Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Reader review: Growing up in England

Paul Doolan reviews Growing up in England by Anthony Fletcher.

by Paul Doolan,

When Philippe Aries published his Centuries of Childhood in 1960, the history of childhood was still very much in its infancy. The publication of Anthony Fletcher’s latest work demonstrates that the history of childhood has reached maturity.

Growing up in England is the result of a professional lifetime spent in archives and libraries, researching the meaning of childhood and the construction of gender in early modern England. Fletcher has read everything published on the subject, but it is his use of published and unpublished primary sources that distinguishes his work. Over a dozen years of research went into this study. Fletcher travelled the length and breadth of England and beyond, locating archival material, including diaries and letters, that allows the men and women, but particularly the children themselves, to share their experiences of childhood over the course of three centuries.

To a large degree, Fletcher’s study makes for depressing reading. Unlike many previous studies, Fletcher dismisses any changes in the experience of childhood as being largely superficial. He stresses instead the continuities, arguing that the essence of childhood for the English upper classes remained the same throughout the period 1600-1914. For boys, this meant regular beatings from fathers, teachers and bullies and the merciless killing of animals – all in an attempt to inculcate in boys a sense of manliness. There were fathers, especially in the late 18th century, who disliked the physical abuse they had to mete out to their little boys. But that was what the English public school was for. When the idea that boys should be beaten was questioned by the liberal theories of Locke and Rousseau, the solution was to send sons to a good public school where they would be beaten and later, as prefects, do the beating themselves, and thereby learn how to become men. Girls, on the whole, experienced childhoods of terrible constraint; at home, under the ever watchful eye of a governess, and later at a finishing school, in order to prepare them for an adult life of submissiveness and obedience.

The book is divided into three parts. Fletcher examines, first of all, the literature that prescribed how to raise a child. Pre-eighteenth century literature described children as sinners, who needed to be beaten in order to learn self-discipline. This view changed somewhat with Locke’s idea of the child as a ‘blank slate’, leading to a number of liberating developments in child rearing. The Romantics almost sanctified childhood, which became increasingly sentimentalised and commercialised in the Victorian period.

In the second and longest section of the book, Fletcher explores the actual experience of childhood from the points of view of both parents and children. He writes with considerable empathy and his sensitive use of primary sources provides insights into the lives of the historical actors that are, at times, almost painful. Lonely little boys are sent away to be bullied in boarding schools; mothers suffer the separation from their children and often from their husbands; and fathers are moved to tears by the suffering of their children. Fletcher is especially vivid in his analysis of motherhood. One mother in particular, Melisina Trench (born 1768), is portrayed as a true heroine and radical, breastfeeding her children, promoting children’s literature and condemning corporal punishment as ‘disgusting’ and ‘degrading’.

In the final section, based primarily on the diaries of three teenage girls, Fletcher tries to reveal the voice of childhood itself. Unfortunately, the diaries of boys reveal very little about their feelings and inner lives, and Fletcher admits that ‘boys let us down’ and, on the whole, ‘defy the historian’. We are left with a small handful of diaries from the end of the period written by upper class teenage girls. We cannot help but question, however, how representative these young female voices are of the overall experience of childhood over three centuries.

Fletcher’s ambitious, detailed and powerful work is essential reading in the historical study of childhood. However, I remain unconvinced by his overarching thesis that the experience of childhood was largely the same throughout the period 1600-1914. The existence of diaries from the end of the period alone could be an indication of how childhood had changed. The Victorian sentimentilisation of childhood, with its children’s literature, holidays at the seaside and growth in the production of toys, would further indicate that, despite the recurrent beatings, growing up in England in 1900 was different to 1600.

Paul Doolan is Head of History at Zurich International School in Zurich, Switzerland.

No comments:

Blog Directory