BOOK REVIEW / Games without frontiers: 'Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture' - James R Kincaid: Routledge, 25 pounds and 'The Victorian Governess' - Kathryn Hughes: Hambledon Press, 25 pounds

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BOTH these books are concerned with relationships between adults and children in the 19th century, with the balance of control and care, cruelty and compassion, and with the structures that maintain, distort and justify attitudes and actions. But while Kathryn Hughes offers a 'conventional' feminist interpretation of the governess's plight, working from diaries and letters, James Kincaid wants to shock, to take a sceptical look at 'the discourse on paedophilia and its history' and its implications for today.

Child-Loving is courageous and complex. It is also uneven and intellectually slippery, with a 'home-version of deconstruction' that is conceptually muddled to the point of being dangerously skewed. Kincaid sets out to question the assumption that we 'know' how to distinguish between a healthy and a 'sick and freakish' love for children: such knowledge 'is more likely a prescribed cultural agreement cemented by fear, desire and denial'. So let's see what happens if, instead of marginalising them, we 'centre' paedophilia and pederasty, regarding them as inevitable, indeed normal, responses within a society which, for the past 200 years, has elevated and sexualised the child.

So far, so good. It's useful to probe taboos and unspoken assumptions, to turn the normal on its head and see patterns differently. Much of what Kincaid says is sensible and interesting. He points to the tabloid demonising of the violent child-molester who, like the stranger-rapist or the old-lady mugger, obscures the reality that our nearest and dearest are the greater threat. He offers detailed reappraisals of Victorian attitudes to children's bodies, to female sexuality, masturbation, homosexuality and pornography. He provides persuasive analyses of the lasting allure of the Neverlands and Wonderlands of Peter Pan and the Alice books, and develops a Lacanian critique of 'reading as peeping' that fosters challenging (if irritatingly reductive) readings of David Copperfield, The Catcher in the Rye and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. (No mention of Lolita.)

The insights are blurred, however, by a pervasive special pleading. Kincaid lurches from arguing that his re-positioning of the norm is a critical tool into seeing it as an accurate re-mapping of the world with which the reader 'must' concur. From that, more alarmingly still, he slides towards defending his re-centred 'abnormal' on shadowy moral/emotional grounds, side-stepping borders that call for difficult judgment: between fantasy and action, between the compulsive attraction to a mirage of 'childhood' and the attempt to capture that state through dealings with an individual child. The slippery slope begins early, when he expresses a determination to replace the discourse of power used by Foucault or the New Historicists to define social relationships, with two other metaphors, the first of 'community', which substitutes 'joining' for enforcing, and the second of 'play', which subverts ideas of causality.

The imbalance of power, the abuse of the weak by the strong, is frequently, and surely rightly, cited as a basis for disapproval of adult-child sex. Kincaid's theoretical shift therefore proves extremely useful: how can one bring forward arguments about the lasting consequences of assaults on children, if they aren't assaults at all but simply reciprocal non-consequential 'play'? At this point, I began to wonder exactly how high Kincaid's ivory tower was: too high, certainly, to see anything he doesn't want to. Since he is combating a dominant myth - child-lover as monster - his 'evidence' can be all on one side: a survey showing paedophiles to be gentle, loving and non-threatening is repeatedly quoted; the case of an innocent man imprisoned is allotted a whole chapter. Pornography, we are told, looks different if we view it not as exploitation but as a 'chatty, winking-at-you' joke. Well, yes, it sure does.

This coercive myopia positively drenches an excitable chapter on 'The Naughty Child': in statements like 'Doubtless it is true that there are not six people now alive who will openly admit to being sexually aroused by spanking children - among the several billion who actually are . . .' (how many 'billion' people are there?); in re-siting spanking not as dominance and separation but as 'a fable of joining' where 'the adult becomes the child simply through the ruby glow encompassing all'; and in quotations illustrating the 'engulfing love' governing school beatings, as weeping boys fling their arms around the master and shower him with kisses.

If we turn to Kathryn Hughes, the reactions of beaten children have less to do with engulfing love than with pain, humiliation and searing isolation. 'In her savage moments,' said Lord Curzon of his governess, 'she was a brutal and vindictive tyrant: and I have often thought since she must have been insane.' What we see here is a powerless woman 'metaphorically bound and gagged', inflicting her resentment on those less powerful still.

Where Child-Loving promises to make us see the sexuality of past and present afresh, The Victorian Governess favours the cool, careful detail that ultimately undermines complacency more, letting us hear the varied, conflicting voices of personal experience encompassed by busy, boring things: contracts and cushions and tea-caddies and conditions of work. True, as Kincaid says, children are the unwitting repositories of adult emotions, but they are not merely empty vessels for imposed images, they are people. They have their own power, sexuality and rebelliousness. They do not inhabit a text that can be deconstructed, and then rewritten, according to the author's 'desires': they live in homes, schools and streets, and in all these places they are still at the mercy of those who are stronger than themselves.

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