The Condition and Concept of the Child in Dickens: A Bibliographic Essay

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Last updated: April 10, 2019

It is my intention to write a Research Project on the condition of childhood in Dickens’s novels.

This will most likely include an observation on the conflict between the Rousseauesque-Romantic viewpoint and the Puritan and Rationalist one. Throughout my research I looked at a wide range of resources, however, the one I found most useful was Grylls’s Guardians and Angels (1978) and therefore will study it in more detail in my Critical Review essay.In this essay I will attempt to cover the essence of Romantic and Puritan notions of the child and develop this in order to see how this influences domestic life, education and the reader. In his book The Child Figure in English Literature (Pattison 1978) Pattison looks specifically at the idea of the child in Dickens primarily through the sentimental ways in which they are presented.Pattison offers a kind of explanation to the argument that ‘sentiment’ (76) in The Old Curiosity Shop is ‘cruelly dated’ (76) and of Dickens’s lacking of intellectual control. It is suggested that the sentiment which characterizes The Old Curiosity Shop is everywhere in Dickens and that it is only the intricacy and intensity of plot that is missing, however, it is acknowledged that this gives rise to ‘vistas of sentiment’ (77) whereas in later novels such as Dombey and Son sentiment ‘clings’ (77) more to the plot.Pattison argues that it was Dickens’s intention to exchange concentration on plot for style and imagery and thus develop the idea of the child figure as a ‘literary device’ (78) that could be used as a vehicle to allow the reader to understand his views as well as feel them.

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Of course, Dickens had for inspiration the ‘sentimental examples’ (79) of Wordsworth as well as the Augustinian tradition of child depiction adopted by Blake and Gray. Indeed, it is suggested that by adding a sense of gloom to the Wordsworthian tone used primarily for the representation of nature Dickens is able to extend these sentiments to his child figures.For example, whilst his paraphrasing of ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ in The Old Curiosity Shop depicts the beauty of nature on the ‘sleeping town’, (79) Dickens positions Little Nell in a gothic graveyard which inextricably links the beauty and innocence of nature with the innocent but ‘fatal’ (80) beauty of Nell. Indeed, this link between innocence and the grave is highlighted by Pattison with his analogy of Little Nell being ‘no more able to pass a graveyard than an alcoholic can a bar’, (80) which beautifully evokes the conflict between sentimentality and humour that we, as readers, are forced to view the child figure with.A further argument that is concomitant with ‘dead innocents’ (80) is the idea that these innocent child figures are intimately related to old men figures. Pattison argues that these old men harbour a close link to Christianity, one example being the idea of the ‘New and the Old Adam’.

(81) In Dickens the old man seems to be redeemed from outright condemnation by ‘the interest he has for the child figure’ (82) which delivers Pattison at the obvious parallel of the child becoming the ‘regenerate man, the New Adam. ‘ (83) The idea of children as the precursors of new life in Dickens seems inextricably linked with death.Pattison points out how this ‘profound contradiction’ (83) allows Dickens to employ such a close relationship between his child character’s falls and their rising virtues. Where Pattison has viewed the innocent child through the idea of sentimentality, Newsom has made some key arguments for the concept of the portrayal of the Romantic child figure in Dickens’s novels and attempted to link this to the author’s and the reader’s memories of childhood.

In essence, it is an argument for the Wordsworthian-Romantic influence on the child in Dickens’s fiction.Dickens presents an innocent child, ‘often suffering and orphaned, abandoned or neglected’, (Jordan 2001, 92) that as suggested by Newsom, was symptomatic of the ‘growing concern’ (92) for children being central to an ‘evolving ethos’ (92) of the middle-class throughout the Nineteenth Century. Newsom comments on how the conceptions of the child have changed from ‘animalistic and uninteresting’ (92) in earlier years to the concept of the child being a source for greater emotional enrichment during ‘the rise of the domestic’ (92) in the Victorian age.Newsom argues that Dickens’s child figures should be viewed as romantic not only because of changes in society’s thinking, but perhaps even more greatly because of Dickens’s own childhood experiences, as well as his apparent devotion to the Wordsworthian concept of childhood memories. Indeed, towards the late Eighteenth Century Newsom reasons how the child is recognized as a qualitatively different being, much closer to humankind’s ‘original, even prelapsarian state.

