palace-school for the children of nobles, Malkin’s imaginary world is an island. Unlike the rampant imperialism and despotism manifest in the other kingdoms, Allestone’s governance exemplifies “a system of visionary perfection” (Malkin 69). In the history of his land Thomas records the social evolution of Allestone from an island community at war with the world to a peaceful and superior civilization well endowed with universities and populated by a wise people who “say no sayings but just ones” (76). The national character of this utopia is embodied in the very first Allestonian. Born in year one of the imaginary world, the first king “had no mother, or father, as he was the first Allestonian bom. He could not certainly receive great instruction, being without parents: but as soon as ever he was able to begin learning, he practiced as much as he could” (97-8). From its genesis, education and good character are important in Allestone. When, 288 years after the birth of the first king, “two more Allestonians were bom and then two children were bom to them (102), “Allestone increased with numbers of Allestonians. They were all of a good characters, and were inclined to generosity” (101). The result is a congenially-populated, peaceful island densely populated with the cities, villages, mountains, and rivers featured in Thomas’s stories.

8Rather than a continuous narrative, Thomas produces dozens of vignettes about the Allestonians. Many of these tales, like “The Lady and the Villager”, “The Cottager’s Daughter” and the Hospitable Gentlewoman” are, in the author’s own words, “example[s] of the Allestonians’affection, civility and attachment” (110). A great many of the tales center around domestic issues, as in “The Family”, where a lonely young lady of eleven years who lives in the imaginary city of Countib, buys a house, finds a husband, and gives birth to “some children” (108), and the story of “The Father and His Son,” where a son “brought up with great care” laments the loss of his mother when he was in his infancy. Throughout these stories, Thomas expresses his concern with filial duties, conjugal affection, and domestic interests. Malkin’s are not adventure tales set in exotic locals or stories about waging war. Rather, the tales feature children in domestic scenarios; they portray happy families in a happy land. Child-characters play a prominent role in the tales, including King George the First, an Allestonian king who “placed himself on the throne when he was about ten years of age: and a very proper time, too.” (99). In his small, controllable island space, Thomas takes a Malthusian-like interest in the growth of the population, perhaps a reaction to his own familial circumstances. The second of Thomas’s younger borthers, Frederic, was bom during the time that he was creating his Allestonian society, and his mother’s pregnancy figures in his stories. Thomas forges a connection between the real and imaginary world by anticipating how he “intend[s] to let” “the dear little Frederic” “go the famous university of Lalldab, not to be taught by Alcander, (you know who I mean) but by a famous orator, who may be named ‘the master of all Lalldab,’ but his proper name (I mean his Christian) is Adeoleo de Levie.... as soon as Frederic has received as much tuition from the orator, he shall be taught arithmetic by Dr. Scluggish, as he is a great mathematician. I intend him to be taught the classics by the orator.” (Malkin 69-70). In a letter dated March 7, 1802, written while he was also working on his imaginary kingdom, Thomas writes to a family friend that his newest brother, Frederic, “now two days older than seven weeks” (68), has recovered from his illness, and his mother is as well as can be expected “just.. after the coming of a child” (66). In this and other letters, Thomas indicates his intense relief at his mother’s recovery, “I rejoice at the getting well of my mother, for two reason which I do not hide from your intelligence; one, because she is more able to attend to me and my brother Benjamin (though to Frederic equally); and the other, because I like her company, as she is so important a relation of mine” (68) and his feelings toward his newest sibling: “I am fond of the dear little Frederic” (69). Thomas’s concern reveals the domestic anxieties of the child over events beyond his control and a fear of being orphaned.

