Childhood And The Old Victorian Era English Literature Essay

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The Victorian era saw huge social and political changes which affected all aspects of children's lives. In 1851, London was already Britain's largest city with a population of 2.4 million and faced major problems with overcrowding and poverty. Disease and premature death were common experiences for all classes and inevitably found their way into the focus of popular works of literature of the time.

By 1901 England had changed from a rural country to a vast manufacturing machine which employed over a third of Britain's population. 80% of the population lived in cities, but conditions were improving. Social reformers such as Dr Barnardo, Lord Shaftesbury, Beatrice Webb, Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth exposed the impoverished conditions endured by many London children. Under pressure the Government began to take responsibility for education, health and housing, and passed acts such as the Education Act of 1870. However, many poor children continued to work instead of going to school. This paper shall focus on the literary depiction of such unfortunate children, besides the plight of the repressed rich ones who although lived parallel lives, suffered equally and unmistakeably.

The concept of 'the child' as a distinct social group which needed different treatment and protection first began to take hold during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria and

Prince Albert set an example of ideal family life with their nine children which upper and middle class families tried to follow. As the 1800s progressed, the Government was pressured to take greater responsibility for the education, health and welfare of its poorest citizens. Charities tried to help poor street children by providing shelter, food and training, and by publicising their plight and campaigning. John Groom's 'Watercress and Flower Girls' Christian Mission helped disabled girls earn a living. In David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Bleak House, Charles Dickens described children's working conditions.

Before the 1840s, many London children didn't attend school. Charitable Ragged

Schools (1840s) and Board Schools (1870s), paid for by local rates, began to provide a basic education. But despite these, and the Elementary Education Act of 1879 and subsequent Acts (1880 and 1891), many London children still didn't attend school regularly.

In a letter Dickens described how 'Ragged' was a nickname for children who

were 'too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place' than a

Ragged School.

In Victorian schools, discipline was strictly administered with the cane. In London

Board Schools, large classes of up to 60 worked in silence for hour-long lessons on the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), taught by inexperienced 'monitors' often aged as young as 12. Inspectors checked schools were meeting standards. Working children often attended school in the evenings after a days work. Kingsley's Water Babies and Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby vividly describe uncaring schools.

The Middle-Class Family: Ideology of Child-Centeredness

The role of children in families and in the broader society has changed between the seventeenth century and the present day. This is best described as the emergence and then the spread of a middle-class model or ideology of the family. This model was associated with the newly emerging commercial classes in Western Europe and based on the idea of the self-contained family led by a strong father with a central focus on the upbringing of children. Patriarchy ruled over the lives of children and paid special attention to their conditioned growth.

In some cases the notion of the family was derived from religious faith and in some, through education. Through the religious view, children were seen as inherently sinful and in need of guidance. In some extreme cases, they were compared to wild animals whose spirit needed to be broken in order that they might develop the humility and obedience which would lead them to be good Christians.

What both models of the family share though, is a focus on the child and the importance of education. This emphasis was widespread among the new middle classes and was re-emphasized in the eighteenth century by the Enlightenment view that children were 'naturally innocent' and needed to be directed by appropriate care and education to become good citizens. This view is best expressed in Rousseau's book Emile (1758), which sets out a plan for the education of a boy to allow natural curiosity and virtue to flower.

Childhood innocence

The notion of childhood innocence goes back at least to Greek ideas on human perfectibility, and is found too in Jesus' various sayings about children in the New Testament, including, for example, "Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me" (Luke 9, v. 48).

In early eighteenth-century England, for example, John Locke's tutee, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, expressed the belief in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) that man is endowed with a natural impulse for virtue, the exercise of which would lead to his and society's happiness

The so-called "cult of the child" flourished in England when William Blake and the Romantics embodied it in their poetry. "It was Blake who declared the 'vast majority of children to be on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation,'" says Peter Coveney, adding that "in Blake we have the first coordinated utterance of the Romantic imaginative and spiritually sensitive child".

Wordsworth too dwelt on the holiness of the child, writing famously in The Immortality Ode: "trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God who is our home," and amplifying this by dubbing youth "Nature's priest" and endowing it with a redemptive role in his narrative poem, Michael. For all their differences in approach, both Blake and Wordsworth give the joyful, pure-hearted and inspirational figure of the child added poignancy by contrasting it with the world of experience which lies in wait for it.

The image of the child as innocent and redemptive can be found in many works of the Victorian period. Major novel such as DickensHYPERLINK ""'s Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop and George EliotHYPERLINK """'s Silas Marner use the Bildungsroman and specially center themselves around the innocent growth of a child and all that ensues during the process of his/her development into an adult. Idealised and redemptive child characters can be seen all over the pages of children's literature too. However, few of the innocent and redemptive child characters in Victorian children's stories seem innocent in the Romantic sense. In most cases, like that of high-minded young Arthur in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), their innocence equates with piety. Hughes was a Christian Socialist, but Arthur seems to belong to the joyless and moralising Evangelical tradition and it was not until this had run its course in children's literature that a more vibrant image of childhood was seen in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century neo-Romantic children's classics.

