The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840–1900 by Sally Shuttleworth
For the twenty-first-century reader, the scene in The Mill on the Floss in which 8-year-old Maggie Tulliver retreats to the attic to vent her childish frustrations by abusing her doll can be shocking. The episode is so unexpected because it feels so modern. Anxieties about little girls and their dolls seem a quintessentially modern obsession, inextricably linked to constantly shifting gender politics. But as The Mind of the Child, Sally Shuttleworth’s most recent study of the intersections between Victorian science culture and literature demonstrates, long before we were asking what it means when little girls destroy their Barbies,1 Victorians were deeply invested in similar questions about the psychology underlying children’s behavior and development.
The Mind of the Child provides an interdisciplinary exploration of the largely overlooked history of pre-twentieth-century child psychology. As she states in her introduction, Shuttleworth seeks to overturn some common misperceptions: that before Freud there was little scientific interest in the inner workings of the child’s mind, and that during the Victorian era, the prevailing attitude toward children was that they should be seen and not heard. Her research reveals a much more complex picture of Victorian attitudes toward child development expressed throughout the era in medical and scientific publications, as well as in works of literature and the popular press. Each of the book’s four sections interweaves archival research with in-depth literary analysis. Shuttleworth’s incorporation of discussions of literary works into her study [End Page 417] of the medical and social history of child psychology is essential to her project; she establishes convincingly that the novels and memoirs of the period did much to influence the scientific opinions of the time, and vice versa. The result is a highly accessible and engaging account of Victorian England that, like the best Victorian novels, holds up a mirror to our own, twenty-first-century cultural neuroses.
Although the four sections of the book are meant to chart a rough chronological progression from the 1840s to the first decade of the twentieth century, the integrating conceit is more thematic, each section focusing on a particular facet of the evolving discipline of child psychology. As a result, there are occasional abrupt and disorienting shifts between time periods. Given that the trends in child study that Shuttleworth examines seem to go through cycles, some jumping around in time is unavoidable, and sometimes effective, underscoring the significance of these trends to Victorian cultural consciousness. The first section deals with early explorations of children’s perception, especially related to children’s imagination and the sometimes tenuous division between fantasy and reality. Representations of childhood in Jane Eyre and The Mill on the Floss provide the thematic framework for this section, which also draws from memoirs of figures like Hartley Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, and Harriet Martineau. Interspersed with these personal accounts of childhood are references to contemporary case studies, articles on child psychology and psychiatry drawn from medical journals, and child-rearing advice from religious pamphlets. The cultural construction of the child that emerges here is a varied one, but the important point is that the period represents a departure from previous conceptions of childhood as a state of innocence and communion with nature. Another important point that emerges is the instating of rhetorical practices linking children and insanity, but also to animals and “savages.” The subsequent sections of the book will show how deeply these rhetorical linkages become rooted in nineteenth-century constructions of childhood, often with troubling implications for developments in medicine and social science.
The second section focuses on educational practices—specifically, debates about the effect of “overcramming” on child mental health. Connections are made between increased educational pressure on children and the degenerating influence of industrial capitalism, between the overstimulated child intellect and the evils of masturbation, between education for girls and the stunting of reproductive development, and so forth. Bookending the historical examination of these debates are in-depth analyses of Dickens’s Dombey and Son and George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, both of which deal with little boys subjected to repressive education systems. Whereas Dr. Blimber’s “forcing”2 method fatally overstrains young Paul Dombey by thrusting him into adulthood too quickly, Sir Austin Feverel’s Rousseauian “System” attempts to stave off his son Richard’s sexual maturity, with disastrous consequences. Although the balance of literary analysis and historical context is more uneven in this section than in the previous one, the emphasis on fictional representations of children is justified by the ample evidence showing the significant influence these novels had on the scientific and political spheres of the time.
