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Childhood: Jan Dalley

Before Charles Dickens children were scarcely seen or heard in novels, and never in a central role: Dickens placed them in the centre of the stage. Particularly through his boy-heroes in the eponymous novels Oliver Twist (1837–9), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9), and David Copperfield (1849–50), and through perhaps the greatest of all, Pip in Great Expectations (1860–1), he wrote brilliantly and accessibly about children's perceptions and feelings, and truly saw the world through their eyes. He became the supreme chronicler of children's experience in the nineteenth century, in these magnificent works.

Each of these novels sees its child-hero pass through all sorts of misery, deprivation, and vicissitude before the comforting ending comes; it was presumably the hard circumstances of Dickens's own childhood that made him feel this theme so deeply and revisit it so often. His children are real, and we feel them to be real—unlike the idealized children in many of the sentimental novels the Victorian age also produced. Some of the most famous of these were written for crusading purposes, such as Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1863), for instance, about the terrible lives of the child chimney-sweeps. This is a glutinous though well-meaning fable that is nearly unreadable now, even if the lives it describes are still heart-rending.

In fact, the great literature of childhood is not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for those in search of comfort-reading. Happy families are not the stuff of fiction, and novels about children's experience usually pivot around childhood miseries rather than idyllic memories, broken families rather than warm and comforting ones. Orphans, sad and lonely children, neglected and unwanted children, appear time and again in the fiction classics, as do children we would now consider ‘abused'—as Dickens's David Copperfield was by a sadistic stepfather. It is a modern fallacy that widespread family breakdown was a phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century: although divorce was far less frequent in previous eras, high death-rates meant that a very large number of children lost one or both parents, remarriage and step-relations were common, and a dislocated upbringing equally so. Many children's lives were less safe and stable than now. While the most wretched were on the streets, expected to fend for themselves, the slightly better-off might be dispatched to harsh schools which had no holidays, sent to live with strangers, apprenticed very young, or simply ignored. Work began early, and was often extremely hard. Even for the well-to-do life was sometimes brutal. (Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), for instance, described the vicious regime at a famous public school as vividly as Dickens told of the horrors of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby.) Dickens's child-protagonists are unusual because they are essentially alone, without family. More usually, novels about children are—for obvious reasons—novels about families. Quite a few of the classic plots rely on the notion of ‘breeding'—good blood or bad, nature always winning out over nurture. Heathcliff, the romantic anti-hero of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), was a gipsy waif picked up on the streets of Liverpool; despite kind Mr Earnshaw's attempts to bring the boy up as one of his own, Heathcliff is the agent of havoc and tragedy. It's an idea which persists into the next century, when children's untamed nature and capacity for evil are central to Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and become the driving force behind William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), in which groups of stranded children grow increasingly violent and eventually murderous towards each other. Golding's is one of the greatest novels about children, but also one of the darkest parables about human nature in modern literature. Another brilliant study of the savage in the child is Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), in which young boys commit a killing.

Previous centuries treated children differently, we know, and allowed customs we would now consider extraordinary—for instance, the practice of giving away a child from a numerous but hard-up family to be brought up by a wealthier, often childless relative or acquaintance. This happened to one of Jane Austen's brothers, and although her novels do not focus on childhood, they show us a good deal about contemporary experience, even in a much more comfortable social world than Dickens's. In Emma (1816), for instance, the young people (we would now call them teenagers, although neither the word nor the concept had been invented then) are either motherless (Emma herself), illegitimate and unwanted (Harriet Smith), or dislocated from family in other ways (both Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill).

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Emma was remade into a modern film, Clueless, about scatty, affluent teenagers. A more modern child-heroine was created by Henry James, whose uncharacteristic What Maisie Knew (1897) is a short, brilliant story of family collapse seen through the eyes of a watchful little girl, a precocious child made lonely, despite her comfortable circumstances, by the mysteries of adult unhappiness. A very different watchful child, at the end of the twentieth century, is Esther Freud's young heroine in Hideous Kinky (1992). Similarly buffeted by emotional forces over which she has no control, she tells of growing up in a fractured family in the craziness of the 1960s, and though Freud writes very enjoyably, with pace and wry humour, the childish pain is never far beneath the surface.

Esther Freud's novel is at least partly autobiographical, and this impulse has produced some of the great works about childhood and adolescence: from Ireland James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15), from Australia Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (1901), and from Britain Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985), which describes an upbringing with dour, religious adoptive parents. From the United States, J. D. Salinger's inimitable The Catcher in the Rye (1951), whose hero, Holden Caulfield, probably counts as the world's first literary teenager (just as James Dean is credited with that title in the movies), must hold pride of place as the novel of adolescence.

Freud and Salinger share a kind of wacky humour, an attitude that deals with difficulties through laughter, the hallmark of many modern accounts of growing pains. Of these, the most successful is Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ (1982), which treats spots and blushes and teenage crushes with hilarity. For high humour in a different time and a different social milieu, Nancy Mitford's brilliant comic study of her own eccentric family, remade in fiction as the Radletts, makes her 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love one of the century's comic masterpieces, as well as a superb and pitiless portrait of family relationships and the trials of growing up.

In all these, however, it's hard to find a novel to recommend which looks back on a childhood bathed in calm and happiness. Childhood stories written for children may be full of picnics and ponies, pets, and pear-trees; those written about children are not. Memoirs hold more luminous light—Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie (1959), or Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (1956) come to mind, as do Roald Dahl's Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). In the world of fiction, perhaps Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), sometimes translated as The Lost Domain, conveys best the bitter-sweet tang of youth, the innocent passions of friendship and exploration, the sense of mystery within safe boundaries.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction