An adult’s autobiography of her childhood is both an attempt to describe and explain a life and an attempt to reconstruct life as it was felt by the child at the time. How that life is reconstructed tells us as much about the adult’s view of children and childhood as it does about the life being described. There are two inter-related distinctions: there is a difference between the condition of childhood itself and society’s understanding of that condition and there is a difference between how children are experienced by adults and how childhood is experienced by children. It can be argued that each society has its own chosen narrative, or class of narratives, that seeks to explain what childhood is about.

The autobiographies of Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë (writing as Jane Eyre) and Flora Thompson (the ‘Laura’ of Lark Rise) provide glimpses of what childhood was like in the nineteenth century. This essay draws on some contemporary theories of child development and memory to analyse the childhoods portrayed by these writers, seeking to understand both the essence of childhood (that which does not change) and the constantly changing narrative(s) of childhood that reflect the expectations of time and place.

Children are not little adults

Jean Piaget was one of the first to make what now seems to be an obvious statement: children do not necessarily think like adults and their thought processes have their own brand of internal logic and order. Einstein apparently called it a discovery ‘so simple only a genius could have thought of it’ (see Papert, 105). In Piaget’s view, the transition from childhood to adulthood is akin to metamorphosis, involving a fundamental reorganisation and transformation of one type of being into another; a journey that involves negotiating multiple ways of knowing and major challenges and dilemmas. This may mean that the ‘adult-we-become’ can never again access the ‘child-we-were’. Martineau, Brontë and Thompson, as adult writers, create the children they thought they might have been. It is a moot point whether adults can really recreate or re-inhabit the inner world of a child.

Childhood is a concept we tend to take for granted. But, as Cahan, Mechling, Sutton-Smith & White point out, children are not only ‘natural’ objects, existing independently of context, but ‘social’ objects that are ‘not the product of developmental forces alone but a fiction constructed just as much by social and historical forces located in time and space’ (192). Pollock (see Cahan et al, p 200) adds that historians have largely written the history of the child from adult evidence - child-rearing manuals, travellers’ accounts, diaries and the like – using the ‘imperial’ practice of forcing the adult view of the child on to the concept itself. Cahan et al suggest that biography, especially psychobiography, can ‘unveil the ways in which vectors of developmental forces, social context, and historical change collide in the individual’ (218).

Cesare Pavese, Italian poet and novelist, wrote ‘Childhood is not only the childhood we really had but also the impressions we formed of it in our adolescence and maturity’. Rousseau was of the view that ‘Childhood is the sleep of reason’. John Betjeman believed ‘Childhood is measured out by the sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows’. And St Paul (1 Corinthians 13:11) tells us: ‘When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child’.

Writers such as Betjeman cast childhood as a time when feelings predominate, when the senses of touch, sight, sound and smell over-shadow the powers of reason and when reason is inferior to and qualitatively different from an adult’s. And, as Pavese suggests, memory may not be able to render an accurate representation of childhood because the child’s memory is – and has to be - reconstructed by the adult. The child’s reason is superseded by something that is fundamentally different in kind.

Charlotte Brontë, writing as her alter-ego, Jane Eyre, says, ‘Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words’ (34). And, after Bessie has told Jane that she is ‘under obligations’ to her aunt, Mrs Reed, she tells the reader that her ‘Very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind. This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible’ (19).

Harriet Martineau, reflecting on her childhood in the early 1800s, similarly describes her lack of understanding about how children learn to talk and her dread at the prospect that her baby sister might be dumb: ‘I had no other idea than that she must learn to speak at all as I had now to learn French, - each word by an express effort’ (40).

Memoir and memory

Autobiography and memoir rely also, of course, on memory. Taleb argues that all history – and thus an adult’s childhood autobiography - is retrospective narrative. He says that history is opaque in that we see what comes out, not the script that produces events. He suggests that the human mind suffers from the ‘triplet of opacity’ when it comes to writing about, or understanding, the past: the illusion of understanding (we think we know what is/was going on); the retrospective distortion (we assess matters after the fact so that the past seems clearer and more organised than in its contemporary empirical reality); and the handicap of authoritative and learned people (who tell us which interpretation we should adopt). The way out of this triplet of opacity is to write a stream of consciousness, uncensored, the ‘as it is’ at the time.

Martineau, Brontë and Thompson are all writing as adults. Brontë was closest to her own childhood at the time of writing but she was still thirty-one when Jane Eyre was published. Martineau was fifty-three when she began to write Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography and Thompson’s Lark Rise – a social history as well as an autobiography - was not written until she was in her sixties (it was first published in 1939). These are significant gaps between the events portrayed and their reconstruction, making the demands on memory particularly acute.