This benign child-centredness became popular and was associated with the growth of Romanticism which saw children as close to nature and in some sense uncorrupted and pure. A fashion developed for child portraits by artists such as Reynolds which stressed innocence and 'cuteness'. However, the view was largely confined to the enlightened aristocracy and the new middle classes.

Contrary to this, most of the population of Western European countries associated childhood as akin to the adult struggles of poverty, exploitation and hard labour.

This set up a definite contrast between the romantic views of childhood that were the very base of the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement and a realistic picture of children and their experiences. Charles Dickens highlighted this very issue in his Oliver Twist when he juxtaposed the simple innocence of Oliver with the dark and rugged mannerisms of the Artful Dodger and Fagin's gang. Similarly, in Kingsley's Water Babies the chimney boys are shown to really be innocent babies. This view of childhood purity (which contrasted with the Puritan view of children's inherently sinful nature) coincided with the nineteenth-century concern to 'save' children from labour and exploitation

Ideas of Original Sin

In the religious climate of Victorian England, it was very hard ignore the idea of original sin - the belief that, as Robert O'Connell puts it, "Our souls are sin-laden from before conception in our mother's wombs, guilty with a guilt we could never have contracted in our "proper" lives, guilty because we were one in and with Adam, were Adam in his primal act of sinning". Even Wordsworth is known to have reverted to the orthodox view, describing the child in Ecclesiastical Sonnet XX (On Baptism) as "A Growth from sinful Nature's bed of weeds." As a result, very few writings for and about children escaped the effect of Evangelical threads of thought and a very rigid religious order. This misconstrued the whole view of childhood as the Romantic child might be quashed by life (those "shades of the prison-house"), but the child of Adam had to be saved by it…or at least by firm parenting.

Strict upbringing and harsh treatment were meted out to children, as they were seen as savage creatures that needed to be tamed. Children faced restrictions at every step and any outburst against the patriarchal system was seen as an evil streak of rebellion that must be discouraged using severe punishments such as beatings, entrapment in closed rooms etc as is seen in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The 'red room incident' and all that led to it can be seen as an example of the opinions held by adults about children, specially girls who stood up for themselves and were outspoken. Meek acceptance and docile behaviour was expected out of them instead of allowing them the creative freedom to explore their beings.Besides other restrictions placed upon young minds, their bodies were also fashioned as those of young adults. Corsets were forced upon young girls as they were expected to appear as adults in both behaviour and dress. Though the Romantic view held that children were innocent and needed protection, there was always a co-existing world of suffocating boundaries that controlled children more than ever before in the Victorian Era.

Nineteenth-Century Children and Social Policy: Children without Childhood

Child labour was not just an accidental implication of industrialization, rather a carefully planned and executed business. Child workers were often preferred to adults because of their flexibility, low cost and meek obedience. Children, thus, became economic agents and assisted their families with financial matters through their labour.

This created a stark contrast to the Romantic idealised image of childhood among the new middle classes and various Factory Acts limited working hours and set minimum wages in response to protests by social activists. This enthusiasm for saving children paralleled a growth in philanthropic and charitable initiatives which laid many of the foundations for the twentieth-century Welfare State. Foundling hospitals became a major focus of the revolutionary humanitarian concern and the Poor Laws began to focus on the needs of 'lost children' or 'children without childhood'. Later, this notion of childhood innocence was challenged by the growing awareness of child prostitution, and campaigners like Josephine Butler demonstrated the hypocrisy of a society which silently allowed such practises to exist and continue.

By the end of the nineteenth century, though most children still faced dire straits when left out on the streets, the idea of child-centeredness had become a key factor in policy matters, paving the way for the twentieth century which has been described by many observers as 'the century of the child'.

As writers prove to be successful agents of change through their narratives, one can easily assume that their impact on society and role in bringing about a change grew as time progressed. Freud freely admitted that creative writers "are far in advance of us everyday people" in "knowledge of the mind" , and his favourite novel as well as the first present he gave to his future wife while courting her, was David Copperfield. He congratulated both, Charlotte and Emile Bronte for their works, besides Dickens, for delving into the child's developing consciousness. One saw children's writers gradually leaving behind vestiges of Evangelicalism and Romanticism in favour of a focus on a realism and a deeper understanding of the child as an entity rather than object.

