he notion of childhood innocence goes back at least to Greek ideas on human perfectibility, and is found too in Jesus’s various sayings about children in the New Testament, including, for example, “Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me" (Luke 9, v. 48). In the fifth century, the British-born monk Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin as part of his wider belief “that man was endowed with sufficient grace from birth to lead a perfect life" (Pattison 13). He was excommunicated for his heresy in 418 A.D. Nevertheless, such views gained ground during the Enlightenment. In early eighteenth-century England, for example, John Locke’s tutee, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, expressed the belief in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) that man is endowed with a natural impulse for virtue, the exercise of which would lead to his and society’s happiness. Pelagian ideas can be seen as passing into English fiction soon afterwards in the 1740s, for Henry Fielding read "with care and admiration" the work of the latitudinarian divines who followed Pelagius’s ideas (Battestin xxv). Thus, although Fielding does admit in Joseph Andrews that there may sometimes be “a mischievous wicked inclination" (Vol.2, Book 3, Ch.5), he shows the foundling Tom Jones asleep in Squire Allworthy's bed "in all the beauty of innocence" (Tom Jones, Book I, Ch.3), and in general depicts childhood as the time when "natural goodness of heart" either flowers or is shed (Tom Jones, Book 3, Ch.4). Such views were reinforced from the Continent in 1762 with the publication of Rousseau’s Émile, expounding the secular conviction of man’s innocence in his natural state, and in 1795 by Schiller’s “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry," associating the child indelibly with nature.
Subsequently, according to this now rather conventional “history" of the image of innocent childhood, the so-called “cult of the child" flourished in England when William Blake and the Romantics embodied it in their poetry. "It was Blake who declared the 'vast majority of children to be on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation,'" says Peter Coveney, adding that in Blake "we have the first coordinated utterance of the Romantic imaginative and spiritually sensitive child" (51). Wordsworth too dwelt on the holiness of the child, writing famously in The Immortality Ode: “trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God who is our home," and amplifying this by dubbing youth “Nature’s priest" and endowing it with a redemptive role in his narrative poem, “Michael." For all their differences in approach, the story goes, both Blake and Wordsworth give the joyful, pure-hearted and inspirational figure of the child added poignancy by contrasting it with the world of experience which lies in wait for it. Unfortunately, according to Coveney again, the sentiment and nostalgia surrounding the little figure on whom “shades of the prison-house" are about to close (as Wordsworth put it in The Immortality Ode) soon robbed it of some of its robustness: "the weakening of the romantic image of the child in Dickens was a major influence in the development of the child in nineteenth-century fiction. The sentimentality was a new major concomitant..." (161). Note that some recent critics feel that there were already fissures in the “unitary Romantic Child" and further suggest that endowing children with this special aura and trying to corral them from the adult world dehumanises them (see Plotz 46-47 and 255, n.4).
The image of the child as innocent and redemptive can be found in many works of the Victorian period. It is central to the themes of such major novels as Dickens’s Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. In some of these (such as The Old Curiosity Shop, where Little Nell’s doom is played out so lingeringly) the child is indeed associated with death, even if not as closely and certainly not as uniformly as Coveney suggests. Idealised, beleagured, redemptive child characters throng the pages of children’s literature too. One example is Diamond, the coachman’s son in George Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1871), a frail child who, amongst other kind acts performed before his death, puts a drunken neighbour on the road to reform: “I do somehow believe that wur a angel just gone," says the neighbour (Ch.18). Mrs Craik’s Prince Dolor in The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak (1875) also seems quite aptly named, though he escapes the confines of Hopeless Castle, rejoices to see the leaves of the trees and hear the sounds of nature for the very first time, and manages to become a wise young king who does all sorts of good, like scrapping the death penalty. Swapping allegory for wish-fulfilment, Frances Hodgson Burnett endows young Cedric Errol in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1888) with a more conventional happy-ever-after ending: born in New York with “so sweet a temper and ways so charming that he was a pleasure to everyone" (Ch.5), Cedric softens the heart of his grouchy, tryrannical British grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt, and after some setbacks is set to inherit his title. "I'm very glad I'm going to be an earl," he says winningly (in every sense!) in the last chapter. Some rather different elements of the Romantic view of childhood can be found in Richard Jefferies’ Wood Magic (1881) and its sequel Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882), with their idyllic depiction of a childhood lived close to nature, without adult interference.
However, few of the innocent and redemptive child characters in Victorian children’s stories seem innocent in the Romantic sense. In most cases, like that of high-minded young Arthur in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), their innocence equates with piety. Hughes was a Christian Socialist, but Arthur seems to belong to the joyless and moralising Evangelical tradition (see next section), and it was not until this had run its course in children’s literature that a more vibrant image of childhood blossomed in a flurry of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century neo-Romantic children's classics. Most of these works came from outside the country, but were immensely popular here. Little Lord Fauntleroy itself, described by John Sutherland as the "first international bestseller of children's fiction" (379), is an example. Others include L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), and Burnett’s own later The Secret Garden (1912). Montgomery’s work was coloured by her study of literature while at Dalhousie University, and her most famous heroine, Anne Shirley, is distinctly Wordsworthian. She has “no commonplace soul’ (Ch. 2), gazes raptly at the apple-blossom on the way to Green Gables with her hands clasped as if in worship, enchants the elderly Matthew Cuthbert and gradually wins over his stiff and starchy sister Marilla as well. By contrast, the Manchester-born Burnett created something unusual — an unprepossessing heroine. When she first arrives at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, Mary is “the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen" (Ch. 1). But her young maid’s brother Dickon has an instinctive affinity with the natural world, and a gift for restoring others to health and happiness. All this is epitomised in the way Dickon, Mary and her cousin Colin bring a neglected walled garden back to life, and banish its sad associations, emerging energetically from it at the end with “quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing" (Ch. 27). Montgomery won the OBE (medal of the Order of the British Empire) in 1923 for her achievements as a children’s writer, while British readers are apt to forget that Burnett lived much of her life in America and became a American citizen in 1905.
The Relation of Children's Literature to Victorian Conceptions of Childhood
Battestin, Martin C. Introduction.Joseph Andrews and Shamela. Boston (Riverside ed.): Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
Burnett, Francis. The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy . London: Octopus, 1978.
Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1967.
Craik, Mrs (Dinah Mulock). The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak: A Parable for Young and Old. New York: Macmillan, 1923.
Montgomery, Lucy M. Anne of Green Gables . Ware, Herts: Wordsworth, 1994.
Pattison, Robert. The Child Figure in English Literature. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1978.
Plotz, Judith. Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, pbk ed. 1990.
Last modified 13 August 2007