9The opposite, Thomas’s self-awareness of himself as a child, is celebrated in his poem on spring. Although not as technically proficient as his maps, the poem reiterates Romantic ideals of childhood as Thomas considers what it is to be a child:

In me delight is spread, to mark th’ approach
Of Spring...
Delightful to the eyes of infancy,
-------in which happy time
The playfulness and thoughtlessness of life,
In the pursuit of sometimes sportive tricks,
Some bad, some harmless, but amusing;
At least in childhood then: The weakness of the mind
In infant time, insensible of what
Will often happen, in afterward repentance!
The wisdom of good child’ren, whose small
Ability they own, who’re not inclined
To praise themselves;-except their power to the end.
The power soon does end;-
While man, grown up with the not many years
That human creatures have, who all complain
Of swift time’s short’ness...(Feb 3-1802) (85).

10In this poem and his imaginary kingdom, as in his brief life, Thomas epitomizes the ideal Romantic childhood, including its necessary isolation from less-perfect adult worlds. Taking the concerns of the real and the domestic into the realm of the imaginary, Thomas translates the fears of childhood into scenarios perfectly resolvable by protagonists like Allestone’s first king, who “had no mother, or father...[and] could not certainly receive great instruction, being without parents: but as soon as ever he was able to begin learning, he practiced as much as he could” (97-8).

11With his compass and his Latin books, mapping worlds, and writing poetry, Malkin is the perfect specimen of the Romantic ideal, the child-idol, and the muse. He epitomizes exactly the sort of child, solitary, creative, intellectually precocious, that Wordsworth had in mind and describes in the Intimations Ode. He is also the child in his own poem, who relishes in the spring of his life the play of infancy, all too aware that it must give way; he expresses a Romantic platitude in that the “wisdom of good child’ren...their power...soon does end”. Malkin paraphrases the “Intimations Ode”, where Wordsworth intimates that the child is not as the passive repository of learning or a mere imitator of adult activity, but that adult life imitates childhood. The premise in the epigraph of the “Intimations Ode,” that “[t]he child is the father of the man,” borrowed from an earlier poem, “My heart leaps up” (1802), is a prominent theme in Wordsworth’s writings on childhood. Rather than implying by the use of the word “art” an artificiality or mimesis, the “newly-learned art,” is the art of the artist, the act of creation. The child is not involved in mimesis; he is not creating a space that mirrors the adult world, as may be expected. Rather, the acts of the adult imitate those of the child; adult life is a shallow repetition of childhood play. Playing with the idea of the child’s creations, the verses of the “Intimations Ode” suggest that adult life is but an imitation of childhood constructions, of a “wedding or a festival/A mourning or a funeral,” found in the “dialogues of business, love, or strife” in the child’s “song:”

But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his ‘humorous state’
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation (98-107).

12In Wordsworth’s poem, the child who is a creator becomes, as an adult, the performer of “endless imitation,” imitating in real life, his childhood activity of creating a world, which is “a dream of human life,” complete with “festivals” and “funerals.” Suggesting that the child’s world, an interior realm of the imagination, is superior to later visions, Wordsworth challenges the assumption that the exterior adult world is the real world. Yet in creating a Utopian world in which he can perfect families and educate his brother, Malkin also evokes the ethic and moral lessons of contemporary female writers. His people improve, from early imperfect kings to righteous, juvenile rulers just as well-instructed children evolved, according to these authors, into morally upright adults. Malkin, however, does not become part of the child-adult continuum prescribed by female writers. The sketch of Thomas done after his death by William Blake, shows him receding from the grasp of his mother. Led by angels, he ascends into the sky, leaving behind his grasping mother, his books, and his compass, the things dearest to him in life. As on the cover artwork for the memorial book, Thomas Malkin, dying before his seventh year, eludes both the arms of his reaching mother and of adulthood. In death, Malkin is literally fixed, his life is a Wordsworthian “spot of time”, a memory and a moment perpetually revisitable by his father and his other readers.


  • 4 In the autumn of 1793, William and Thomas were sent to a tutor at Salford, the Reverend Samuel Hall (...)