Children’s thinking

Piaget published his seminal work The Language and Thought of the Child in 1926. Papert explains that Piaget ‘explored a kind of epistemological relativism in which multiple ways of knowing are acknowledged and examined non-judgementally’ (p108). A key concept was that although adult thought might seem to provide a pre-established model of thinking, children do not and cannot understand it until they have reconstructed it themselves.

Piaget proposed four stages in the development of thought: sensori-motor (babies); preoperational (toddlers and pre-schoolers); concrete operational (primary-school age); and formal operational (secondary-school age through to adulthood). Children progress through the stages in an orderly fashion with each new stage building on the last but providing a fundamentally new framework for thinking. Piaget provided many examples to demonstrate that development is not just a product of more knowledge and experience (although it is that in part) but that it is a new structure that takes over the more immature one and, once established, cannot allow the older way of thinking to co-exist. Piaget says ‘These overall structures are integrative and non-interchangeable’ (The Psychology of the Child, 153). Progress, particularly in the early years, relies on action - Piaget described children as little scientists, constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world. But action through language is also crucial as language both formalises learning as it occurs and is a way of knowing, of opening up the child to experiences that she could never have directly.

And how do the reconstructed Martineau, Brontë and Thompson children – Harriet, Jane and Laura - describe their own inner worlds at age ten? (Harriet was born in 1802 and so was ten years old in 1812, Brontë was ten in 1816 and Thompson, born late in the century, was a ten year old in 1886.)

Ten year olds are usually on the cusp of formal operational thought. But although most will have matured beyond the egocentricity characteristic of earlier times, they may still retain aspects of ‘concrete’ or literal thinking and are unlikely to have completely mastered abstract thought, the use of metaphor and the meta-ability to think about thinking. Piaget refers to the ‘final fundamental decentering, a liberation of thought from the concrete in favour of interest towards the non-present and the future’ (The Psychology of the Child 130) – towards imagined or deduced events. Formal operational thought is the final stage of morality too, when the child is able to transcend the particular and apply it as a principle.

Harriet is highly dismissive of her intellect: ‘My mind (was) considered dull and unobservant and unwieldy by my family’ (27). On the other hand, she could articulate a highly mature account of her religious beliefs. ‘I believed in a God... I did not at any time... believe in the Devil... I believed in inestimable and eternal rewards of holiness... I feared sin and remorse extremely, and punishment not at all. I desired...anything... that would give me the one good that I pined for in vain, - ease of conscience.’ (31)

She also appeared to have traits that would today be labelled as obsessive-compulsive. ‘(My mind) was desperately methodical. Everything must be made tabular that would at all admit of it’ (27). Harriet reveals her love of books, especially of Milton’s Paradise Lost. She says she read and memorised this book, seeing it as ‘my first experience of moral relief through intellectual resource’ (32-33). In this respect, the three girls are similar. Jane’s choice, being told by Bessie she could have whatever she wanted, was to read Gulliver’s Travels. Laura taught herself to read at an early age: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s Travels and The Daisy Chain are mentioned as favourites. The girls’ dedication to books, reading and ‘intellectual’ pursuits is probably not typical of children in the nineteenth century though. These were three girls who grew up to be writers and so an early interest in the written word is not surprising.

Much of Harriet’s writing about herself at the age of ten focuses on her attempts to make sense of religion. She comes to the conclusion that ‘Judaism was a perceptive religion (but) Christianity was mainly a religion of principles’ (27). This seems a very high-level idea for one so young and, if accurate, is a clear example of formal operational thinking. On the other hand, she seemed to wonder little at much she was told, describing her acceptance of a not very convincing story about the reality of the Holy Trinity. Jane, too, shows aspects of both formal operational reflection and retreat into the concrete. Mr Brocklehurst asks her if she knows ‘where the wicked go after death’. Jane provides a ready, and completely orthodox, answer: ‘They go to hell.’ And how should this be avoided? ‘I must keep in good health, and not die’. (45).

Religion for Laura is much less reflective. She accepts it as it is provided to her, from the mealtime graces – ‘Thank God for my good dinner. Thank Father and Mother. Amen’ – to the Sunday sermons delivered by the Rector in ‘buzzed beelike’ voice. She describes these church services in terms of what she could see, not what was said. ‘They could watch the birds and the bees and the butterflies (through the open door)... the women in the congregation fussing with her hair, or a man easing a tight collar...’ (204).

