Catherine Robson explores multiple ways in which an idealized girl in the Victorian Period represented the male vision of innocence. Not only were girls the younger predecessors of women, but childhood itself was also glossed as female. Men saw girls as superior to adult women because of their sexual innocence and related lack of assertion of desire in all fields.
Their passivity and acquiescence to male authority made them ideal representatives of the home as a haven—a private sphere when men would find respite from their strenuous endeavors in the public sphere. By extension, in chaotic contemporary society, this idealized view of childhood and the domestic arena stood for an idyllic, largely rural past that was free from the demands and stresses of the modern world.
Any deviation from the prescribed pattern could be disruptive to such a vision of society. A girl forced out of the home was removed from the protection it provided and thus was at risk of losing her innocence in every sense of the world. Girls working outside the home were thereby eroticized in contrast to the pure, asexual associations of those who remained at home.
Robson argues that Charles Dickens gave Little Nell a background suitable for continued representation of home, childhood, and the idyllic past even though she was forced to work. Because she relentlessly strives to return to the safety of home, challenges to her innocence are never realized. Rather than develop her own character and learn to embrace the identity of an industrial worker, Nell’s experiences in the industrial wastelands are “a search for a home” for her grandfather as well as herself. In this respect, in death even more than life, she embodies the quest to return to the idyllic past.