decorated initial 'I'n the nursery, boys were heir to the time-honoured Christian ideal of spiritual purity, exemplified by the twelve-year-old Christ's preaching in the temple, and hammered home by the Evangelical children's writers. However, this came into collision with other ideas of what it meant to be, in Dinah Craik's words, "a thorough boy ... daring and adventurous" (70-71).

Children of both sexes suffered because of their parents' zeal in spiritual matters. At a time when the doctrine of original sin is in the ascendancy, the mother in Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke watches eagerly for signs that her offspring have been 'saved': "as I afterwards discovered from a journal of hers, she used to beseech God with agonised tears to set her mind at rest by revealing towards her His will towards us" (24). Even parents like Helen Huntingdon in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who are more confident of their child's spiritual state, are caught up in the Evangelical swell. They are very much aware of the opposite possibility, and of the dark dyes poised to spill on and contaminate even the purest of souls. The ambiguity about Helen's infant son is hardly less troubling than Mrs Locke's uncertainty. To Helen, Arthur Jr. may be a "little angel," but to his father he is "nothing more than a little selfish, senseless, sensualist": he calls the boy lightly "the little devil" (255), and is soon trying to consolidate this position by introducing him to his own vices. Naturally, parents like Mrs Locke and Helen Huntingdon put pressure on small children of both sexes to act like cherubs.

In George Cruikshamk's illustration, Oliver's involvement in pickpocketing, innocent though he is, leads to a breakdown. [Click on thumbnail for larger image and more information.]

The sexual implications here were huge (see Nelson 29ff), with pious, often physically weak or disabled boy characters from Oliver Twist onwards commanding sympathy and respect in a way that boisterous, in fact boyish, girls do not. In children's works, the whole point of the enterprise is to produce boys of this kind. The moral sledgehammer descends whenever any conflict occurs between spirited behaviour and the life of the spirit. Becoming a hero here is such a painful process as to be self-defeating. Often, there is real agony of mind. In Catherine Sinclair's celebrated Holiday House (1839), Harry's "manly spirit" has been noted approvingly even by his dour nursery governess, Mrs Crabtree (88). But the irrepressible boy is silenced in the end, quite buried under the avalanche of religious injunctions which accompanies the unexpected death of his elder brother. Several decades later, Flora Shaw's imperious child hero in Castle Blair (1878) is similarly crushed (see "Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Fiction: Orphans, Outcasts and Rebels").

While uncertainty about the nature of the child persisted until, with the passage of time, it was swallowed up by larger uncertainties, more people were coming to reject the Calvinistic doctrine of the Elect and its influence. Anne Brontë herself was among them: in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Helen's husband was not "made that way," as Mrs Grey suggests the vicious Bloomfield children might have been in the same author's earlier Agnes Grey; the blame for Arthur Huntingdon Sr.'s dissolution is laid squarely at the door of his "harsh yet careless father and his madly indulgent mother" (238). Periodical articles of the age too show that "'[h]ard' and 'soft' schools of child management opposed each other in the middle of the century," and Flora Shaw's outspokenness supports the conclusion that, however slowly, "the 'soft' school was winning" (Grylls 54). As the Victorian era moves on, the breaking of a boy's will becomes not only painful but a matter of some regret, though it still occurs regularly in tales of family life. Modern readers are likely to deplore it unequivocally, believing with Foucault that the whole "carceral network" (and it is not difficult to see the Victorian nursery as part of such a network) was no more than a "way of rendering the group of men docile and useful" (305).

However, the Victorians, much as they encouraged high-mindedness, did wonder if it meant sacrificing natural high spirits. For girls, that kind of vitality might be unnecessary and perhaps undesirable; they had to have their values and ideals too, of course, but those were domestic ones to be exercised mainly in the prescribed area of the home. In "Two Brave Little Cowards," a contribution to The Girl's Birthday Book of 1860, it is made quite clear that girls "are made for a calm existence in the bosom of [their] families" (66). Boys, however (like Henry in the same story, who saves his sister from a young bull), are seen to require and encouraged to develop both physical and moral resources in order to face the dangers of the outside world. This awareness found its most obvious outlet in Victorian boys' adventure stories. More in tune with Fielding's ideas of boyish impulsiveness and pluck on the one hand, and the modern fiction of childhood as a process of maturation on the other, are those narratives situated on coral islands and in other exotic and faraway places. Frederick Marryat and R.M. Ballantyne did not have to make a point of punishing their characters for defying the governess or feuding with neighbours' children, and answered a real need in their young (and some not so young) readers for heroes who develop partly through energetic resistance to the elements and other hostile forces. Novelists writing largely for adults, too, realized well enough that a hero should be more robust. "Why, where's your spirit?" the Artful Dodger asks Oliver Twist when he longs to run away from Fagin's den (163; it is worth remembering that Dickens was a fan of Marryat).

The tension between the Victorian domestic ideal of virtuous boyhood, and the perceived need for liveliness, is illustrated well in a neglected thread which runs right through the narrative of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Indeed, Chapter III, entitled "A Controversy," purposefully addresses this very issue. Helen has taken the drastic step of removing herself and her child from the family home, in order to preserve the boy's innocence. But the neighbourly Markhams fear that little Arthur Huntingdon might turn out to be a "milksop" (54) or a "Miss Nancy" (55) if Helen keeps him tied to her apron-strings. Mrs Markham even wants to enlist the Vicar on her side of the debate. At first it seems that her concern is justified. Arthur is introduced in a highly symbolic scene: the small boy, aged about five, loses his footing while scrambling over a wall, gets caught up in a cherry tree branch, and tumbles into Gilbert Markham's arms; he is snatched back urgently and protectively by his mother. Then, however, it seems that Mrs Markham is wrong. Helen's anxious surveillance is tempered by her affection, and we are told that the boy himself has a "mercurial" personality (51). As a result, he always appears to be disarmingly boyish, and plays an active role in the plot: "a merry, simple-hearted child," he acts as a mediator between Helen and Gilbert, just as his first appearance foretells (109). Seven years old at the end of the narrative, he seems biddable but confident: his last action is to thrust a book "with all kinds of birds and beasts in it" at Gilbert (487). This looks very much like (and is clearly intended to be) a success story, born of the author's own experiences as a governess.

At first, it seems that Helen has won hands down against those notorious male home educators of Victorian fiction, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Mr Caxton, George Meredith's Sir Austin Feverel and Marie Corelli's Mr Valliscourt (in The Mighty Atom), fostering virtue and intellectual curiosity without dampening the boy's youthful ardour. However, the fault lines are clear. As an infant Arthur Huntingon Jr. is "healthy but not robust" (256); the small boy's eyes are "prematurely serious at times" (101); the voice which announces Gilbert's arrival in the Conclusion is still a "tiny" one (478), and the general appearance here of the "pretty boy" with his "curling locks" and "ivory forehead" is decidely girlish (479). Arthur is not seen growing up; the reader is told that he makes a "fine young man" in the long run (487), but is not shown it. In fact, there is no hero worth speaking of in the novel at all: the impetuous Gilbert Markham is a poor candidate for the role. Thus, Brontë first admits that it is difficult to protect a boy's innocence without denaturing him; then claims that it is possible; finally, the reader is left to infer that this is only a dream. The healthy dialectic of the beginning of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is forced underground by the end, as it is in so many children's books.

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Last modified 15 January 2011