13Thomas De Quincey and his brother William were slightly older than Malkin – Thomas was eight William eleven - when the war between their imaginary kingdoms of Tigrosylvania and Gombroon broke out. As a game played between siblings, Thomas’s paracosm reflects his observations regarding his own childhood, his relations with his brother, and the two De Quincey brothers’interactions with other children. In 1793, when Thomas’s elder brother William returned home from a boarding school, he initiated altercations with the local cotton factory boys and a game of imaginary kingdoms, involving Thomas in both types of “play”.4 As in their scuffles with the factory boys, where William threw the first stone, William made the first move in the paracosm, naming his kingdom Tigrosylvania after Tipu Sultan, the legendary “Tiger of Mysore” with whom the British were at war with during the 1790s. Hoping to escape the notice of his imperialistic and “pugilistic” elder brother, Thomas countered by imagining his kingdom as a tiny, insignificant island, with no valuable resources and a primitive, nonmilitant society. The tactic was futile – William still sent a party of Tigrosylvanians to explore the island. Declaring first that he had discovered that Thomas’s people had tails, making them nearer to apes than humans, and then that there were diamonds in the center of the island, for which the unsophisticated, isolated Gombroonians could have no use, “King William” determined that Gombroon must be annexed. The game was soon over for poor “King Thomas”, who was left only with William’s advice to pass a mandate requiring the “poor abject islanders” (99) to spend six hours per day sitting in the hopes of speeding evolution by rubbing off their undesirable rear appendages. In the meantime, William proposes that they adopt the fashion of Roman-style togas to hide their tails. Thomas’s final report on his paracosm relates that William had placed a “lien” upon Gombroon “in favour of any invaders, better able than the natives to make its treasures available” that was justified by “an article in my brother’s code of morals-that, supposing a contest between any two parties, of which one possessed an article, whilst the other was better able to use it, the rightful property vested in the latter” (De Quincey 90).

14In Gombroon, Thomas De Quincey and his brother not only evoke the imperialism of the British in India, they also use the play to express their sibling rivalry. Thomas illustrates the antagonism of his brother and other children in his Autobiographical Sketches, where the paracosm forms part of a section entitled “Worlds of Strife.” The worlds, one imaginary, one real, reflect each other. De Quincey writes that:

I lived for ever under the terror of two separate wars in two separate worlds: one against the factory boys, in a real world of flesh and blood, of stones and brickbats, of flight and pursuit, that were anything but figurative; the other in a world purely aerial, where all the combats and the sufferings were absolute moonshine (91).

15In the imaginary world, William threatens Thomas’s kingdom, his subjects, continually with invasion and annexation. Meanwhile, in the non-imaginary, and all-too-tangible world, William and Thomas engage in near daily rock-throwing fights with local factory boys on their way to and from their tutor’s house.

16Thomas’s project of rewriting childhood as an affliction is tempered by his reconstruction of himself as a Romantic-type child. Precocious, intelligent, and literary, Thomas is in the Romanticstyled child for whom the “distress of mind” brought on by strife in the “dream-kingdom” is much more intensely felt than the physical threat of the rough games of live boys:

And yet the simple truth is – that, for anxiety and distress of mind, the reality (which almost every morning’s light brought round) was as nothing in comparison of that dream-kingdom which rose like a vapour from my own brain (91).

17Although both are places of strife, the world of the mind is priviledged, for De Quincey, above the physical world. In these “two separate wars in two separate worlds” in the both the “real world of flesh and blood, of stones and brickbats” and in the “purely aerial” world of “that dream kingdom”, it is the latter which counts. Emotionally, the horrible real has less impact than the realer-feeling fiction. Childhood is one continuous battle in which the adult Thomas, by now famous as the victim of an opium addiction, portrays his child-self as already a victim, subject to both physical and psychological violence unalleviated by apparently indifferent adults. But no amount of adult supervision could save Thomas De Quincey from his real pain, the mental anguish he experiences over an imaginary kingdom.