The latter two sections of the book deal in various ways with how Darwinian evolution shifted the discourse of child psychology in the late nineteenth century. The third section delves much more deeply into the linkages between children and animals (especially monkeys) in the language of science. One effect of the ascent of Darwinism was the claiming—one might say colonizing—of childhood by the almost exclusively [End Page 418] male culture of science: the male scientist or physician, not the mother, became the ultimate authority on child behavior. The final section looks at the state of child study at the fin de siècle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the scientific establishment became more interested in the study of children, child psychology was increasingly tinged with eugenicist notions, the bleak extremes of which Shuttleworth interrogates in her final chapter, on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. At the same time, however, child psychology began to acknowledge children’s capacity for complex self-reflection and introspection. Shuttleworth offers Henry James’s 1897 novel What Maisie Knew and Edmund Gosse’s 1907 autobiography Father and Son as examples of how this shift in understanding is reflected in late Victorian literature. The construction of childhood produced by the end of the Victorian era bears a striking resemblance to our understanding of childhood today.
Scholarly work on the figure of the child in Victorian culture abounds. Indeed, some recent contributions to literary scholarship have explored similar territory to that which Shuttleworth does here. Her analysis of sinister Dr. Benjulia’s experiments on the child Zo in Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science resonates with Catherine Robson’s intriguing study Men in Wonderland.3 Researchers interested in Shuttleworth’s discussion of precocious children in Victorian literature will find much more on the subject in Claudia Nelson’s 2012 Precocious Children and Childish Adults.4 And Shuttleworth’s expositions of The Mill on the Floss and Jude the Obscure, while not radical, do add vibrant layers to an already-rich area of interdisciplinary inquiry forged by scholars like Gillian Beer.5 That Shuttleworth’s work overlaps with that of other scholars is not a drawback; her contributions bring new and important material to the conversation. Ultimately, highly original literary analysis is not the aim of the book, nor should it be. What is groundbreaking about Shuttleworth’s work is the thoroughness with which it presents the range of concerns about child psychology and development during the Victorian era, across different arenas. Furthermore, the view of Victorian culture that she reveals invites—indeed, demands—introspective comparisons with our media-saturated, child-obsessed culture. In her conclusion, Shuttleworth reminds us that while “the media always present the latest concern about children as something new and unprecedented, the framework of understanding . . . is that of the nineteenth century” (p. 358). That her claim is utterly convincing is a testament to the book’s strength.
As much ground as The Mind of the Child covers, the impression one is left with is that Shuttleworth has only charted the edges of a vast territory to be rediscovered. Although there is some discussion of Victorian attitudes toward children of other classes and races, the subject of this book (as Shuttleworth acknowledges somewhat regretfully) is the white middle-class British child. This is not a limitation of the book so much as an indication that more work remains to be done in uncovering the history of children from marginalized groups. At the same time, The Mind of the Child points to the ways in which children have inhabited a marginal space both in the past and today, and suggests avenues for further inquiry, especially in the areas of animal, [End Page 419] posthumanist, and transhumanist studies. For scholars interested in exploring such questions, The Mind of a Child provides a good starting point. The book is sure to be a valuable reference for researchers in diverse fields, but more than that, it is a revealing look at the history of debates in child psychology, many of which are still very much alive today. [End Page 420]
Emily R. Lyons is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, where she studies British literature. Her areas of inquiry include Victorian literature and the history of science, Victorian popular and science fiction, and postcolonial literature and theory. She is currently at work on her dissertation “Visual Authority: Science, Patriarchy, and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century British Literature,” which charts how practices, discourses, and technologies of observation used to enforce the patriarchal-imperialist paradigm are reflected and subverted in nineteenth-century British literature pre- and post-Darwin.
1. “Why Do We Destroy Our Barbie Dolls?,” a 2009 article published by the pop-feminist online magazine Jezebel, is just one recent example of this phenomenon as a quick Google search reveals. See Hortense Smith, “Why Do We Destroy Our Barbie Dolls?” Jezebel, March 8, 2009. http://jezebel.com/5166340/why-do-we-destroy-our-barbie-dolls.
2. Shuttleworth explains that forcing in this sense is a botanical metaphor: steam-heated hot-houses made artificial maturation of produce commercially viable during this time (p. 118).
3. Catherine Robson, Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
4. Claudia Nelson, Precocious Children and Childish Adults: Age Inversion in Victorian Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
5. Gillian Beer’s seminal book Darwin’s Plots applies a Darwinian lens to analyses of works by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy; see Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).