Childhood resilience: 1800-2022

I am interested in the fashions which blow through children’s fiction and, a related matter, child-rearing mantras. This is a matter of the stories we tell children, and the stories we tell about them. They are as interesting for their consistency through our recent centuries as they are for their differences.

This enterprise is spurred by recent reading, including Frederick Marryat’s Mr Midshipman Easy (1830s), Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous (1900s) and Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club (1930s).  They are all affectionately familiar to me as books on the shelves I inherited from my parents but I do not recall having read these actual titles. In them, Marryat and Kipling discuss spoiled brats being ennobled by the discipline of teenage life in a ship’s crew. Ransome gives us an idyll (recognisable in my own boyhood) in which parents provide sufficient rules (boundaries, we call them now), allowing them to give their young a great deal of freedom (space, in the modern parlance). Ransome’s stories of paradisical middle class child-rearing before WW2 were a great pleasure to me as a boy after it. I had the same licence to muck about in small boats as Ransome’s child heroes and I had the same easy general obedience to my parents the Coot Club enjoyed. True, Ransome posited very slightly bolder adventures than I enjoyed at the age of 10, so whilst I could relish his fiction, I worked on building sites with navvies and brickies and borrowed dinghies from fishermen and the skipper of a smart motor cruiser in a way which would not happen now, I think. What is remarkable, I find, is that reading Coot Club stirred in this oldish man the same deep comfort and connection I felt as a boy.

I can’t fail to notice that modern discussion is about a middle class parenting which is both obsessive and ineffective. It is rule-bound in the sense that the parents are under the cosh whilst the children flounder in the resulting anarchy. My generation were lucky to have fairly no-nonsense parents, who themselves had known fairly fuss-free parents. So far as I know, most of my coevals were neither given nor demanded the chance to debate every matter of obedience: parents drew their boundaries and offered sensible space and a child’s rebelliousness or naughtiness was dealt with firmly where necessary and without much complaint. Parents wanted neither permanently tame nor permanently feral children. My impression was that sensible parents did not moralise before the child’s mind could grasp such abstracts. Naughtiness was not equated with wickedness or badness, but as something to be punished by being sent to bed or maybe a loss of pocket money. Above all, parents did not require much obedience but demanded it as of right.

Now, though, many children seem to become over-sensitive tyrants who are bullied by peers, advertisers and Influencers, and are so the more they are all enjoined to love their fellow man in an orgy of respect. There is a common fear that to deny sensitive children their expressions of anger or peculiarities of behaviour may tip the young person into serious anxiety, neurosis and worse. It is a Catch-22 in which no anxious parent or child can ever be quite sure who started the vicious circle.

The 21st Century proponents of child-centred, positive parenting and all that seem to think they are overturning long centuries and recent decades of patriarchical, negative parenting. The truth is that all through the last century and maybe 150 years before that there were many proponents of a mildly and pragmatically firm but tolerant childrearing. And there was an interesting discussion of the useful compromisees parenting required.

It is fascinating to find the germs of this moderate reforming modernism in the 18th Century. About the time Marryat wrote about Mr Midshipman Easy’s mother ruining her boy by her nervous over-indulgence of his every whim, in the mid-1800s, some parents were deliberately continuing a pronounced 18th Century fashion of encouraging their children to be outspoken in expressing themselves. i This was the Enlightenment wearing its Romantic hat. So much for the canard that Victorians wanted children to be seen but not heard. I don’t know whether it was the first of the Childrearing Bibles, but Andrew Combe’s The Physiological and Moral Management of Infancy (1840) is an instructive and cheering read. It is pragmatic and parent-friendly in its advice. I don’t think there is anything draconian anywhere in the book. For instance, its attitude to the imposition of feeding and sleeping routines is that they are quite a good idea, but shouldn’t become iron regimes and shouldn’t be pursued in the face of evidence that they really don’t work with the child in question.

Combe is most interesting when he comes to the age-old problem of authority: how to impose it without stifling initiative. His Chapter XV “Moral Education in Infancy and Childhood” recommends the lessons of nature: a mother cat is tolerant of her kittens until they endanger themselves (or, I’d say, from scant experience, the young drive her beyond distraction). Forced to intervene, the cat enforces her will sharply, briefly, and without rancor and the kitten learns its lesson without resentment. Combe insists that the young have to be given the chance to learn from their own instincts and mistakes. I am almost sure I read him right when I say that he implies that moral, sermonising abstraction is lost on the young.