18By privileging the importance of the imaginary world over that of the real world, the life of the mind over that of the body, De Quincey emphasizes his creativity and literariness, presenting the child author-to-be as a Romantic ideal. To an even greater extent, the imaginary kingdom of the Brontë children, which maintained their interest for over a decade, illustrates the trope that to be a Romantic child is to privilege the literary over the physical. In their own way, the Brontës achieve the same effect in their imaginary kingdoms, where four child writers stage revolutions against a Romantically sublime landscape and where Romantic precosciousness encounters the discipline of school and state.


19The imaginary kingdom of the four Bronte siblings, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, went through several manifestations over the years that it occupied them. The play began on one “one wet night in December” 1828, when, like Thomas Malkin and the De Quincey’s, Charlotte, then 12 years old, Branwell, a year younger than Charlotte, Emily a year younger than Branwell, and Anne, the youngest, 8 years of age, imagined “we each had an island of our own” (C. Brontë 6). A year or so after the Brontës began writing down their stories about their paracosm, producing several miniature volumes, many of which were hand-bound by Charlotte after.

  • 5 Christopher North was the pseudonym of Blackwood’s contributor John Wilson.
  • 6 Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather were dedicated to his grandson Johnny, the son of John Gibson Lockha (...)

20Each of the children had her or his own island, populated by the personal heroes selected from among contemporary political and literary figures, including the Duke of Wellington, Christopher North, Sir Walter Scott, and Napoleon Bonaparte.5 The adventures of the early tales, entitled the Tales of the Islanders, take place on a “fictitious island,” where the young Brontës erect a school “which was to contain a thousand children” (C. Brontë 22). Here the Brontës gather together “...only ...the young nobles of the land” and “such as Johnny Lockhart,” grandson of Walter Scott and the son of one of the editors of Blackwood’s Magazine (C. Brontë 22).6 The earliest tales evidence the Brontës avid interest in the nobility and aristocracy, or what Charlotte refers to later in the tales as “high life.” Also evident in their choice of characters is the high regard they held for literary figures and the influence of the Tory Blackwood’s Magazine, deemed “the most able periodical there is” in Charlotte’s diary during the same year that the four Brontë children began the Tales of the Islanders (C. Brontë 4).

21The Brontës’paracosm has in common with those of the other paracosmists its basis on an island. Landscape wise, the scenery of Vision Isle exemplifies the sublime as defined by Edmund Burke, and the reflects the influence of the type of Romantic school writing found in Blackwood’s on the Brontës. “The island,” described by Charlotte

was fifty miles in circumference and certainly it appeared [more] like the region of enchantment or a beautiful fiction than sober reality, in some parts made terribly sublime by mighty rocks, rushing streams and roaring cataracts, with here and there an oak either scathed by lightning or withered by time and, as if to remind the lonely passenger of what it once was, a green young scion twisting round its old grey trunk... there were green [?woods], glittering fountains springing in the flowery meadows or among the pleasant woods where fairies were said to dwell... One specialty around the palace school was a fine large park, in which the beautiful undulations of hill and plain variegated the scenery which might otherwise have been monotonous” (C Bronte 22-3).

22While the exterior landscape of Vision Isle is “terribly sublime,” the palace interior is imagined in equally sublime grandeur. A “magnificent palace of pure white marble, whose elegant and finely wrought pillars and majestic turrets seem the work of mighty genii and not of feeble men,” behind the marble steps and beneath the “hall surrounded by Corinthian pillars of white marble” (23), “a flight of steps lead[s] to a subterranean dungeon” furnished with “instruments of torture” and “cells... appropriated... to the naughty school children” (C. Brontë 24). On the surface as idyllic as Malkin’s Allestone, the visual perfection of the Brontës’ setting contrasts sharply with its underside and the events stage there. The Kubla Khanesque dreamscape of the Vision Isle educational institution has more in common with De Quincey’s world of strife than Malkin’s utopia. The Brontës continue to populate their imaginary kingdom with fictional versions of historic figures rather than purely imaginary characters. The Brontës name the Duke of Wellington, Charlotte’s particular hero, the honorary chief governor of the school. In her transcription of the tale, Charlotte writes that the Duke, who was Prime Minister at the time, was too busy in the British Parliament to personally take charge of the school. Acting on his behalf are his sons, Arthur and Charles Wellesley (C. Brontë 22-24), who become Charlotte’s main protagonists as the play progresses.

