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Through the gender lens: Fictional people and fictional societies in children’s literature

Waterloo Bridge Wing, Franklin Wilkins Building, Waterloo Campus, London

11 Nov Enid Blyton children's books

Speakers Anna Čermáková (University of Birmingham) and Michaela Mahlberg (University of Birmingham) join us for our first talk of the year in the Corpus Research in Linguistics and Beyond seminar series.

Children’s literature with its dual character, i.e. its didactic-aesthetic split, is an important formative discourse. Our focus is on the gendered dimension of this discourse and its development over time. We look across a time span that starts in the Victorian era and leads right up to present day. Gender is one of the fundamental structuring principles of our society. It is manifested and reproduced in everyday language practice.

Nancy Armstrong (1987) claims that in 19th century fiction, gender constitutes the most important difference among individuals. This difference is also primarily visible in the division of society into a private and a public sphere. This gendered structure is traceable in children’s fiction, too – and it has persisted from the 19th century up to present.

To describe the private and the public spheres in our corpora of children’s literature, we identify typical, repeatedly occurring, character types, e.g. mother or king. The quantitative part of our study is complemented by a qualitative analysis focused on the process of characterisation, and in particular gendered body language (Korte 1997, Mahlberg 2013, Čermáková & Mahlberg 2018).


Armstrong, N. 1987. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford University Press.

Čermáková, A. & Mahlberg, M. 2018. Translating fictional characters – Alice and the Queen from the Wonderland in English and Czech. In A. Čermáková & M. Mahlberg (eds), The Corpus Linguistics Discourse, 223-254. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Korte, B. (1997). Body Language in Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mahlberg, M. (2013). Corpus Stylistics and Dickens’s Fiction. London: Routledge.

Speaker biographies

Michaela Mahlberg is Professor of corpus linguistics at the University of Birmingham, UK, where she is also the Director of the Centre for Corpus Research and the Director of Research and Knowledge Transfer for the College of Arts and Law. Michaela is the editor of the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics (John Benjamins) and together with Wolfgang Teubert she edits the book series Corpus and Discourse (Bloomsbury) Her publications include Corpus Stylistics and Dickens’s Fiction (Routledge, 2013), English General Nouns: a Corpus Theoretical Approach (John Benjamins, 2005) and Text, Discourse and Corpora. Theory and Analysis (Continuum, 2007, co-authored with Michael Hoey, Michael Stubbs and Wolfgang Teubert). 

Anna Čermáková is a corpus linguist. She works at the University of Birmingham, UK and Charles University, Prague. Her current research interests focus on gender representation in children’s literature. In 2017-2019, she held a Marie Curie Fellowship working with Michaela Mahlberg on the GLARE project (Exploring Gender in Children’s Literature from a Cognitive Corpus Stylistic Perspective). Her other research interests are in contrastive linguistics and literary translation.

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