Death, for both Jane and Harriet, is described quite matter-of-factly. Following the death of her aunt, Harriet and her brother dig themselves a ‘grave’ which they take turns to lie in, trying to imagine what it is like to actually be dead – the archetypal ‘working through’ of a little-understood experience and an example of the ‘action’ Piaget says is crucial to the development of understanding. Jane is present (although asleep) at the time of Helen Burns’ death. Although upset at the time, her next comments are very pragmatic and almost dismissive – ‘Her grave is in Brocklehurst Churchyard: for fifteen years after her death it was covered by a grassy mound...’ (110). Laura’s account of the killing of the pigs is the nearest she comes to describing death. For her the killing was a ‘noisy, bloody business’ that made her feel sick. ‘She would creep back into bed and cry; she was sorry for the pig’ (10).

The morality Piaget describes as central to children’s thinking was evident in the sense of justice — and outrage if justice was not seen to be done — that pervades the young lives of Jane and Harriet. For example, when the cruel treatment of Helen Burns at Lowood infuriates her, Jane tells Helen, ‘I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it deserved’ (77). Like the fictional Jane, the real Harriet refers to a governess who ‘daily outraged her sense of justice’ (37). Laura is altogether more sanguine about all the perceived injustices of childhood. Perhaps, as she says, village children were tougher in fibre than some.

Children’s feelings

And what of personality?

Harriet describes hers in terms of her ‘habit’ of misery, of crying daily, of trying hard to stop, but always failing. ‘I was an insufferable child for gloom, obstinacy and crossness’ (33). By the time she is nine, she says she was not happy anywhere and often thought about running away. She is excruciatingly shy, tends to be untruthful and says that laziness was her worst enemy. She largely blames herself for these traits but also alludes to the role of others who, with ‘Even a little more sympathy and moral support would have spared me and others a hideous amount of fault and suffering’ (33).

Freud was born at the time that the adult Harriet was writing these memoirs and his ‘theory of mind’ provides an interesting commentary to her view of her personality. Put simply, Freud proposed that the personality consists of three major systems: the id, the ego and the superego. In the mentally healthy person these three systems are in unified and harmonious organisation – although it is childhood’s task to get them there. The id is the reservoir of all energy and operates according to the pleasure principle, aiming to rid the person of tension. The ego is the rational part of the mind that has the task of devising ways of satisfying the id in socially acceptable ways; it operates according to the reality principle. The superego develops last and is the moralising force representing the ideal rather than the real. The superego comprises two sub-systems – the ego-ideal (what is morally good) and the conscience (what is morally bad). The ego constantly juggles anxiety – the fear that the id will get out of control. This may be dealt with through realistic problem-solving strategies or by denying, falsifying or distorting reality, thereby impeding the development of the personality. These latter methods are the ‘defence mechanisms’ of the ego and over-reliance on them can lead to neurosis.

Harriet portrays herself as a child ridden with guilt and shyness (that is, with an over-active conscience) and as engaging in obsessive behaviour, maybe in an (unconscious) attempt to sublimate or ‘project’ her natural laziness in the form of order and neatness. Rigidity and obsessiveness are also the hallmarks of an anal-retentive personality that can develop, according to Freud, when parents are too strict or begin toilet-training too early.

Jane describes her habitual mood as consisting of ‘humiliation, self-doubt and forlorn depression’, again indicative of an imbalance between conscience and ego-ideal. She attempts to protect and project her own feelings that she must be wicked onto Mrs Reed and her cousin John. Jane achieves some measure of satisfaction – revenge – when she challenges Mrs Reed’s view of her: ‘I am not deceitful. I declare I do not love you. I am glad you are no relation of mine. ..The very thought of you makes me sick, and ... you treated me with miserable cruelty. You are deceitful!’ (51). Earlier, Jane describes a child’s need for comfort – from wherever it can be found. This includes the comfort of seclusion: ‘Folds of drapery shut in my view... clear panes of glass protecting me ... from the drear November day’ (12). And the comfort of a ‘mother-substitute’:

to this crib I always took my doll...I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doted on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation. I could not sleep unless it was folded in my night-gown; and when it lay there safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise. [40-41]

Harriet has her own live comfort, her sister Ellen to whom she was devoted. She seems to have cast herself as her sister’s carer, watching over her, again, almost compulsively. ‘All my spare moments were spent in the nursery, watching, - literally watching – the baby’ (40).

