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Misunderstood: A Victorian Children's Book for Adults
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Misunderstood:
A Victorian Children's Book for Adults

Florence Montgomery's Misunderstood (1869) is an unusual children's book in that it was not originally written for children but for their parents. Although on its publication it was read by both children and adults, the book, as Montgomery explains in the preface, was "intended for those who are willing to stoop to view life as it appears to a child, and to enter for a half-hour into the manifold small interests, hopes, joys and trials which make up its sum." Although much had been written about and for children throughout the century, children, Montgomery observed, had not previously been described from their "own point of view," and for that reason had often been "overlooked and misunderstood."1 Montgomery wrote Misunderstood to point out and to correct misunderstandings between parents and children, which were, she believed, based on inaccurate and therefore confused assumptions about the nature and psychology of the child. If previous writings for and about children had been concerned with molding the child's character, Montgomery's book was one of the first to describe the child's behavior without attempting to direct it. In writing Misunderstood Montgomery hoped to change the behavior of parents rather than of children.

I

Misunderstood opens at Wareham Abbey, Sussex, where the two young protagonists, Humphrey and Miles Duncombe, ages seven and four, are awaiting the arrival of their father. Lady Duncombe has died two years before the story begins, and the boys are in the care of a French governess, Virginie. Sir Everard Duncombe, who is an M.P., visits his motherless children only on occasional weekends. During each of these "flying visits," Virginie, who suffers from "nerves," greets Sir Everard with accounts of Humphrey's misbehavior, of how "he would climb impossible trees and jump from impossible heights," endangering not only his own life, but that of his younger brother who invariably follows his example.

Humphrey is as healthy, active, and bold as Miles is sickly, passive, and mild. While Humphrey is "proof against colds, coughs and accidents of all kinds," Miles has a "tendency to a delicate chest." Inevitably, following each early morning mushroom hunt or visit to the pond instigated by Humphrey, Miles takes to bed with a fever. With his clinging and affectionate ways, Miles is his father's favorite. Lady Duncombe, on the other hand, had favored Humphrey, recognizing the loving nature beneath his rougher manner. After his wife's death, Sir Everard had interpreted Humphrey's restlessness as lack of feeling, and, when he sees Humphrey playing, concludes his son "has not much heart." On the contrary, Humphrey misses his mother, and, certain that neither his father nor Virginie care for him, spends much time in his mother's room, trying to "fancy he felt her arms around him and her shoulder against his head" (p. 169).

The greater part of the book describes Humphrey's adventures and their consequences. Humphrey's taste for the marvelous is nurtured by a sailor uncle Charlie, Lady [End Page 94] Duncombe's brother, whose exotic stories provide a model for imitation. Following a tree-climbing episode inspired by one of these tales, the boys are caught in a downpour and Miles becomes dangerously ill. When Miles recovers, Humphrey's buoyant spirits confirm his father's conviction that Humphrey lacks "heart." Forbidding him any further tree-climbing, Sir Everard returns to London, only to be handed a telegram informing him that "an accident has happend" at home. Certain that this time Miles is near death, Sir Everard decides that "no punishment could be severe enough for Humphrey." On his return home, however, he finds that it is Humphrey, not Miles, who has been hurt.

The lure of the tree has proven too strong and Humphrey has disobeyed his father's orders. His fall from the tree will, the doctors tell Sir Everard, leave Humphrey paralyzed. When Humphrey is told that he will never walk again, he wants to die, and asks his father to help him make out his will (he leaves his toys to Miles). Humphrey's wish is soon fulfilled. A lengthy scene displaying...