  • 7 King George IV and the prince de Polinac, the French Ambassador to the Britain (Jules Auguste Arman (...)

23Appointed as “guards for keeping the children in order and taking them out to walk”, the Wellesley brothers are assisted by “guards for thrashing the children when they do [wrong]...and Branwell [, who] has a large black club, with which he thumps the children upon occasion and that most unmercifully” (Brontë, C., Early Writing 25). The children of the young nobles of the land and pupils of the school whom Branwell thrashes are, like the Wellesley brothers, drawn on historic figures. Primary among them are the aforementioned Johnny Lockhart, Prince George, Princess Vittoria and Prince Polinac. The Brontës’ identification of these particular persons, like that of the Prime Minister, reflects an active interest in parliamentary politics. Two of the four principle miscreants in the school are the child-doubles of George IV and the French ambassador to London who was notorious for making trouble between the Duke of Wellington and the king.7 While Johnny Lockhart and Princess Vittoria (the real Victoria was two years younger than Charlotte) were fictional versions of real children, Lockhart represents the Brontës’ admiration of literary figures and Vittoria their obsession with royalty. Furthermore, a parliamentary debate is restaged in the imaginary kingdom when, in the Second Volume of the tales, the children revolt, dividing into four factions. After Arthur Wellesley is almost killed by the child-rebels, who have somehow obtained canons, the Wellesley brothers solicit the aid of the Little King and Queens and the Duke of Wellington. Taking a balloon to the island, they soon put an end to the uprising, with the Duke threatening to have the children torn to pieces by “several thousand bloodhounds” (C. Bronte 104).

  • 8 Further evidence of the Brontes’ interest in Revolutions and in French history especially is eviden (...)

24Paradise above ground, hell below, with its Edenic setting and subterranean torture chamber, Vision Isle is a Romantic ideal, reflecting in both the content and Charlotte’s detailed descriptions, Wordsworth and the other Romantic writers’interest in Nature, with a capital “N” and that other concern of the Romantics, Revolution.8 The schoolchildren represent contemporary political factions reduced to the Brontës’ own size. This miniaturization of historic persons whom Branwell can discipline and events that Charlotte can author, is made possible in imaginary island-space. Like Malkin, the Brontë children control the fate of their subjects though their tales, although their concern is with public and political rather than private and domestic domains.

25The children eventually tire of The Islanders, abandoning the “isle of a dream” to explore an imaginary version of the African coast in a new series of tales featuring many of the same characters. However, the theme of endungeoning in educational institutions becomes a trope in subsequent Brontë stories. After The Islanders, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë create an imaginary kingdom of Angria, where Branwell’s antiByronic hero Rougue wages a rebellion on his school on the Philosopher’s Isle. The school, which doubles for a political prison, is a mirror-image of the earlier institution:

At a distance of nearly six hundred miles from the continent of Africa there lies an island called the Philosophers’ Island.... Embosomed in ...a valley...the only building on the Island stands...a sort of college or university for the instruction of the rising generation. Here the most learned philosophers of the world have their residences, and to this place all the noble youths of Verdopolis are sent for their education” (Ratchford 22).

26At the same time, the younger Brontë sisters, Emily and Anne, create their own imaginary kingdoms on two islands, Gondal and Gaaldine, in the North and South Pacific respectively. Each of the islands has a Palace of Instruction referred to as the Northern and Southern Colleges. In these colleges for the young nobles of the land, in a now-famaliar scene, there are subterranean prisons for juvenile and political miscreants. On the walls of the prisons, Emily and Anne’s characters inscribe their poetry, lamenting their fate and the political intrigue that brought them there. To quote one of Emily’s transcribers, “certain Gondal grotesqueries” are survivals from the earlier play of the four children " (Ratchford 22). Far from disappearing when Emily and Anne began creating their kingdoms around 1831, the cultural institutions and political apparatuses continue to function in Gondal and Gaaldine, when “[a]ll the princes and princesses of the Royalty are at the Palace of Instruction” (Ratchford 154).