We may wonder how Jane, in particular, could ever have developed any positive view of life with a childhood background of almost unrelenting misery. ‘I dared commit no fault: I strove to fulfil every duty; and I was termed naughty and tiresome, sullen and sneaking, from morning to noon, and from noon to night’ (22).


Winnicott introduces the concept of the ‘good-enough’ mother – someone who, while not necessarily ideal, provides enough care to nurture the soul. Bessie, although having ‘a capricious and hasty temper, and indifferent ideas of principle or justice’ at least had more kindly moments; perhaps she was ‘good-enough’. And, towards the end of her time at Gateshead, Bessie admits to Jane that ‘I don’t dislike you, miss; I believe I am fonder of you than of all the others (54). Jane was also apparently sustained by a view that her dead uncle would have been kind to her – ‘I doubted not – never doubted – that if Mr Reed had been alive he would have treated me kindly’ (24).

And what might we glean of the view of parents, or parenting figures, with respect to their own role? Mrs Reed is described as having the view that Jane needed to ‘Acquire a more sociable and child-like disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner – something lighter, franker, more natural... (11). She also had very clear views about Jane’s station. ‘I should wish her to be brought up in a manner suiting her prospects, to be made useful, to be kept humble’ (47). Fittingly for the heroine of a novel, Jane accords her more sympathy than perhaps she might, telling her ‘Yes, Mrs Reed, to you I owe some fearful pangs of mental suffering. But I ought to forgive you, for you knew not what you did: while rending my heart-strings, you thought you were only uprooting my bad propensities’ (29).

One of the major influences on Harriet’s childhood was her friendship with ‘little E’, who was very lame. Harriet was both deeply impressed by the way little E bore her affliction and almost morbidly fascinated with bodily suffering, imagining death at the stake, on the scaffold and on the cross. Her terror when in the midst of these thoughts kept her awake at night, bathed in perspiration. In telling this anecdote, Martineau comments, ‘Parents are apt to know far too little of what is passing in their children’s imaginations’ (34-35).

We should note that Martineau herself became deaf at an early age. She writes quite extensively on how such a disability should be managed at home, again castigating her parents for their insensitivity, including telling her it was her own fault - ‘the sin of the parent’s ignorance visited upon the children.’ Harriet’s view of parenting extends to the common (then as now) response of covering up, and keeping silent about, that which is seen as problematic. E’s lameness was never mentioned, nor recognised in any way; and the delusion was kept up (even) in play-hours’ (35).

Laura’s account describes parenting in a rural village where poverty was rife. ‘Poverty’s no disgrace, but ‘tis a great inconvenience’ was apparently a common saying. Most waking hours seem to be focused on making ends meet, and ‘for outer garments they had to depend upon daughters, sisters and aunts away in service, who all sent parcels, not only of their own clothes, but also of those they could beg from their mistresses. These were worn and altered and dyed and turned and ultimately patched and darned as long as the threads held together’ (16).

Childhood to adulthood

The child versions of Jane and Harriet, especially, are not obviously consistent with their adult selves. Jane, for example, seems to enter adulthood with a much stronger, and more positive, sense of self that might be predicted from her childhood experiences. Harriet overcomes much of her childhood negativity once she is sent to day-school: ‘I was eleven when that delectable schooling began which I always recur to with clear satisfaction and pleasure’ (46).

Erikson’s psychosocial theory provides an interesting insight into how it might be possible to renegotiate, and potentially resolve, childhood stress or negativity. Erikson places far more emphasis than did Freud on culture, social exchange, and context as principal influential factors. His is a stage theory (mirroring both Freud’s and Piaget’s in terms of indicative stage-age matching in the childhood years) with each stage representing a ‘psychosocial crisis’ that must be negotiated. Each crisis is defined by a possible positive and negative outcome (or, realistically, by a better or poorer mix). The baby, for example, confronts the crisis of ‘trust versus mistrust’ and how this dilemma is resolved depends upon the extent to which nurturing adults respond sensitively to the baby’s need for food and comfort. The toddler negotiates ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt,’ with the application of consistent and reasonable boundaries for behaviour supporting a positive outcome. Ten year olds would normally be in the stage of ‘industry versus inferiority’, when competence and knowledge are key and peers take on an important role. The ‘identity crisis’ follows – the stage of ‘identity versus role confusion’ - positioned between childhood and adulthood.