Victorian authors evoked their own experiences as children in order to portray a more realistic and true version of the stories of lives of children. Many of them had lived through a severely religious climate during their developmental years and wrote about them passionately. Looking back, Charlotte Yonge remembered the "worst terror of all" as being the Last Judgement: as a child, she tried to ward off sleep and its nightmares by pulling hairs out of her mattress. "

To sleep - if only one could!" recalled a later writer, Sylvia Lubbock: For a few minutes every night it seemed not too impossible.... [but then], still wide awake while the firelight faded, [I] stared into the darkness to see what form my fear would take. The 'Eye of God' was perhaps the worst. In the daytime it had seemed only inconvenient, an invisible guardian of sugar-basins or forbidden books; but by night it grew visible, a terrible single orb in the corner of the bedroom, searching my infant soul, pursuing me even under the bedclothes, coming closer, closer, closer, till at last I would scream with terror…

Writers also used this method, at times, to rid themselves of unhappy memories by creating a happier childhood for the characters in their novels. Other factors, too, encouraged the new spotlight on childhood, some largely social and some related to advances in scientific knowledge. In the early eighteenth century, Defoe had been delighted to see small children busily engaged in adult labours; but industrialisation changed all that.

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland


Lewis Carroll's first Alice book of 1865 is often seen as heralding 'the golden age of children's literature'. Carroll gave his readers a uniquely natural and attractive child character who rises to the challenges of a strange and wonderful world. The first glimpse of a harried rabbit in formal attire suggests at once that adults are the ones to be distorted in this world, not children. For Alice, who thinks her sister's book is boring and runs off after the rabbit "burning with curiosity" (Chapter 1) is no angel; yet when a large pigeon beats her "violently with its wings" and screams "Serpent!" at her, she adamantly rejects its accusation: "I'm not a serpent, I tell you!" Rather hesitantly (because of all her recent changes in size) she explains, "I - I'm a little girl" (Chapter 5), and everything about her bears this out, from her feeling that "something interesting is sure to happen" (Chapter 4) and her wish to hear "something worth hearing," to her constant efforts to "make out" what is happening around her, however odd or daunting it may seem (Chapter 5).

As such, Alice develops in ways accounted for by what George Elliot calls "a peculiar combination of outward with inward facts" (Adam Bede, Book 4, and Chapter 29). She invites her challenges herself, drinking from the bottle labelled "DRINK ME" and eating the cake which shrinks her. She speaks coaxingly to the playful puppy that is, to a child of her exceptionally small size, so worryingly like a clumsy and perhaps even hungry cart-horse. She even throws a stick for the puppy, dodging behind a thistle to avoid his careless paws. Next, she stretches up eagerly to see the top of the huge mushroom on which the Caterpillar is smoking his hookah; knocks at the Duchess's door; and gate-crashes the Mad Hatter's tea-party. Not even the metaphysical challenges that assail her in the second Alice book, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), can throw her off course. When Tweedledum insists, "You know very well you're not real," her natural pragmatism asserts itself: "'If I wasn't real,' Alice said - half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous - 'I shouldn't be able to cry.'" And then, when challenged about the reality of her tears, she decides they are talking nonsense, brushes away those tears, cheers herself up quite successfully, and hurries on (Chapter 4)

Alice's spirit is clearly bolstered by resolution and courage as well as curiosity and pragmatism. Far from considering herself a passive pawn in the game of life, in the Looking-glass world she prepares herself for each coming move, standing "on tiptoe in hopes of being able to see a little further.

As a genre, children's literature is far more important than popular opinion. The best of it makes a huge impact on the developing mind, and is never forgotten. Works for young readers have always crossed over in this way into the mainstream. On future writers, the influence of their childhood reading is sometimes quite incalculable. The Alice books themselves provide an example, for Lewis Carroll's subversion of received (adult) notions, and the dizzying disjunctions of reality in Alice's world, helped to inspire a whole new age of radical experimentation in the novel.

Be that as it may, Carroll and his contemporaries have been criticized as well as praised for responding to their age's new interest in and understanding of childhood.


Dickens successfully highlighted important social issues through his depiction of the Warrens Episode, while Carroll gave the same realism a twist by adding fantasy and a fairy tale like quality to his Alice books. Many Victorian writers played their part as social reformers seriously, by writing responsibly about all forms of society and providing the readers with not just a historical documentation of the occurrences of the nineteenth century but also an overview of the condition of children of all economic backgrounds in the same. Though this paper focussed primarily on the conditions of the poor and unprotected children of Western Europe, one must note that even children hailing from economically sound backgrounds suffered equally, if not more.

Though not an analytical piece, this paper stands as a historical recapitulation of the events that led to a change in the perception of children in society. The shift to the Romantic view and the ever evolving outlook of adults towards growth and development of children makes for an interesting read, especially as one can see these shifts manifested in the novels of that time. Some may be shocked to read about the ideas of original sin which did not spare even children, or even about the free use of corporal punishment that stunted the mental development of many a child. However, all the above mentioned factors existed as realities in the Victorian Era and have been beautifully encapsulated by writers such as Dickens, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot and Kingsley. While writers such as Wordsworth chose to focus on the innocence of the child, these artists worked on reality and the harsh implications of the social scenario they had faced as children and continued to see present.

The Victorian Age was one of many contradictions and juxtaposed social presences, and yet it gave the world a collection of brilliant literature that continues to shock, amaze and awe its readers.