Our three children’s books have moral frameworks, of course, but none are oppressively “improving”. They none of them have the religious tub-thumping of an RM Ballantyne (I may have skipped those bits in his The Young Fur Traders, 1856, as a boy). Marryat’s message is overt: naval discipline is overly harsh and erratic but makes men of unruly whipper-snappers. Negotiating one’s capacity for leadership requires strategic disobedience. Kipling’s message is subtler and even more worldy-wise: all sorts of shipboard disciplines (formal and informal) are richly informing, but one must find one’s own moral compass. Ransome’s nearly subterranean ethic supposes that wise adults allow youngsters the freedom of small boats, whose management imposes its own blossoming constraints.

Between the Marryat and the Kipling (about half a century) there is one striking similarity. In both novels, there is a black African who is befriended by our teenage hero and who has access to a spiritual dimension which is admired by the young man. Marryat is, in a way, more “advanced” than Kipling in giving his black tremendous agency within the adventure. In both stories, the blacks bear with some forbearance the discrimination they face from most of society. It is true that in both cases the black declares himself the lifelong liegeman of his young companion. Is this a pathology of a racist time? What version of it may have been at work in the 1930s painter Glyn Philpot’s relations with his black valet and model, Henry Thomas?

Marryat’s midshipman Easy is the son of a rich half-baked self-proclaimed “philosopher” who has taught the boy the fashionable ideal of the equality of mankind. Thinking the Royal Navy just the place where this notion must be most applied, the boy joins up with all the crazy adventures and arguments one might expect, and more. Marryat does not portray anyone very flatteringly, though Jack Easy does mature nicely on exposure to reality. But the lower orders get short shrift as a drunken class of louts. That might perhaps suit the views of a novelist seeking to satirise, as we must suspect, the fashion for Thomas Paine and William Godwin.

Kipling is not a satirist. But he is a man of the world deeply interested in the currents that move within us and the age we live in. In Captains Courageous he gives us a restlessly thrusting Gilded Age railway tycoon and his indulged neurotic wife in about the period when US society spawned American Nervousness: Its causes and consequences  (by George Beard, 1881). Beard’s is an account of neurasthenia (neurosis) whose only mistakes might have been to think the twitchiness of modern society had sprung up very recently, was uniquely American and might die off. The tycoon’s boy is rescued from extravagant, rude indulgence by falling off a transatlantic liner more or less into a Grand Banks cod-fishing schooner which won’t return to port for months. The rough and ready ways of the fishermen soon help the boy man-up, learn prompt obedience to legitimate authority, and the contrary need for initiative, and he is eventually returned to his doting parents, doubtless to become some sort of object lesson to them in what values matter.  It is important to note that he truly becomes his father’s son on that schooner: his head for numbers and business is highly prized by the fishermen and closing pages have him planning a career in shipping.

Captains Courageous can stand alongside Kim as contrasting two co-existing civilisations, the older one deeply spiritual but also bigoted and the newer one deeply materialist but also idealistic.

 Redemption by sailing unites all these novels. So does the importance of command, obedience and thinking on one’s feet. But Kipling and Ransome are united in the romance of the calloused hand, the fug of the fo’c’sle. Marryat prefers, as it were, to presage what one might call a Hornblower style of romance. Curiously, and perhaps because he is so uninhibited, Marryat’s black, Mesty, is invaluable to midshipman Easy because before he was a slave he was a tribal warrior. He is cheerfully and cannily violent and that turns out handy when the pair of them cut loose from Royal Navy discipline and go privateering.

I don’t suppose there were many black faces on the Norfolk Broads before the war, so Ransome escapes serious threat of a charge of racism in his stories. Now we are neurotic about the representation of the Empire, the White Man’s Burden, racism and all the rest it is fascinating and a huge relief to find that 20th Century children’s fiction and its authors are seeing a revision (a correction) of the revisionism of the 1960s. Adrian Munsey’s Wonderland: From JM Barrie to JRR Tolkien (2022) for Sky Arts reviews some of the last century’s extraordinary children’s writers and their impact. It has much greater intelligence than is the currency of most academic or cultural commentary. It impresses on us that children’s authors often have dark back-stories which run as subterranean streams in their fictions, and that it is the deployment and inflection of existential issues which draws children’s perhaps unconscious appreciation. The series substantiates what is clear from even a cursory reading of Kipling, that he was a complicated Imperialist and much more importantly that he was no racist. (Much like the Queen Empress, Victoria, herself one might say.) I should have known, but it took Wonderland  to show me that unadulterated Enid Blyton can strike a liberating note for the very ethnic minorities who might be put off by their exclusion from her work. Try the testimony of Patrice Lawrence (not least in Wonderland) on that front. The sources of children’s resilience are many, varied, and unexpected.660

  1. This paragraph leans heavily on research leads in The Women of Rothschild, by Natalie Livingstone, 2021[]

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Publication date

04 September 2022