(93) Therefore being deserving of ‘healthy cultivation’ (93) in order to preserve their innocence for as long as possible. This concept, as highlighted by Newsom, contrasts starkly with the youth of the juvenile Charles Dickens who was quite literally robbed of his own childhood at the age of twelve when his father was imprisoned for debt; and he was sent to a blacking factory. Newsom suggests that this, along with the death of his sister-in-law at the age of seventeen installed Dickens’s fear of the ‘child’s welfare’ (95) and his ‘reverence for the innocence of childhood’ (95).Newsom observes how Dickens set himself against the religious severity of the Puritans and Evangelicals who preached that the child was innately sinful and ‘vulnerable to wicked temptation’ (95), subscribing more to the innocent and prelapsarian view of the child honoured by Rousseau, Blake and Wordsworth. However, Dickens was still aware that the child needed firm guidance in childhood. For example, Newsom uses the example of Thomas Gradgrind’s ‘selfishness’ (97) in Hard Times and observes how he develops into a young man given to ‘grovelling sensualities’. 97) Returning to the notion of the child being the central feature of the changing ethos of the Nineteenth century Newsom examines Dickens as the first great ‘importer’ (102) of the Romantic-child into a central place in the novel. This, in turn, allows the author and the reader to reflect on their own complicated and conflicted experiences of childhood; an experience that Dickens was ‘forever returning to’ (103) in his novels and through them ‘forever reinventing’ (103).

Far more than Wordsworth, for example, Dickens helps recover the thoughts and feelings peculiar to childhood.It is hard to explain yet there is a fragile recovery to be made between the understanding of a child and an adult. For example, a comic moment is when Oliver mistakes a group of prostitutes for ‘very nice girls indeed’ (Oliver Twist 2007). A contradiction and perhaps a limitation of Newsom’s observations on Dickens as a champion of the Romantic-child is his inclusion of the commentary on the role of the reader in the relationship between the abused and the abuser in his novels. As in the example of Oliver above, we are actually ‘invited to take some pleasure in the spectacle of the abused child’. Jordan 2001, 105) A further example of this would be Nell’s warmness to her Grandfather, even though he is a grotesquely comic character she is still distraught at the thought of separation.

Although Dickens could be inviting us to laugh at this pathetic situation, perhaps the absurdity of it is that some Victorian children actually lived this life. It seems only right to examine this concept of the ‘Romantic child’ (Coveney 1957, 1) more closely when relating it to the central figures in Dickens’s novels.Coveney has a closer look at the origins and essence of this concept in his book Poor Monkey: The Child in Literature.

(Coveney 1957) Coveney argues that ‘about nothing’ (5) did Rousseau feel more passionately than childhood and in fact Rousseau claims that he was one of the first to oppose the ‘rationalist’ (4) school of thought that children should be treated as ‘small adults’ (4) and it seldom considered the ‘nature of the child as a child’ (4). As Pattison discussed, so too does Coveney, that Rousseau believed that childhood was the period of life most closely ‘approximated to the state of nature’ (6).The reaction against the rationalists is based on Rousseau’s belief that the child is ‘self-active’ (6) and endowed with ‘natural tendencies’ (6) from birth that requires to be ‘nourished slowly towards the necessities of social existence’ (6). The central emphasis of Rousseau’s ‘gospel’ Emile lay the assertion that education should concern itself with the identity and peculiar nature of the child itself; before Emile the approach to childhood can nowhere be better seen than in ‘the fashionable dressing up of children as little adults’ (7).To Rousseau, these images were like ‘premature fruits’ (7) and that education should be simply the development of the original nature of the child and that the ‘original nature was innocence’ (7). This, Coveney argues, is similar to Dickens’s feelings of the ‘crimes perpetrated’ (72) by society when children were robbed of their childhood. Indeed, Coveney continues to argue that the child in Dickens lives at the point of impact between ‘the world of innocent awareness and the world of man’s insensitivity to man’ (7).

This is incredibly useful thinking for my stance on the child in Dickens as it is of paramount importance not to allow my interpretation of the social climate in which Dickens wrote to be simply one-dimensional. It is important to comprehend the fusion of Puritan, Rationalist thought with that of the Rousseauesque-Romantic view as this results in the representation of Dickens’s views on childhood. Indeed, the notion that Dickens was held to be the Victorian champion of the Rousseauesque-Romantic idealization of childhood is also supported by Andrews in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens (Schlicke 1999).

Andrews discusses how the ‘conflict’ (87) between the natural innocence of children celebrated by Rousseau and other Romantic writers, such as Blake and even Coleridge, is in Dickens ‘diametrically opposed’ (87) to the Puritan revival. The Puritan revival, with Wesley at the fountainhead, subscribed to the theory of all children harbouring ‘natural vice’ (88) having been born inheriting mankind’s fallen nature. They believe that the child should be brought up under ‘an austere, unremitting discipline’ (88) as they are innately sinful. For example, the contradictory fusion of these two beliefs can be seen in almost all of Dickens’s novels.David Copperfield is a prime illustration of these conflicting viewpoints; he suffers abuse as a child that renders him sympathetic.

However, he is often chauvinistic to the lower classes and makes foolhardy decisions. Dickens highlights through this single character that whilst requiring a firm upbringing, being too strict on a juvenile in childhood will influence who they become when they grow up. Following on from the pure and innocent description of the child figure of the Romantic idealization it seemed appropriate to examine what Hardy called the ‘moral art’ (Hardy 1970, 3) of Dickens.Even if some critics claim that Dickens ‘never grew up intellectually’. (Coveney 1957, 71) Hardy believes that Dickens did show the ability to question the ‘nature and purpose’ (Hardy 1970, 3) of moral action and highlight hardships encountered when ‘growing out from oneself in an unjust, commercialised and denaturing society’ (3). A limitation of this argument could perhaps centre around the fact that Dickens only really evokes such a sympathetic response from his child characters and therefore the moral action is not completely pervasive.