27Biographically speaking, while Charlotte and Emily Brontë had briefly attended school before creating those in the imaginary kingdom, the institutions on Vision Isle and the grim Gondalian Palaces of Instruction bear no resemblance to the subscriptionsupported Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge (in Kirkby Lonsdale) that they attended from 1824-5. Unlike Charlotte’s experiences at Cowan Bridge, immortalized in her novel Jane Eyre, the imaginary institutions are strictly for the offspring of nobility. They are entirely fictitious, highly imaginative entities that draw upon historic characters for entertainment, allowing the Brontes to partake in and control world events in the same way that little Thomas Malkin could protect the members of his family as a dictator of the domestic.

  • 9 In recent years there has been much effort to refute assumptions that the British Romantic writers (...)

28While Wordsworth may have been imagining a child more like Malkin than the Brontes fantasizing about beating the pupils in their school when writing Intimations of Immortality, nonetheless, both the Brontës’enfants terrible and Thomas De Quincey’s strife-ridden kingdom reiterate the image of the Romantic child as world-creators as well as child-prodigies. They are unique pieces, highly-imaginative and above all, defiant of authority. Advertising his intellectual and emotional sensitivity, his preference for the written world and word over the physical realm of real boys, Thomas De Quincey portrays his juvenile self as an enlightened Romantic figure. Although at first appearing to contest the Romantic view of childhood as a period of innocence, remote from public and adult worlds,9 the Brontes evoke the instructional, disciplinarian tones of children’s writers such as Hannah More and Isaac Watts, the works of whom could be found in the parsonage library, only to exploit and explode their admonitions by creating miniature political figures savage in their sophistication. Defying didactic texts for children, mimicking adult-obsessions with cleanliness and order as the foundations of civilization, Charlotte Brontë writes in the early days of the school on Vision Isle, “For some time after it was established, the institution went on very well. All the rules were observed with scrupulous exactness, the governors attended admirably to their duty; the children were absolutely becoming something like civilized beings, to all outward appearance at least; gambling was less frequent among them; their quarrels with each other were less savage; and some little attention was paid by themselves to order and cleanliness” (100).

29By drawing on her own school experiences, Charlotte Brontë could write a satirical critique of the children in her imaginary school who, regardless of their noble origins, are given to quarreling savagely and being dirty and disorganized. At the same time, her writing, and that of the other paracosmists, forms a rebuttal to the underlying, insidious premise behind the didactic version of childhood: children aren’t naturally civilized beings but must be taught to behave in a socially acceptable manner. It also mocks, playfully, the Romantic image of the child as muse and inspiration. It predicates an expanded image of the muse to include les enfants terrible, much as subjects deemed worthy of poetic inspection were expanded by the Romantic poets through Wordsworth’s consideration of the logic of simple, rural characters, such as the old leach gatherer or the girl he encounters in «We are Seven», or by the sexual eploits of Byron’s Don Juan.



ALEXANDER Christine, "Readers and Writers: Blackwood's and the Brontes." The Gaskell Society Journal vol. 8, 1994: 54-69.

BRONTË Patrick Branwell, The Hand of the Arch-sinner: Two Angrian Chronicles of Branwell Brontë, ed. Robert G. Collins, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

BRONTË Patrick Branwell, The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, ed. Victor A. Neufeldt, New York, Garland, 1997.

BRONTË Charlotte, An Edition of The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë. ed. Christine Alexander, New York, Basil Blackwell Inc., 1987, 2 vol.

BROWN Penny, The Captured World. The Child and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in England, London, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

BUTTERFIELD Mary, Brother in the Shadow, Bradford, England, Bradford Libraries and Information Services, 1988.

COHEN David and MacKEITH Stephen, The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood, New York, Routledge, 1991.

