Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Young Pretenders"

Edith Henrietta Fowler, The Young Pretenders. London: Persephone Books, 2007. Originally published in 1895.

Edith Henrietta Fowler

The Victorian era is often credited with the discovery of childhood. When Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, thousands of children were working in mills, mines and factories in both Great Britain and the United States. In Britain, efforts had already begun to regulate child labor in textile mills. In 1840, a parliamentary commission on children's employment began to study the conditions of child labor in mines and factories in England. One of the places investigated was Wolverhampton, a center of the iron industry in Staffordshire. The commission found deplorable conditions in Wolverhampton and nearby Willenhall—disease, maltreatment, and ignorance were rampant among children who worked as assistants in iron foundries or spent twelve hours a day filing keys for locksmiths.

The commission's detailed report on Willenhall came into the hands of Benjamin Disraeli, who incorporated large sections of it into his novel Sybil; or The Two Nations (1845), about the gap between rich and poor in England. Disraeli, more famous as a Prime Minister, was one of numerous Victorian novelists who took on the role of social reformer. The most successful was Charles Dickens, who knew first-hand about child labor from his own childhood experience working in a blacking factory, which he fictionalized in David Copperfield. In his novels, Dickens exposed the deplorable conditions under which many Victorian children lived, while revealing the essential innocence and vulnerability of children.

Part of the nineteenth-century discovery of childhood can be credited to Rousseau's Emile, which sparked a long tradition of books focusing on the nature of childhood and the education of children. Many of the books were unfailingly didactic; their aim was to guide the moral development of children. Heavy-handed didacticism, and heavy-handed sentimentalism, were the pitfalls of the discovery of childhood. On the other hand, there came to be an understanding that imagination was important and good, and that fostering the imagination was an essential part of nurturing the child.

Meanwhile, conditions in Wolverhampton had not improved greatly when the Children's Employment Commission issued a new report in 1864, a year before the birth in Wolverhampton of Edith Henrietta Fowler. Fowler's maternal grandfather, George Thorneycroft, was one of the leading ironmasters in Wolverhampton, and had himself been apprenticed to a blacksmith as a child in Leeds. In 1848, he had risen to such prominence that he became the first Mayor of Wolverhampton after its incorporation. Fowler's father, Henry Hartley Fowler, was a solicitor, privately educated in a series of boarding schools, who later became Lord Wolverhampton. As a politician, he championed a number of liberal causes, including elementary education—something that only became universal in England with the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

Edith Henrietta Fowler had a privileged childhood, as do the little brother and sister in her novel The Young Pretenders (1895), but she was still very much aware of the innocence and vulnerability of children. In The Young Pretenders, Babs is five and Teddy is seven. Their mother and father are in India, and when their grandmother dies, they are sent from their country home to London to be raised by their aunt and uncle. These middle-class children are not sent to work in a factory or a mine, but they are given into the custody of an unsympathetic aunt who cares more about clothes and parties than children. In her concern for appearances, she is especially unsympathetic to plain, chubby little Babs.

Babs is the center of the novel. Fowler charmingly reveals Babs's childish point-of-view, has fun with her innocent lack of tact, and writes all of Babs's dialogue in "baby-talk."

"Fings so often turn out nasty," she tells Teddy.

The nastiness comes from unsympathetic adults—Aunt Eleanor, Miss Grimston the horrible governess—who have no insight into the child mind. They have no imagination, something that Babs and Teddy have in abundance. The title of the novel comes from their ability to pretend, to play make-believe, and from the way in which reality and imagination often blend together in childhood. The wonderful thing about The Young Pretenders for an adult reader is how it turns the didacticism of Victorian children's books on its head: although Babs learns a few things about good behavior, it's really her Uncle Charley who learns and changes in the course of the novel. Fowler's purpose seems less to train her child readers in good behavior than to encourage her adult readers to understand children and their unique needs and perspectives.

"For to see the deeper thing," Fowler says, in one of her few direct didactic statements, "we must look at life through other people's eyes. Which is sympathy."

Sympathy, the ability to "look at life through other people's eyes," was at the root of many of the liberal reforms of the nineteenth century that improved conditions for women and children, for workers and slaves. The novel, one of the great art forms of the nineteenth century, was a great vehicle for broadening sympathy, combining entertainment with social purpose. Nineteenth-century novelists like Dickens and Disraeli and Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that storytellers could be agents of social change. They help us to imagine a different life, and the possibility that life can be different. The novel tells us the story of someone else, and makes that story ours.

1 comment:

aluvalibri said...

Thanks Rob, excellent review!
The book has promptly gone on top of my Amazon wishlist.

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