The ‘Willful’ Girl in the Anglo-World: Sentimental Heroines and Wild Colonial Girls, 1872–1923

  • Hilary Emmett
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood book series (PSHC)


Taking its cue from Sara Ahmed’s recent (2014) exploration of the ‘willful’ subject in literature, political philosophy and cultural history, this chapter applies this concept to literary constructions of childhood in the British world and beyond. Tellingly, Ahmed writes, it was the character of Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss that sparked her interest in willfullness. Her investigation thus begins with an evocation of the ‘many willful girls that haunt literature’1 — a haunting that I take up here in part to resuscitate these girls and answer Ahmed’s call for their existence to be recorded in an ‘archive’ of willfulness, but equally to explore the ways in which literature itself (and sentimental domestic literature aimed at girls in particular) is a complex disciplinary agent that simultaneously documents expressions of willfulness even as it offers blueprints for its eradication. Literature for girls in the latter half of the nineteenth century has been critically acknowledged as a mechanism for ‘straightening out’ wayward children,2 and the sentimental domestic novel, as it evolved into a genre specifically aimed at young women, was one of the primary agents in naturalizing certain behaviours as girls matured into womanhood. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) stands as the foundational example of this genre, in which a family of girls are shaped into ‘good wives’.3


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© Hilary Emmett 2016

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  • Hilary Emmett

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