Where Hardy’s argument seems to agree most with my project is when we see Dickens’s ‘combination of social despair and personal faith’ (3). With regards to children especially, his ‘distrust of society and social reform are always present but he manages to maintain a deepening faith in the power of human love’ (3). Little Nell is a prime example of this; when she suffers abuse at the hands of her neglectful Grandfather she still cannot bear the thought of losing him. The purity of thought is something very powerful about the child figure in Dickens.A useful way of viewing the innocence of the child figure in Dickens, through the critical arguments of Hardy, is by a kind of analogy of darkness and light.

The ‘isolated purity’ (5) of Dickens’s angelic Nell, Oliver and Barnaby is stressed by the ‘darkness and twistedness’ (5) of the surrounding society. When characters such as Little Nell ‘escape’ (6) to the light of the next world from the gloom of their present existence we feel their ‘invulnerabilty’; their speech is almost ‘classless and their virtue beyond contamination’. 6) Hardy argues that whereas the child figures only harbour light, the ‘crooked and the straight’ (10) are employed together in many of the adult figures such as Dombey. This is perhaps a reflection on the prelapsarian or natural state of the child. The main critical argument that Ackroyd has on the notion of childhood in Dickens (Ackroyd 1990) is the maltreatment of children who are meant to be in establishments of care and looked after by responsible adults.Ackroyd bases this on a couple of episodes in the author’s life when he was moved by the ‘plight of mistreated and wretched children’ (556). Ackroyd writes that a couple of weeks after the 15th.

January 1849 Fanny’s crippled child, Henry, died. During this time Dickens was writing for The Examiner on the victims of what was known as ‘baby farming’ (556). This is where orphaned or abandoned children were put into the care of minders who were paid a certain amount each week per head of child; Dickens called this ‘a trade’ (556).It is clear that the concept of people deriving profits from the ‘deliberate torture and neglect of a class the most innocent on earth’ (556) was the model for many of the schooling establishments in his fiction. Similarly, in Dickens on England and The English (Andrews 1979), Andrews specifically looks at schooling in Dickens’s fiction. As Rousseau argued in Emile there is an ‘absence of any recognition that children are children, with specific emotional, intellectual and imaginative needs’ (143).

This is a very romantic conception; in Hard Times, for example, Thomas Gradgrind has established a school with the intention of filling his students with nothing but cold, hard facts. This is diametrically opposed to the romantic notion that children should not be rationalised or set in ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. (Abrams 2000, 56) Similarly, in Dombey and Son there is an extended metaphor that describes how Doctor Blimber believes the child should be ‘forced out’ (Andrews 1979, 143) of education as quickly as possible.

Andrews seems to acknowledge Dickens’s own concerns on child welfare in education as there is not a great deal of counter argument against the pervading mood of the chapter which suggests that England was ‘making a terrible mistake allowing children to be educated in such places’ (143). Clearly if we take into account the details from Dickens’s biographic information provided by Ackroyd we can begin to be tempted to believe that these fictional schools were closer to reality than first imagined.Indeed, on a visit to London in 1843, a year before the publication of Martin Chuzzlewit, in which Ackroyd suggests it was possible that Dickens intended to include ‘an exposure of child employment’ (Ackroyd 1990, 394). Dickens commented on the conditions of an unknown establishment ‘I have seldom seen, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children’ (Andrews 1979, 143).

Of course, this is digressing from the concentration on the novels of Dickens, however, it is clear just from two short examples that Dickens used his experiences of Victorian schools to mould and reflect upon in his fiction.In conclusion, I have discovered a wealth of information and criticism on the condition of childhood in Dickens. The fusion of two diametrically opposed viewpoints conflicting against a backdrop of Victorian society makes for a very fresh and continually evolving culture of criticism. Having the Romantic and the Puritan views as an anchor for my research it was useful for me to explore these notions with regards to education, especially the study of Andrews in which he proposes the rationalist school wish to ‘force’ (Andrews 1979, 143) children out of childhood as quickly as possible.There is no doubt though, that the aspect of ‘moral art’ (Hardy 1970, 3) that Hardy discusses was most useful. The concept of the adult harbouring both the ‘crooked and the straight’ (10) whilst the child lives in ‘isolated purity’ (5) was a both beautiful and penetrating view of the light and the dark side of virtue. It is the sentiment Dickens evokes that is the feeling that stays with the reader.

The verisimilitude that the child in Dickens’s novels has enables the reader to engage with their own memories of childhood, and ensures that to his fictions readers will be ‘forever returning to’.

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