Sally Shuttleworth. the Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900

By Cunningham, Hugh | Dickens Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Sally Shuttleworth. the Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900


Cunningham, Hugh, Dickens Quarterly


Sally Shuttleworth. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Pp. x + 497. $65.

Marah Gubar. ArtfulDodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Pp. xx + 264. Cloth $55.96; Paper $24.95.

Innocence is what we associate with Victorian childhood, not so much the innocence of children, for many of them were clearly not innocent in any meaning of the word, but an ideal of innocence, a belief that childhood should be distanced from adulthood, that children should be allowed to grow in accordance with the dictates of nature and ideally in constant contact with nature. This ideal can be traced back to Rousseau and more immediately to the Romantic poets, Wordsworth preeminent among them. Dickens built on this to suggest that adults needed to keep the child in them alive, and to depict many children who had been deprived of a proper childhood. More than half a century ago, Peter Coveney, in The Image of Childhood, argued that the sentimentality towards children evident in Dickens became a debilitating weakness in later writers until by 1900, in Marie Corelli's The Boy, we reached the point of "the absolute decadence of the romantic idea of innocence" (1966 ed., 192).

These two books both complicate this narrative and suggest persuasive alternatives. Shuttleworth, in an admirably inter-disciplinary analysis, links together the child in literature and the two emergent disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. Both disciplines lent heavily on literature in their attempts to understand child development. Rousseau, Wordsworth, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre and George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss provided in a very real sense the foundation texts for reading the child mind. As late as 1901, a doctor, W. B. Drummond, in The Child: His Nature and Nurture, wondered whether a poet--he had Wordsworth in mind--might not "discover traits which are hidden from the cold-blooded scrutiny of science," a sentiment which it is impossible to imagine being uttered in 2001, so dominant has become scientific authority. In the nineteenth century, as Shuttleworth shows, "Science followed literature in attempting to understand the stages of child growth" (74). It was hardly a coincidence that Dombey and Son was published in the same year, 1848, as the establishment of the Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology by an admirer of Dickens, Forbes Winslow. Winslow published articles that reinforced the dangers of over-pressure in schools symbolized so powerfully by Paul Dombey. But while psychiatrists like Winslow became attuned through literature to the challenges facing childhood, not least the fears, especially the "night terrors," which afflicted so many children, they also began to issue alarmist warnings about the dangers of "moral insanity" in childhood. Parents were urged to watch for the early signs, such as lying, and, hard to distinguish from it, an indulgence of the imagination and the passions. The danger of lying was that it indicated that the child perpetrator had a secret world, unknown to adults. Closely linked to it was that other secret and dangerous habit, masturbation. In the mid-nineteenth century, too many children's minds, in the view of experts, were no blank sheet, nor were they engaging in a positive way with the natural wonders of the world. On the contrary, they were germinating the seeds of problems in adulthood.

In the second half of the century a division began to emerge between psychology and psychiatry. Psychologists, of whom the most eminent was James Sully, friend of R. L. Stevenson and George Meredith, encouraged children to use their imagination. The child mind was of interest not only in itself but as a clue to fundamental issues of human development, for the child, as Stevenson noted, "is not our contemporary." Did the child's growth recapitulate that of the human race? …

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