Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Politics of Childhood
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Politics of Childhood

Amazed that despite her prolonged invalidism and two previous miscarriages she was able to bear a child at age forty-three, Elizabeth Barrett Browning viewed her son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning—nicknamed Pen—as something akin to a fairy changeling, and her prolific letters document a remarkably indulgent attitude toward the behaviors and capacities of children. She believed that children should never be forced to study, that they would come to all that is needful in their own time. She admonished her sister Henrietta, herself the mother of a young son, not to rush the boy's studies, for "a child learns most when he plays."1 Rather reluctantly, she began teaching Pen to read at age four only "because he chose it himself," and "to give him the opportunity of amusing himself with story-books, fairy tales and the rest"—but she emphasized, "not as a beginning to his education!—the fairies forbid it. I have not forgotten my liberty-plans."2 Her educational philosophy was decidedly non-utilitarian—when she planned to teach Pen something "useful," she realized with amusement that she was thinking of mythology.3 Pen himself sometimes demanded more practical skills: nearly six and envying his male cousin's accomplishment, he asked his mother to teach him to count to 100. She refused, though Robert ("naughty Papa"), she noted ruefully, provided the instruction "out of spite."4

For some biographers, references to differences between Robert and herself on the subject of childrearing—especially on Pen's education, hair, and clothing—represent evidence not only of breaches in the Brownings' marital harmony, but also of EBB's irrationality, foolishness, even hysteria.5 Certainly her plentiful and detailed accounts of Pen document a maternal adoration which might have seemed excessive to anyone who was not Pen's mother.6 But besides illustrating her devotion—often delightfully leavened by humor—her letters about Pen actually map a finely observant, coherent, sophisticated, and remarkably modern or post-modern attitude toward childhood. Moreover, her discussions of Pen delineate her deep understanding of the politics of childhood: they reflect her developing ideas of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, on the one hand, and of the constructed nature of gender, on the other. As Dorothy Mermin observed in her groundbreaking study of the poet, the "more unusual aspects of Pen's upbringing" arose from EBB's "refusal to [End Page 405] honor the rigid distinctions of gender, nationality, and class that she hated in the English" and her desire to raise him as what she termed "a citizen of the world."7 My discussion will trace these threads in EBB's correspondence about Pen, and then consider several poems and letters in which she relates her politics of childhood to her own role as a politicized woman poet. Deirdre David, Gary Kelly, and Lynda Nead, among others, have written persuasively about nineteenth-century uses of motherhood as a powerful symbol for nationalism—representations in which, as Elizabeth Fay remarks, the symbolic mother is generally employed "as a metaphor for nationalism" melding her "private role" as mother with her "public role of mothering the nation . . . in a way that is reassuring rather than transgressive." In EBB's work, however, to be a mother is to have immensely transgressive potential, for as Fay observes in relation to Romantic writers, whereas "in the middle-class perspective, maternity produces gentlemen and ladies . . . in a radical society, maternity is somewhat dangerous because it produces citizens."8

EBB's insistence on the importance of play and refusal to set her son Pen to organized study of reading and math expressed her view of the boy as essentially joyous and attuned to transcendent values. In these respects her attitudes echo familiar Romantic tenets, and, more particularly, the educational philosophy advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose writings helped to revolutionize conceptions of the child. His 1762 work Émile (translated into English the following year) delineated the ideal education of a boy, blending notions of the noble savage, childhood innocence, nature's nurturance, and society's corrosiveness. The central premise of Rousseau's educational philosophy was that the child is, as Anita...