De QUINCEY Thomas, The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1889-90, 13 vol. (reprints AMS Press, New York, 1968).

De QUINCEY Thomas, Ms letter, New York Public Library Berg Collection, New York.

GASKELL Elizabeth, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, New York, Penguin, 1975.

KNIGHT Charmian et al., Reading the Brontës, The Brontë Society in association with the University of Leeds School of Continuing Education, Oxford, Alden Group, 2000.

LINDOP Grevel, The Opium-Eater, a Life of Thomas De Quincey, New York, Taplinger Pub. Co., 1981.

MALKIN Benjamin Heath, A Father’s Memoirs of His Child, London, Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1806.

PADEN William, An Investigation of Gondal, New York, Bookman Associates, 1958.

PLOTZ Judith, " Imaginary Kingdoms with Real Boys in Them: or, How the De Quincey Brothers Built the British Empire ", Wordsworth Circle 27 no. 3 (1996): 131-5.

PLOTZ Judith, Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood, New York, Palgrave, 2001.

PRATT Branwell, "Charlotte Bronte's "There once was a little girl": The Creative Process". American Imago, vol. 39 no. 1, pp 31-39. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI, Spring 1982.

RATCHFORD Fannie E. Gondal's Queen: A Novel in Verse, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1955.

SILVEY Robert and MACKEITH Stephen, "The Paracosm: A Special Form of Fantasy," 173-197, in Organizing Early Experience: Imagination and Cognition in Childhood. Morrison, Delmont C. Ed. Amityville, NY, Baywood Publishing Co., Inc., 1988.

WORDSWORTH William, Complete Poetical Works, ed. Earnest De Selincourt, New York, Oxford University Press, 1936.


1 In an undated letter, Thomas De Quincey reveals that he is familiar with Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. He writes, «The Brontës, meaning the girls, had some very noble features in their characters, but not many that were amiable (underlined word). The males of the family were scamps... (Papa I mean) always dined alone, like the fabassis [?] in so many regins, and like Mahometan Barbarians, whose wives eat fist (or perhaps after) their tyrants.»

2 The term paracosm originated in a survey conducted by British Broadcasting Company announcer Robert Silvey.

3 For an argument on the difference between the didactic and evangelical schools see Brown, Penny. The Captured World. The Child and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in England. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.40-1.

4 In the autumn of 1793, William and Thomas were sent to a tutor at Salford, the Reverend Samuel Hall, one of the guardians named in their father’s will. For the next three years they went every weekday to learn Latin and Greek from Hall (Lindop 14-15).

5 Christopher North was the pseudonym of Blackwood’s contributor John Wilson.

6 Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather were dedicated to his grandson Johnny, the son of John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854), the first editor of Blackwood’s. As avid readers of the magazine, the Brontës would also have been familiar with the writing of Walter Scott, James Hogg, Thomas De Quincey and other frequent contributors to the Tory magazine.

7 King George IV and the prince de Polinac, the French Ambassador to the Britain (Jules Auguste Armand Marie, prince de Polignac, 1780-March 29, 1847).

8 Further evidence of the Brontes’ interest in Revolutions and in French history especially is evidenced in later tales in which Branwell stages an invasion led by his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte. Wordsworth and Coleridge both visited France on the eve of Revolution, being inspired by the early events. They were both later disillusioned by the Reign of Terror.

9 In recent years there has been much effort to refute assumptions that the British Romantic writers were not interested in politics. If we take the imaginary kingdoms created by early nineteenth-century children as examples of Romantic writing, and why shouldn’t we? then they contribute to this rebuttal of the Romantic’s political disengagement.


Is doctoral candidate at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation, "The Islanders: British Paracosms, 1789-1848," explores British imperialism in the imaginary kingdoms of the Brontës, Hartley Coleridge, Thomas Malkin, and the DeQuincey brothers during the era of Geography Militant. She is currently an online adjunct faculty member with the University of Maryland, University College, Adelphi, M.D.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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