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Childhood Lies in Victorian Literature and Science

My notes on Sally Shuttleworth's BSLS talk: 'Childhood Lies in Victorian Literature and Science'.

Part of her current book project on child psychiatry. Spans the 1850s to 1890s, and described a loosening from strict, heavily disapproving ideas of a child liar (including a child fantasist), towards more positive images of the child’s imagination. This covered the origins of child psychiatry and the parallel development of the child study movement. The talk discussed notions of truth, rationality, childhood and morality, the ways in which these concepts changed and effected each other throughout late 19th century.

To me, it was a refreshing and enlightening discussion of the complexities of Victorian ideas of the child, especially interesting as childhood studies sometimes over-emphasises on the Romantics. As Shuttleworth argued, the Victorian's complex entanglement of both negative and positive images of childhood fantasy are still with us today.

She started the talk with a poem by Isaac Watts, Against Lying, although written in 1715 was reprinted throughout the 19th century, disseminated in tuppance publications, and young girls asked to embroider the scarier statements from it into samplers. I scribbled down the last two lines “Since God a book of reck’ning keeps, For ev’ry lie that children tell” – generally the moral was that you would burn in hell if you uttered even the slightest untruth.

Child psychiatry did not exist much before the 1850s as it was assumed children could not be insane. It was assumed that as children had not yet attained reason, unreason could no happen. With the changing ideas of madness, however, ideas of the mad child started to develop, with some writers even suggesting pre-natal madness. According to Shuttleworth, mid-19th century discourse on the child pathologised ideas of lying. Mental ‘derangement’ in adults life even understood as a consequence of a childhood indulgence of fantasy. Any form of untruth was as morally repugnant, but also with mental health association, both a symptom and the form of a disease.

Instilling fear in children about the moral and health consequences of telling an untruth, she mentioned a description of one boy who would preface every statement with ‘perhaps’ (as one commenter in questions mentioned – not dissimilar to the academic). What was must fascinating to me was the connection of the idea of the lie with any idea of fantasy, with the image of the imaginative or fairy-tale loving child pathologised equivalently to anyone aiming to deceive; ‘there is no virtue where there is no reality’.

One book talked of the ‘petulance of falsehood’, advising a parent must ‘fumigate the atmosphere of fictions’. It is telling that the word ‘fictions’ is used here, rather than lies, or falsehoods, reflecting the Victorian desire that a strong boundary between truth and illusion must be instilled within the child’s mind.

In terms of reflections of such debates within fictional literature, Shuttleworth continually applied a fascinating reading of Jane Eyre. In this novel we see the child Jane both accused of lying, as well turning this on the accuser, the moral child wanting to see truth in others. The book also contains many references to Jane’s fantasy life, her imaginative travels, playing on associations between liar and fantasist, and the alternative positive and negative moral readings we might assume to either.

Mirroring the development of all these controlling ideas of the moral and public health requirement to tell nothing but truths, was also a discourse (more literary based, less psychiatric) celebrating the child’s fantasy world. Writers such as RL Stevenson celebrated childhood play and the private internal life of a child’s mind within which adults could not see and might be scared by the possible deviance of. The child was seen under celebrations of the savage, but was a more domesticated savage, one that lived in a garden. Shuttleworth also suggested a class element to this, with the idea of a ‘well brought up’ child able to play and imagine in a way that not others would not be allowed.

As I said earlier, I enjoyed the paper for not obsessing with Rousseau, but I was concerned that she did not mention the Romantic context at all. The paper was in danger of suggesting the image of the child as true was something constructed within the mid 19th C, through processes of getting girls to embroider poetry on samplers. Where as, I think the idea of the child as truth-teller has a longer history than this, and that the idea of a child who tells lies as morally repugnant may well connect to romantic images of the innocent, uncorrupted child. It might well be that I am simply anachronistically projecting a post Victorian idea on the Romantics - I would be happy for Shuttleworth to refute this. Also, it was only a short paper on work in progress, I’m sure she’ll refer to the broader historical context when she finishes this work. I am also interested in the broader development of the idea of the fantastical as being especially childlike and the processes of telling differences between fact and fiction being an aspirational quality in the process of maturation. These ideas did not arrive with the Victorians (though I’m convinced that complex contemporary notions of child, truth and allusion owe much to the 19th century treatment) and it’d be interesting to reflect on this.

Finally, I was surprised that she managed to talk on the topic of fantasy and the Victorian child for about three quarters of an hour without once mentioning Wonderland (this, again, was in many ways refreshing). She admitted this was in part because Gillian Beer is writing a book on Carroll’s work – all go in studies of child, science and the book, very exciting!