Academic journal article Child Welfare

Child Welfare in Fiction and Fact

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Child Welfare in Fiction and Fact

Article excerpt

Most of the children who are the principal characters in the novels under consideration are foundlings, orphans, or half-orphans. Except in rare instances, as in Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke [1850], the surviving parent is away or too weak to exert positive influence. Dandy Mick, a 16-year-old factory worker in Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil [1845] has a bedfast mother; her friends say she is dying; he says she is only drunk. The mother of one of Mick's friends went back to work two weeks after the boy was born. She put him out to nurse with an old woman who provided day care and a diet of treacle (molasses syrup) and laudanum (an opium-based sedative) for three pence a week. When the mother disappeared and the money stopped coming, the nurse thrust the two-year-old boy into the streets "to 'play' in order to be run over." He did not exactly thrive but of all his barefoot and half-naked playmates, he was the only one to survive. He slept on mouldering straw in a damp cellar, "a dung heap at his head, and a cesspool at his feet." Nameless in infancy, he was christened Devildust when at age five he went to work in a textile mill [Disraeli 1845].

In Sybil, subtitled The Two Nations--the rich and the poor--Disraeli presents imaginary characters against a factual depiction of English social and industrial conditions in the 1830s and 1840s. In a passage about girls and infants working in the mines, Disraeli incorporates materials from an official Report of the Commissioner on the Employment of Young Persons and Children issued in 1842 [quoted in Coveney 1967].

Naked to the waist, an iron chain fastened to a belt of leather runs between their legs clad in canvas trousers, while on hands and feet an English girl, for twelve, sometimes for sixteen hours a day, hauls and hurries tubs of coals up subterranean roads, dark, precipitous, and plashy. [Disraeli]

"Trappers," boys and girls four and five years old, were the first workers to enter the mines and the last to leave. Their work--opening gallery doors for coal wagons and keeping the doors closed after each wagon's passage--was not arduous but it was performed in darkness and solitude, and was a highly responsible task because the safety of the mine and all those working in it depended on the trappers' constancy in tending the doors.

We see the children through Disraeli's eyes and hear them through his ears. He tells us of their long hours, rough appearance, and foul language. We share Disraeli's alarm that the older girls are to be--and some of them already are--the mothers of England, and his wonderment at the interest mine owners take in the abolition of slavery and their obliviousness to the state of their own employees. We sympathize with the children but have to rely on the author's comments or our own imagination to know how the children feel about their treatment and condition.

The difference between Sybil, a social novel, and autobiographical ones such as Jane Eyre [1847] and David Copperfield [1849-50] is that the latter are primarily concerned with expressing how the heroine and hero feel about the hardships and misfortunes they encounter. The books are based on Charlotte Bronte's and Charles Dickens' childhood experiences so that the authors and protagonists speak as one and we see the children as they see themselves. What Jane Eyre and David Copperfield feel is self-pity. They resent the injustices, not of impersonal social forces, but of specific acts of meanness, neglect, and indifference of adults who should love and care for them.

Jane Eyre, a ten-year-old orphan, is made to feel unwelcome unwanted, and unappreciated in the home of her aunt. At Lowood School, which is very much like the Clergy Daughters' School that Charlotte Bronte attended when she was eight or nine, Jane is unfairly and undeservedly humiliated by the headmaster, Mr. Brockelhurst. Another girl tells Jane, "You and I and the rest of us are charity children"; the fees their guardians pay do not cover their expenses and have to be supplemented by charitable subscriptions. …

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