Hear, O God. Alas, for man's sin! . . . for in Thy sight none is pure from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth. . . . What then was my sin? . . . . [Was it not sinful for the baby] to cry for what, if given, would hurt? bitterly to resent, that persons free, and its own elders, yea, the very authors of its birth, served it not? that many besides, wiser than it, obeyed not the nod of its good pleasure? to do its best to strike and hurt, because commands were not obeyed, which had been obeyed to its hurt? The weakness then of infant limbs, not its will, is its innocence. Myself have seen and known even a baby envious; it could not speak, yet it turned pale and looked bitterly on its foster-brother. Who knows not this? . . . We bear gently with all this, not as being no or slight evils, but because they will disappear as years increase; for, though tolerated now, the very same tempers are utterly intolerable when found in riper years. — The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey
n the religious climate of Victorian England, it was very hard, if not downright impossible, to get away from the idea of original sin — the belief that, as Robert O’Connell puts it, "[o]ur 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" (335). According to Phillipe Ariès, Rousseau's fundamental concept of childhood, as a state of innocence associated with primitivism, was hardly absorbed until the twentieth century (116); and even Peter Coveney, who does claim an “immediate" impact for Rousseau’s Émile (46), recognises that this impact was limited. Certainly, it bore little fruit in practice. In old age, even Wordsworth reverted to the orthodox view, describing the child in Ecclesiastical Sonnet XX (On Baptism) as "A Growth from sinful Nature's bed of weeds." In effect, when it came to writing for children, the pretty reservoir of idealizing sentiment about them, with its heretical and even secular sources, was swamped by the great tide of Victorian Evangelicalism.
This skewed the whole view of childhood. 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. Mrs Sherwood, whose works for children were imbued “with a religious fervour and an emphasis on sinfulness which had not been seen in juvenile books since the writings of the 17th-cent. Puritans" (Carpenter and Prichard 483), was the great influence here. Her version of The Pilgrim's Progress entitled The Infant's Progress: From the Valley of Destruction to Everlasting Glory, completed in 1810, was a best-seller which would have been known to generations of children: it went to eleven editions up to 1847, and was published in a new edition with plates in 1856. "[L]ittle children cannot understand ... grave and elaborate discourses," she says in her introduction; yet the book's content is grave enough. She goes on:
I have therefore written for your instruction on this subject, a story about some little children who, like yourselves, were born in a state of sin. And in this story I have personified the Sin of our nature, and introduced it as the constant companion of these children. (iv)
In-bred Sin is "as ill favoured and ill conditioned an urchin as one could see" (5), who whispers evil in the ears of nine-year-old Humble Mind and his sisters, Playful and Peace, and never ceases to torment them. Not much of a character in himself, he nevertheless hints at the horrible school bullies yet to come: “the blackguard Flashman, who never speaks to one without a kick or an oath" in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) (Part 1, Ch. 8), and Barker in Dean Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little (1858), a “rough-looking fellow, with a shock of black hair, and a very dogged look" (Ch. 2). But, as usual, it is the adult presence which towers over Sherwood’s narrative, and which seems to have left its strongest mark on children’s literature. For example, Mr Orthodox's wife, Mrs Bountiful, who gives good guidance to Playful, is very like Charles Kingsley's and George MacDonald's educating mother figures in The Water-Babies (1863) and At the Back of the North Wind (serialized 1868-69), The Princess and the Goblin (serialized 1870-71), The Princess and Curdie (serialized 1877), and others.
Frontispiece to Barlee's Three Paths in Life. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
What we find in most Victorian children’s books, then, is the child being urged to overcome “the old Adam" (often rather an aging process!), with some Awful Warnings against incalcitrance thrown in. Ellen Barlee’s Three Paths of Life: A Tale for Girls (1872), illustrates this well. Here, three motherless schoolgirls are urged to think what they want from the future. One, Jessie, wants “a London residence, with lots of friends and amusements, herself the centre of interest and admiration" (Ch. 1). She sticks obstinately to this course, even when the fast life makes her restless and unhappy, and ruins her health. High-minded young Annie is also destined to fall ill, but from a very different cause, and with a very different result. She wears herself out by helping her clergyman father in an East End parish, and dies after attending a poor mother’s deathbed, going to her rest “like a victor brought before his king" (Ch. 11). A third girl, Minnie, heeds her kindly schoolmistress’s advice and represents the golden mean by living a good Christian life among people of her own class. Her “[l]ittle deeds of kindness, little acts of love" (Ch. 10), remind us of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch. Though less exalted than Annie’s, Minnie’s reward might have appealed more to Barlee’s young readers, for she wins the heart of a missionary who just happens to inherit a title.
