- The Making of the Modern Child: Children's Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century
Our notions of the child as educable and influenced by mentors and surroundings predate the theories of Jean Piaget or Maria Montessori or Jerome Bruner. Andrew O'Malley's richly detailed study assembles convincing evidence to argue that contemporary concepts of childhood have been shaped by and have responded to the middle-class ideology of the late eighteenth century.
The most impressive feature of The Making of the Modern Child is its wealth of textual examples and the dexterity with which O'Malley interprets and interlaces them. Not only is he familiar with the treasures of the Osborne Collection of the Toronto Public Library, the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto, and the Opie and Johnson Collections at the Bodleian, but he also distinguishes this ideologically precise account of [End Page 281] class relations, medical management, pedagogical discipline, and gender roles from the earlier descriptive narratives and Whig histories of F.J. Harvey Darton, Percy Muir, Geoffrey Summerfield, and Mary Jackson. More interested in tracing the rhizomes of ideological groundwork than sniffing approvingly a few spectacular plants, O'Malley declares his intellectual allegiances to Raymond Williams and Alan Richardson.
Because of this subterranean investigation his study offers several illuminating insights. John Newbery's success as a pioneering publisher of books for children is largely due to the adroit way he appropriated and muted potentially subversive plebeian elements from chapbooks for his publications. Less scrupulous and more entrepreneurial was John Marshall, who, in addition to marketing the acceptable pedagogy of Mary Ann Kilner's Memoirs of a Peg-Top (1785) and Lady Eleanor Fenn's The Art of Teaching in Sport (1785), managed to hoodwink some middle-class buyers by collecting chapbook and fairy-tale stories under the title Nurse Dandlem's Little Repository of Great Instruction for all who Would be Good and Noble (1784). Along with such easily recognized 'conservative' reformers as Sarah Trimmer and Hannah More, more 'radical' writers and theorists (Mary Wollstonecraft, Catherine Macaulay, Maria Edgeworth, and Anna Barbauld, among them) warned against the pernicious and demoralizing effects of children's close contact with domestic servants. Formulaic, didactic, and controlled by a middle-class authorship, eighteenth-century literature for children sought to regulate and control its readership, inculcating the values and social returns of hard, honest work as opposed to chance windfalls, characterizing animals as more appropriate recipients of middle-class bounty than the destitute, and indicating that upward mobility for servants was exceptional and unlikely.
The sobering factuality of this study means that, while we might detect some residual features of eighteenth-century precepts in contemporary practice, we can also be grateful for huge differences. For all of its frustrations and competing theories of learning, today's classroom is far removed from the experiments in mass, industrial, monitorial education undertaken by Andrew Bell in Madras and Joseph Lancaster in Southwark. Although, in The Governess, Sarah Fielding's peacemaker Jenny Peace is clearly being trained for the female duties of mother and pacifier, and in Richard Johnson's Juvenile Trials, for Robbing Orchards, Telling Fibs, and Other Heinous Offences, Master Meanwell, who hands down judgments, is being schooled in the masculine discourse of decision making, we can realize that those gendered roles and categories are much more interchangeable and osmotic in most contemporary cultures.
O'Malley's focus on the emergence of the child as a subject, albeit one defined within a state of deficiency and described by a surplus of negatives, and his alert reading of political, scientific, medical, and literary texts combines to produce a nuanced, complex exploration. The breadth of [End Page 282] textual sources is certainly impressive and valuable. However, despite his antipathy towards Hannah More and his agreement with Alan Richardson's criticism of Mitzi Myers's argument about the unacknowledged allegiances linking More and Wollstonecraft, O'Malley might have considered More's strong-minded Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education as, among...