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Judith Plotz. Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0-312-22735-3. Price: US$55.

  • John Beer

…plus d’informations

  • John Beer
    Peterhouse, Cambridge

Corps de l’article

The subject of Judith Plotz's study is absorbing and fascinating: the construction of the Romantic Child in the nineteenth century. Clearly the result of an immense amount of work, Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood can be recommended to every student of Romanticism for its lively and provocative account. The presentation is good also, despite a few blemishes such as a failure to tabulate the abbreviations satisfactorily and an irritating number of typographical errors. (At one hilarious moment De Quincey is quoted as saying of his mother "Austere she was in a degree which fitted her for the lady president of rebellious nurseries"; the word he actually used was "nunneries".) But all in all it is a book to be respected and drawn on for its wealth of information even if some, like me, will question a few of its conclusions.

The overall (rather shaky) thesis is that the rise of the cult of childhood, which by the turn of the century had become overwhelmingly present, was largely due to the writings of the early Romantics, and that they had had little regard or care for the crowd of real and suffering children in their midst, often victimized and living in squalor. Wordsworth's protests at the effects of industrialism on children are elbowed aside and Coleridge's writings on behalf of children in the cotton-factories ignored in favor of the assertion that such writers were more concerned with their own individual problems and with promoting a comfortable detachment. There is truth in this, clearly, but it distorts the larger picture, where one needs to consider the role of children in the development of the bourgeois home, with its encouragement of solitude, its stress on individual development and its pre-Freudian insistence on the protection of innocence as a refuge from the impersonal demands made by society at large. The sufferings and even bestialization of children, particularly in urban areas, might be deplored, but these were often assumed to be an unavoidable concomitant of the growth and culture of individualism, an assumption which was only gradually questioned. This was (and remains) a much bigger phenomenon than was displayed by the small group of writers dealt with here, who should be judged against the much larger proportions involved.

There are other reasons why the initial approach might mislead potentially sympathetic readers. With its reproduction on the dust-jacket of the well-known Max Beerbohm cartoon of William "Wordsworth in the Lake District at cross-purposes", the mock-Gothic lettering of the title and its first chapter concerning the Romantic child in the later nineteenth century, which involves repeated assumption that Wordsworth was mainly responsible for the reverential attitude to children among some Victorians, the book might well be construed as either a comprehensive attack on Wordsworth or at best an invitation to an unsympathetic response to him and his associates. The author is wary of some of the claims made for childhood by Romantic thinkers, particularly Coleridge's observation that children naturally think in wholes before they learn to analyze—a mode of thought which he saw as a crucial resource in the preservation of healthy mental function in the adult. As Plotz acutely notes, Piaget observed precisely the same phenomena in his studies of children but reached a diametrically opposed conclusion. What Coleridge saw as a sign of grace he regarded as dangerous; in his eyes, only as children learned to disregard their own tendency to holism and to acknowledge the consciousnesses of other people through socialization, could they hope to move towards satisfactory adult behavior. She herself seems to side with Piaget, despite the possibility that Coleridge's view was not a plea for perpetual infantilism but a call to "keep alive the child in the man" and so nourish a healthier, more imaginative mental balance. Indeed, she seems to distrust the whole Romantic concern for the imagination, even speaking at one point of the "irreducible and horrible power of formative imagination" which she finds working at the heart of loss.

However, although the first pages are set in this anti-Wordsworthian mode, the study suddenly changes tack half-way through the second chapter with the recognition, following Marilyn Gaull and others, that Wordsworth's attitudes to his own childhood and to those of others were very different. Having been himself moody, froward and rebellious, he deplored much of the educational theory around him and wanted children to be brought up in conditions more like his own. From this point on the discussion is more rewarding, showing how Wordsworth's own orphan status and rugged independence resulted in a concept of childhood as a necessary preparation for adult individualism. But this takes us far from the Romantic Child as conceived later, following the apparent elevation of childhood in the Immortality Ode.

When Plotz turns from Wordsworth to Lamb, an element of dislike comes through. Much of the chapter is taken up by an account of the sufferings endured by the "climbing boys" of the time, who could sometimes be burnt or asphyxiated in chimney accidents and whom lack of food kept suitably stunted. (The design of chimneys on the continent of Europe, by contrast, was much less lethal, while mechanical means of cleaning chimneys, already being designed, were ignored by the English masters.) The picture she paints is appalling; and yet, she points out, when James Montgomery asked Lamb for a contribution to his anthology The Chimney Sweepers' Friend, directed against the abuses, Lamb did no more than urge the inclusion of a poem by Blake on the subject—and then not the one in Songs of Experience but that in Songs of Innocence. His own essay "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers" she regards as distancing the matter by way of charm, allowing the reader to lapse into comfort without being prompted to action.

