- The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840–1900
When did our present-day understandings of childhood first emerge? The question has a long scholarly history, and the answer depends, of course, on what aspects of present understandings are emphasized. Philippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood (1962) became an essential reference point after its publication thanks to its provocative, if now largely discredited, claim that medieval society had no conception of childhood as a distinct phase of life. Since Ariès, scholars have examined ideas about childhood in a vast array of cultural contexts and, within a broadly European tradition, located origins or prefigurations of contemporary views in writings by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Romantics, and scores of less celebrated commentators. In her copiously researched new study, Sally Shuttleworth focuses on the years 1840 to 1900, when, she argues, “the inner workings of the child mind became for the first time an explicit object of study across the cultural and disciplinary spectrum” (2)—when, that is to say, “incontrovertible shifts in understanding” helped establish many of the “frameworks of perception” with which we approach childhood today (359).
Readers for whom Victorian attitudes are summed up in “the old adage ‘Children should be seen and not heard’” may, as Shuttleworth predicts, be surprised by the diversity of views she has culled from hundreds of articles, novels, stories, and other period documents (2). Readers more familiar with Victorian literary and scientific writing on children may find their broad sense of the discourse upheld more than upended by Shuttleworth’s scrupulously rendered panorama. The Mind of the Child affirms, for example, that Victorian characterizations of childhood ran the gamut from pessimism to hope (or horror to joy), some writers dwelling darkly on children’s ungovernability and untrustworthiness, others exalting their innocence and imaginative capacity; some adverting to the dangers of precocity, others touting the fascination of prodigies; some beholding a creature alarmingly unlike the rational male adult, others focusing on the continuities, temporal and otherwise, crystallized in that Wordsworthian sententia, “The Child is father of the Man” (qtd. in Shuttleworth 7). Shuttleworth also attests that the Victorians were as preoccupied by some aspects of child sexuality, especially masturbation, as by questions about the emergence of moral responsibility or (later) the theory that the growth phases of the individual human organism recapitulate the history of the human species. And she confirms that crucial changes in thinking about children accompanied the rise of literary representations of their inner turmoil (1840s), a series of debates about how early and under what degree of pressure children might be made to learn (1850s, 1870s, 1880s), the diffusion of evolutionary theories in the wake of the works of Charles Darwin (1860s and beyond), and the advent of scientific observation of children and the child study movement (1880s, 1890s). [End Page 113]
If Shuttleworth’s study covers some familiar territory, however, it also redraws that territory’s map in some significant ways. Central to this modest revisionism is Shuttleworth’s devotion of full chapters to child insanity (chapter 1), night terrors (chapter 2), lying and imagination (chapter 3), over-pressuring (chapter 7), and relations among childhood, sexuality, and animality (chapters 9 through 13). Tracing persistent and widely ramifying, but so far understudied, debates on these topics, Shuttleworth imparts a fresh sense of how Victorian discourse was shaped by encounters with elements of child life at the edges of what was deemed normal, recuperable, or desirable. Shuttleworth also breaks new ground by adroitly placing key controversies in unexpected frames. Debates about “brain-forcing,” for example, appear in a new light when related to broad concerns about the acceleration of modern life, to views on artificial cultivation possibly shaped by innovations in greenhouse technology, and to disputes—depressingly akin in both substance and timbre to twenty-first-century conflicts—over “payment by results” in teacher compensation (133, 136). Other phenomena illuminated by Shuttleworth’s recontextualizations include competing...