Perceptions of childhood
Constructing childhoodFollowing Rousseau, and in the hands of Romantic poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth, childhood came to be seen as especially close to God and a force for good. In children’s literature, this idealised version of childhood became and remained enormously influential throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, though its Christian origins grew less pronounced. In children’s books (and other kinds of literature and art too) childhood innocence, goodness, frankness and vision regularly restore the moral wellbeing of adults and society. This is particularly obvious in 19th-century Evangelical tales about urchins in city slums who bring about the salvation of others. A typical example is Hesba Stretton’s Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), but the same motif is at work in less overtly religious works such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885), in which a young boy, raised in the poor part of an American city, effectively redeems and restores the antiquated and decaying British social structure.
Just as there are many real childhoods at any given time, so multiple ideas or constructions of childhood co-exist in writing for children. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, not everyone subscribed to Rousseau’s theories about the nature of childhood. A few children’s writers such as Mary Martha Sherwood still held to the doctrine of original sin, while many saw childhood as the raw material from which adults were made rather than an ideal state to be valued and preserved.
Perpetual childhoodSome, however, did not see childhood as a state to be hurried through in order to achieve adulthood. The 19th century saw the development of what is sometimes called the Cult of Childhood, with adults exultantly celebrating childhood in texts and images. The connections with the Romantic ideal of childhood are clear, but many writers of the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature (beginning in the 1860s with Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, 1863, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865) went further, even expressing a longing themselves to be children once more. As Carroll put it in his poem ‘Solitude’,
I'd give all the wealth that years have piled,
the slow result of life's decay,
To be once more a little child
for one bright summer day.
But perpetual childhood is impossible, and there is a notable tendency in some of the best-known Victorian fantasies for child characters to die in this world in order to be reborn (as in Kingsley’s Water-Babies) or to stay children forever elsewhere (George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, 1868). The Cult of Childhood persisted into the 20th century, reaching its height in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (who first appeared in a play of 1904), who famously refused to grow up.
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