Monday, October 12, 2015

The Victorian Cult of the Child: Innocence and Experience, Ignorance and Knowledge

Above are two images that illustrate aspects of Victorian beliefs about children and childhood. The first, "The Child Enthroned," pretty much says it all in its title. This 1894 painting by Thomas Cooper Gotch was wildly popular as an expression of "the child" as a quasi-divine icon. The second is a photograph of Alice Liddell by the Rev. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. To our modern eyes, this image looks seductive and likely a bit sexualized. Yet both are rather mainstream images which would have been read as exemplars of childhood innocence by Victorian eyes.

According to the Victorian ideal, the child was viewed not as a miniature adult, as children had been perceived in an earlier era, but as innocents who were to enjoy a life of carefree happiness until old enough to assume the responsibilities of (a gendered) adult life. But for Victorians, the moral category of "innocence" was defined by ignorance. Well-bred young ladies and adult women were also expected to be "innocent" and childlike (in fact, both women and children occupied the same legal status in Victorian England as non-competent dependents) and this meant being in large part ignorant of the "brutal" sphere of public life (work, commerce, people from outside one's own genteel class). For children, innocence and moral purity was defined by their ignorance of adult life and adult knowledge. Above all childhood innocence was premised on a lack of sexuality: the child was seen not so much as a pre-sexual creature, but by definition, an asexual one. This is why Lewis Carroll's child photography---including nude studies that seem "obviously pedophiliac" to contemporary eyes---did not ring any alarm bells among Victorian parents who not only permitted, but were often present, during sittings.

Of course it goes without saying that all this angelic innocence and purity applies only to well-bred children, the offspring of ladies and gentleman. The spawn of the working classes were quite another thing indeed. (Here you can read about their pre-child-labor law innocence--don't miss the affidavits from child miners who started working at around age five). These images

contrast sharply with these

this portrait

with this one

Looking at Miles and Flora again, then, may reveal why they would be such disconcerting figures to their original audience: while they are no more intelligent than the average children of their class, they are knowing. Tainted by access to (adult) knowledge, they are no longer ignorant and therefore no longer innocent.

Here is a review from The American Monthly Review of Reviews, December 1898, which expresses unease with having children as fictive figures of "evil:"

"The malignant spirit is worsted, but the price of victory is death. There is something really great in the story and assuredly the skill is superb. But surely we are not merely sentimentalists in our protest again children being made pawns in this horrible contest."

The Outlook (October 29, 1898) finds: "The story itself is distinctly repulsive."

And a reviewer in the New York weekly, The Independent, January 5, 1899, is more adamant in his disgust:

"The Turn of the Screw is the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern. How Mr. James could, or how any man or woman could, choose to make such a study of infernal human debauchery, for it is nothing else, is unaccountable...The study, while it exhibits Mr. James's genius in a powerful light, affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed. The feeling after perusal of this horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and helping to debauch---at least by helplessly standing by---the pure and trusting nature of children. Human imagination can go no further into infamy, literary art could not be used with more refined subtlety of spiritual defilement."

While this probably reads to us as a distinctly over-the-top reaction to The Turn of the Screw, we should also remember that a similarly scandalized reaction first greeted Freud's initial theories of children's development because they were premised on both the existence of childhood desire and sexuality and its naturalness.

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