The stages are not clearly discrete, with elements of earlier and later co-existing at any one time. Of additional importance is the interplay between people within a social setting. How a parent is negotiating her own stage impacts on her parenting style and determines the energy she has for being a parent (as opposed, for example, to finalising her own identity crisis). Similarly, a baby’s inherent temperament may provide a relatively good or poor match with the parent’s expectations. Mrs Reed obviously had expectations of children’s behaviour that were at odds with Jane’s and a negative cycle was apparently set up from the beginning. And Mrs Reed did not attempt to hide her dislike of Jane. Although, if she had, it might have made for a slightly happier time at Gateshead, Erikson himself pointed to the poison deceit can engender: ’in truly significant matters people, and especially children, have a devastatingly clear if mostly unconscious perception of what other people really mean, and sooner or later royally reward real love or take well-aimed revenge for implicit hate.’

Harriet’s description of herself as a child indicates a stormy passage through Erikson’s psychosocial stages. She appears to struggle with trust, doubts her autonomy and competence and is burdened with unhappiness and guilt. Laura presents a much rosier picture; she is supported by a loving family and is immersed in a small, entrenched, village culture that pre-determines all but the smallest variations on destiny. Her world is geographically bounded, socially safe and a picture of rural bliss - except for the poverty, a sub-text of privation and hardship that prescribes the daily grind. Laura comments, ‘People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge we have today; but they were happier’ (49). On the other hand, she does acknowledge the ‘tough love’ that forced the trust and the autonomy and the competence in the Lark Rise toddlers, who ‘were told to “go play” while their mothers got on with the housework....If they hurt themselves in any way...they knew all they would get would be ‘Sarves ye right. You should’ve looked where you wer’ a going!’ (26).

The influence of Lowood’s Miss Temple and the saintly Helen Burns came at a time when Jane was entering Erikson’s stage of identity versus role confusion – a stage which Erikson sees as particularly open to revisiting earlier crises ‘albeit in a different guise’. Jane energetically establishes her friendship with Helen who is then cast in the role of mother-substitute and mentor. Helen’s soliloquy on the creed that sustains her also nourishes Jane:

With this creed, I can so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime, I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last; with this creed, revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low; I live in calm, looking to the end. [79]

Laura does not engage in the self-reflection that is the predominant theme in the childhood accounts of Jane and Harriet. In part, this is probably a reflection of the times, although Harriet and Jane are particularly tortured in their self-examination and judgements. Laura focuses on the ‘others’ rather than on herself and so defines her own childhood externally. She goes so far as to comment on how her ‘private fancies’ did not lead to her growing into ‘the ultra-sensitive, misunderstood, and thwarted adolescents who, according to present-day writers, (ie those writing in the 1930s) were a feature of that era.’ She continues, in obvious reference to Freud or Freudian thinking, that ‘when their bottoms were soundly smacked, their reaction was to make a mental note not to repeat the offence, rather than to lay up for themselves complexes to spoil their later lives’ (31).

Children then and now

If we assume that these accounts of childhood are accurate it appears, superficially, that the inner world of children has changed markedly over the years. Jane and Harriet speak in the Victorian idiom – complex sentences, lyrical phrasing and high ideas and ideals. They think advanced thoughts, they have a facility with language which allows those thoughts to be expressed and they think in depth. How much is this a window on children of that time - even gifted ones - and how much is it a reflection of them as adults, recreating and embellishing a faintly held memory? For memory, too, is notoriously changeable. We construct and reconstruct what we notice and nothing is as a photograph, everything is an action. As Taleb points out, people have a strong desire to understand; to construct a narrative, to make things appear neat. He shows how we construct post hoc; omitting as time goes on the irritating inconsistencies in our original story, sifting and selecting.

Each of these children has internalised the explanations of their time and place – even if it becomes the basis of an attempt to change it. A feminist reading of the adult Jane Eyre casts her as railing against the constraints of the time that put women, and kept them, as second-class citizens with few of the rights and expectations of their male counterparts. However, it is in the young Jane that we first see these stirrings and we can assume that is also true of Charlotte. It is interesting how Jane is portrayed as rebellious in all its shades of meaning, whereas Laura is accepting – as the adults tell her, that is how it is and how it shall ever be. Whenever and wherever children are born they construct their view of the world. We are influenced by what we are told, how we are treated and by the all-pervading mores of the times.

And parents and parent-figures are ultimately those to whom the accolades, and the blame, accord. As Larkin puts it, in This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were sloppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.


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Victorian Web Genre and Style Literary Technique Autobiography

Last modified 7 February 2013