The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel traces the the story of victimized childhood to its origins in nineteenth-century Britain. Almost as soon as "childhood" became a distinct category, Laura C. Berry contends, stories of children in danger were circulated as part of larger debates about child welfare and the role of the family in society.

Berry examines the nineteenth-century fascination with victimized children to show how novels and reform writings reorganize ideas of self and society as narratives of childhood distress. Focusing on classic childhood stories such as Oliver Twist and novels that are not conventionally associated with particular social problems, such as Dickens's Dombey and Son, the Brontë sisters' Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and George Eliot's Adam Bede, Berry shows the ways in which fiction that purports to deal with private life, particularly the domain of the family, nevertheless intervenes in public and social debates. At the same time she examines medical, legal, charitable, and social-relief writings to show how these documents provide crucial sources in the development of social welfare and modern representations of the family.