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Decorative Initial T/he single most pervasive set of autobiographical myths available to the Victorians concerns childhood--a fact of central importance because the genesis, conventions, and problems of autobiography are so intimately related to this period of human life. What complicates this subject is that~ as several recent authors have shown, modern conceptions of childhood, immaturity, and the process of maturation are barely two centuries old. Earlier in human history one encounters few of our most basic assumptions about the nature of the child and his relation to the adult. The Dutch psychologist J. H. van den Berg thus points out that "pedagogic manuscripts of the past do not contain anything on the nature of the relationship between old and young. Even the greatest authors do not mention the subject," and, moreover. "before Rousseau, nobody ever mentioned maturation.'' What surprises us about even Rousseau's discussion of the process of achieving maturity is that he conceives it as extremely brief, whereas today we assume it takes man~ years. Looking at the historical evidence, van den Berg concludes that "nowadays two separate states of human life can be distinguished: the state of maturity, with all the mature attributes belonging to it, like birth, death, faith. and sexuality; and the state of immaturity, which lacks all these attributes."

Furthermore, the "invention" of childhood seems to have been occasioned by the same forces which produce autobiography--the need and ability to choose between various roles. Thus, a major reason "for the child's increasing childishness and for the origin, the lengthening, and the deepening of maturation~ is in "the multivalent pluralism peculiar to modern maturity.' For most of the history of civilization, the child has followed closely in the footsteps of a parent, adopting the same occupation, social position, sexual role, and political and religious allegiance. Today, freer to choose--condemned to choose--among many alternatives the adult makes a series of decisions which succeed in establishing a "small and relatively simple domain in this complex society; to the rest we are blind, we do not see it, and so we can act as if it were not there." But wandering within a confusing welter of partially comprehended and often competing sign-systems, the child has not yet learned to choose and survive. "That is exactly what being a child means--to be defenceless against this multivalency and to shrink back from it."

Positing a relationship between modern conceptions of childhood and the growth of autobiography in the starkest terms, one would state that at that point in human history when choices become so abundant, autobiography, the justification of one's choices, becomes increasingly important as a literary mode. This relationship does not take the form of simple cause and effect; that is, the growth of modern conceptions of immaturity did not produce autobiography. ather it seems more likely that both the modern notions of immaturity and of autobiography are alike responses to a changing cultural situation in which the individual is increasingly required to make choices which earlier were rnade for him which, in other words, did not exist before.

Although the inventions of both childhood and literary autobiography owe much to modern pluralism, the role of childhood within this literary mode is even more complex than this historical relation might suggest. As LuAnn Walther argues m her essay on "The Victorian Invention of Childhood," part of the complexity arises in the fact that many Victorians were able to hold, simultaneously, two contradictory conceptions of childhood:

On the one hand the child was the source of hope, of virtue, or emotion: along with the angelic wife, he was the repository of family values which seemed otherwise to be disappearing from an increasingly secular world.... But at the same time, and of course much less obviously, the child was a hardship, an obstacle to adult pleasure, and a reminder of one's baser self. He might be innocent, untainted by sexual knowledge, uncorrupted by the world of business, free from the agony of religious doubt; yet he was also potentially wicked and needed constant guidance and discipline.

These contradictory attitudes towards childhood create, in turn, two tendencies in the portrayal of youthful experience by Victorian autobiographers. "First, is the need to emphasize childhood adversity, to portray oneself as not having been spoiled by overindulgence, even, in some cases, to have deserved hardship. Second, and in conflict with this, is the desire to present childhood as an Edenic, blissful state, a time of past blessedness, a world completely different from the grating present." From this recognition follow several important points, the first of which is that one must be verv careful about relying upon such evidence to create a histor~v of Victorian childhood or child-rearing practices. The historian, in other words, must not only determine the accuracy of such frequently harsh pictures of childhood, many of which conform as much to the demands of a literary mode as to actual experience, but he must also determine wh~ such stereotypes were culturally necessary. Within literary autobiography the Edenic conception of childhood also had a clear function, since, as Walther points out, "it provided the autobiographer with a workable approach to the past and it allowed him to create, in the richness of memory, a place of repose from the harsh 'fast-hurrying stream of Time' which threatened him."

Last modified 1988