The first page of "The Ragged Girl from the 1860 Girl's Birthday Book. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
An important way for children to improve themselves, then, was by helping others. Barlee herself was a noted philanthropist, the leading light of the Institution for the Employment of Needlewomen, a project supported by Lord Shaftesbury; later, she became an active campaigner for London’s “pantomime waifs." As an expression of Evangelical zeal, good deeds replace other, more superficial accomplishments in girls’ tales especially. In the anonymous story “The Ragged Girl," from The Girl’s Birthday Book of 1860, a mother tells her daughter that altering some cast-offs for a desperately poor family “is better than dressing dolls, better even than fancy work, my dear" (216). To borrow the words of one real-life Lady who recalled having working-class children to tea with her in her late Victorian girlhood, “philanthropy was in the air" (Lubbock 254).
Other children’s writers produced heroes or heroines who were themselves working class. The Evangelical Hesba Stretton (real name Sarah Smith), for instance, was the founder of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, later renamed the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or NSPCC. The eponymous heroine in her Little Meg’s Children (1868), one of the later publications of the Religious Tract Society, is a poor child, a “small, spare, stunted girl of London growth" (Ch. 1), who cares for her smaller siblings in an attic in the aptly named Angel Court. Her mother had been a good woman, and a good spiritual guide for her, as a result of which Meg scrupulously hangs onto some sovereigns believed to be held in trust for her father’s mate. By holding up such children as examples, authors made it clear that poor children too could shrug off “the old Adam," and were worth saving from squalor, neglect or worse.
There was a less humanitarian social purpose in such tales, too. The many uncared for children of Victorian times (see next section), evoked fear and anxiety as well as sympathy. “We have to visualize streets and tenements, villages and courts, teeming with child life," writes Lionel Rose (3), adding that “the early motive for half-time schooling laws was not to broaden children’s minds but to ‘tame’ them as child workers and make them more tractable in their place of work" (6). In other words, subduing the energies of such children was vital to the smooth running of society. Handing out stories like Little Meg’s Children as reward or gift books to the poor themselves was part of this effort. "Energy does seem diabolical to us," writes Germaine Greer in our own times, "our whole culture is bent on harnessing it for ulterior ends." Greer goes on even more forcefully than Rose: “the child must be civilized; what this means is really that he must be obliterated" (71). We can sense in exemplary figures like Little Meg not only the message that children’s fallen natures could and should be overcome, but also the old, old effort to keep the lower orders useful, dependable and generally under control.
The Relation of Children's Literature to Victorian Conceptions of Childhood
- Evangelical Tracts and Magazines for Children
- Be good, Dear Child. . . or else
- A tradition of befriending children: Rev. Wilson and Children's Friend
- "The Reformation"
Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
Augustine, St., of Hippo. The Confessions, trans. E. B. Pusey. London: Chatto and Windus, 1821. Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Robert S. Munday. 2001.
Barlee, Ellen. Three Paths in Life: A Tale for Girls. London: James Nisbet and Co., 1872.
Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard.
Coveney, Peter.The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1967.
Farrar, Frederic W. Eric or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. St Alban’s: Paladin, 1971.
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s Schooldays. London: Dent, 1908.
Lubbock, Sybil. The Child in the Crystal. London: Cape, 1939.
O’Connell, Robert J. The Origin of the Soul in St Augustine’s Works. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1987.
Rose, Lionel. The Erosion of Childhood: Child Oppression in England, 1860-1918. London: Routledge 1991.
Sherwood, Mary Martha. The Infant’s Progress: From the Valley of Destruction to Everlasting Glory. Wellington, Salop: F. Houlston & Son, 2nd ed. 1821.
Stretton, Hesba (Sarah Smith). Little Meg’s Children. London: Religious Tract Society, 1905.
Last modified 13 August 2007