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  • Raising Jack Perverse: On Childhood, Perversity, and James Hearne’s Case
  • Derritt Mason (bio)

The boy, whose story I am about to tell, was named Jack Perverse, and his nature was answerable to his name.

—George Burder, Early Piety

Introduction: Jack, James, and the Perverse Child

Jack Perverse was a naughty boy. He did everything a good boy shouldn’t do: he caused mischief at school, rushed through his prayers, lied to his parents, and tortured hapless insects. Jack Perverse was punished for his sins: he drowned in a river alongside his equally perverse friend. Fortunately, Jack Perverse was a fictional naughty boy, so had he survived, he never would have grown up into a naughty, perverse real adult.

James Hearne was also a naughty boy; at least, Mr. Bradbury said he was. James Hearne sodomized his fellow apprentice, cavorted in alehouses with older men, and told many lies—at least, so Mr. Bradbury claimed. Then James Hearne accused Mr. Bradbury of sodomy, and Mr. Bradbury went to court, where he said that James was a naughty, perverse boy who should be punished, just like Jack. But unlike Jack Perverse, James Hearne was a real-life naughty boy, and James had a story that was a bit more complicated than Jack’s.

Jack Perverse and James Hearne are two eighteenth-century children—one fictional, one historical—in whom we see a collision between the complex discourses of childhood and perversity. Jack, a character from George Burder’s Romantic-era evangelical children’s book Early Piety (1777), functioned as a cautionary tale for children: obey your parents, behave at school, say your prayers, and respect nature, or the consequences could be fatal. Jack is [End Page 11] a version of the child who is beyond salvation; his untimely fate is foretold by his name. The Romantics, as Frances Ferguson explains, endeavoured to “segment[] the time of their lives into a series of stages and treat[] those stages as if they could be coherently described and predicted,” and texts like Burder’s worked to shape childhood as a legible category of identity (216). Although Jack’s evil is inherent and his fate sealed, he works pedagogically to offer children an alternative to his demise: be good, resist temptation, and preserve your innocence, and you will either grow into a productive adult or, should you die young, you will go to heaven.1

Hearne’s case is a complex and fascinating precursor to these two overlapping conceptualizations of the child seen in Early Piety and other Romantic texts: he is both the dangerous, inherently perverse child who should be prevented from entering adulthood and the innocent child who is susceptible to perversion, a child who must be protected and educated such that he becomes a “normal” (heterosexual, labouring, investment-oriented) adult.2 The transcript of Charles Bradbury’s 1755 sodomy trial and subsequent related publications reflect ideas about childhood and perversity that have roots in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, that were elaborated in Romantic-era literature for and about children, and that persist today in discourse surrounding the regulation of child and youth sexuality. I have selected this historical case to illustrate how Romantic ideas of childhood and perversity were forming prior to the beginning of the Romantic era and to demonstrate how these ideas transform conceptions of “real” children (like Hearne).3 As I will argue, Hearne’s actual behaviour likely exceeded his representation in the documents related to the trial, but Hearne is nonetheless narrated and read through two reductive tropes: Jack Perverse and his opposite, the innocent child prone to perversion. These paradoxical narratives of childhood perversity have been repeated for centuries, and their continuing purchase in contemporary discourse becomes obvious when they are read beside recent theoretical work on childhood and sexuality. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley’s Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children and Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, for example, make productive interventions into what Bruhm and Hurley call the “dominant narrative about children: children are (and should stay) innocent of sexual desires and intentions” (“Curiouser” ix). In 2006, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government drew on such familiar stories to justify an...


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