Lamb, she further comments, "never loved children in general", her view being that the only childhood that really interested him was that of his own remembered self. The testimony of Mrs Cowden Clarke and of Kate Perry, with whose family he played blind man's buff, is ignored, as is that of his favorite Lizzie Hunt, to whom he taught mischievous tricks such as saying the Lord's Prayer backwards, and who recalled how when he visited them the school-room would collapse into permanent laughter for the day, with lessons abandoned. Instead, Plotz remarks that with certain exceptions, he "maintained an astringent, briskly anti-sentimental view of children, once interrupting the noise of an obstreperous children's party with a toast to 'ca-ca-calumniated g-g-good King Herod'". The truth seems to be that he liked some children more than others, was not as indulgent on every occasion as he was sometimes and rarely resisted the opportunity for a joke, however outrageous. Like many bachelors who have not had the corners of their sensibility smoothed by the rigors of family life, moreover, he could find the noise of children a trial. Still worse censure is to come. Plotz points to Lamb's prodigious interest in food, which she diagnoses as "a hunger to introject and possess the undamaged self in uninterrupted security". Ten pages are devoted to the subject, including Fred Randel's catalogue of 104 items of food and drink mentioned in his writings. The reader is presumably expected to begin gagging at the volume of edibles poured on to the page and to share the author's distaste for such invited mass gormandizing, though of course when they go back to the page and encounter the descriptions themselves disparately, they may actually experience an inopportune running of the salivary juices; they may even find themselves disgracefully sharing Lamb's evident enjoyment not only of food and drink but of words themselves (see how he loves expressions such as unctuous, a sweet lenitive, kissing crust, to take a few at random), unfashionable as it is to do so.

We do not all have the same literary tastes, of course, and Plotz's dislike of Lamb is shared by many, including Denys Thompson, who once produced an extract from a contemporary advertisement to exhibit the ghastly effects on writers of imitating Lamb, only to confess years later that he had made it up himself, a procedure which he did not seem to find at all dishonest. There is a case against Lamb, and it is fair that it should be stated from time to time. What I do find baffling, however, is that when Plotz turns to De Quincey in her next chapter, we find him being indulged and applauded for precisely the kind of qualities that are viewed reductively when Lamb is at issue. The rather comic effect is to present the author as a severe governess who has adopted a fixed attitude to her charges, so that the mischievous, outspoken and sometimes outrageous Lamb is always to be stigmatized as the Bad Child, while De Quincey, who expressed unexceptionable opinions and loved children in a straightforward, near-sentimental way, is always the Good Child. So be it, but for my money the true adult is not the child-like De Quincey, who, as she admits, could never handle even the simplest household matters and came to be the baby of the house, relying on his daughters to look after him and his financial affairs, but Lamb, who always paid his way, who expressed regret that his circumstances had not allowed him to marry and have children, and who looked after his sister with uncomplaining care throughout the whole of his career.

In itself, the chapter on De Quincey is one of the best in the book, following the line that while to some degree he shared the Wordsworthian vision of a lost Eden, the early loss of his sister left him with a permanent concern for the afflictions of childhood. His own sense of loss, reinforced by the death of Catherine Wordsworth (introduced, rather oddly, as "the girl" and not named until nearly a page later) induced, according to the author, a steady self-identification with lost girls that brought him many years later into a state very like the anorexia nervosa that sometimes affects young women, so that in contrast to his contemporary, he ended eating almost nothing. If we follow her theory that the food-delighting Lamb was consuming his own childhood, De Quincey must be seen as having allowed his own blighted childhood to ingest him. Finally the study turns to David Hartley Coleridge, seen in his time as the epitome of the Romantic Child and having been reared by his father to fulfill precisely that role. There was always a certain amount of confusion involved, since when he was born, as his name implies, Hartley the philosopher was high in Coleridge's estimation: as "Frost at Midnight" shows, the original plan was to bring him up exposed constantly to "lovely sights and sounds intelligible", setting up associations of ideas which on Hartley's showing should have eased his way into the paths of beauty and goodness. Even while that poem was being written, however, the Berkeleyanism to which Coleridge had turned was making him more attentive to the positive activity in his son's mind. Subsequent notebooks and letters showed his delight in the young child's signs of genius. The cultivation of Hartley's gifts increased if anything during the decade, so that when he accompanied his father to London he found himself being indulged and admired. The point which Plotz brings out, and which I have not seen previously remarked to the same degree, is the extent of self-identification with his son which Coleridge himself showed, turning to him as a kind of love-token in the relationship with Sara Hutchinson—to whom accounts of his latest mental exploits could constantly be sent. When the relationship with Sara ended and coolness towards the Wordsworths set in, Hartley was the first casualty. His father seemed to abandon him to his fate and rely on his mother and others to look after material provision for his education, including his entry to Oxford. It was not surprising that when he fell foul of the authorities there and lost his fellowship as a result, his father was deeply stricken, rallying belatedly to his support.

In a last, ingenious turn, Hartley is seen in relation to his father as a text written by him which proved inadequate in terms of the world in which he was provisionally inscribed. It is a clever move, and the thinking behind it is not without some plausibility, given that Coleridge continued to show concern for Hartley's intellectual development, even laying out schemes of research for him to carry out, which he in turn found it impossible to fulfill, largely, one suspects, because they were constructed across contradictions in Coleridge's own thinking that he himself balanced only with difficulty. The tendency to treat writers as texts is one that is fashionable, and naturally attractive to literary scholars; it is not one that I myself share, however, being temperamentally drawn to consider them more immediately as human beings. And although it is not an altogether welcome fact to academics, the persons so regarded often prove obstinately able to make more of their lives than the theorist's efforts to diminish them might allow. A writer notable for failure to fulfill literary promise can leave a more lasting impression on a place than any of the local writers whom the neighbors do not read. Hartley made a literary contribution of his own, of course, but his verses were not particularly good, and it was not for those or his more accomplished prose writings that he was remembered in Cumberland. When the inhabitants there were asked about their memories of the Wordsworth circle, they did not recall the austere William or his sister with much warmth, but they did make one exception. "Lil'l Hartley"—someone to whom they felt they could really relate—remained everyone's favorite. That, ironically, had turned out to be the true vocation of this Romantic child.