Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900

Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), xii+497 pp. £35.00 hb. ISBN 978-0199582563.

Sally Shuttleworth needs no introduction to BSLS members; indeed, delegates at the 2007 conference in Birmingham heard some of the material from this new book in her plenary address that year. As both author and editor she has expertly traced the interconnections between literary and scientific writing in Victorian Britain, in work on George Eliot, on the sciences of mind and on the periodical press (amongst others). The Mind of the Child revisits some of these earlier preoccupations. We look afresh at Maggie Tulliver’s dolls and passions; at the Brontë children’s creation of Angria; at the emergent medical discourse over child psychology; at debates over inheritance. And it covers new ground, too. In its pages a wide range of sources – including autobiographic reminiscence and poems, novels and children’s books, medical treatises and periodical articles, illustrations and photographs – are exploited to learn about everything from baby-shows to monkey-keeping to lie-telling, sexuality, psychiatry and suicide.

Mirroring the myriad types of sources mined to support its arguments, the book’s chapters admirably encompass a range of approaches to literature and science scholarship. Chapter 6, ‘The Forcing Apparatus: Dombey & Son’, offers an exemplary close reading of Charles Dickens’ classic. It draws out the connections with Dickens’ autobiography, with the recent installation of the ‘Great Stove’ at Chatsworth, with contemporary educational establishments, with notions of arrested and accelerated time, and demonstrates how foundational the text’s claims were for contemporary commentary on the relationship between industrial economy and models of child development. Chapter 13, ‘Monkeys and Children’, on the other hand, details the actual household practices and anthropological experiments enacted by a range of scientific figures that compared and conflated the infantile and the simian. For example, we read how Frank Buckland’s menagerie of monkeys, ‘The Hag, Jenny, Tiny, Carroty Jane, and Little Jack’ (p.248), their antics and outfits, played starring roles in his story-like accounts of self-confessed ‘domestic mayhem’ (p.246), and compare George Romanes’ charts on animal and human development with his visits to the Zoological Gardens and a rather unsuccessful attempt at keeping a brown capuchin at home.

Throughout, Shuttleworth makes a compelling case for the important role of literary depictions of children as medico-scientific case-studies. She traces the traffic between educational writings, novels and pathological treatises, showing how, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential pedagogy was drawn on by George Meredith in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, ‘a parodic reconstruction of Émile and an exploration of whether it is possible’ (p.156); or how Thomas Hardy’s creation of ‘Father Time’ derived from copious note-taking on discussions of child suicide, and newspaper reports of recent juvenile tragedies. Moreover, she demonstrates that and shows how these literary children provided the first sustained analyses of childish inner worlds and mental development, which were then seized upon in expert philosophical and medical writings, used as exemplars of particular developmental strategies and the potential consequences of certain educational or moral approaches. In the main, the idealised child mind was often under discussion, connected to a supposedly healthy or pathological specimen: in The Mind of the Child we only really get to know fictionalised (or self-fictionalised) creatures, such as Paul Dombey, Maisie Farange or Edmund Gosse. Though children’s imaginations themselves were thought to require appropriately unstimulating fodder, the imaginative portrayal of a child’s cerebral and social existence could nevertheless be used – even lauded – as a vital predictive and diagnostic tool. Hence, the novelist joined, and was often not distinct from, a range of other figures who began to map, monitor and medicalise the child in the mid-nineteenth century, including parents, naturalists, pathologists, psychiatrists and teachers.

Of course, the child’s mind was not separate from the child’s body. Defining the stages from babyhood to infancy to childhood, puberty and adolescence provided another attempt to chart both supposedly normal and pathological trajectories, and to demarcate junctures in the problematic and continuous journey from child to adult. Just as some naturalists asked whether monkeys and children were really that different from each other, or whether children were representative specimens of primitive man, others pondered the difference between children and adults. What did it mean to grow up too soon? Such concerns over premature development were especially acute in regard to burgeoning sexuality, with the horrors of masturbation raised as a spectre. How far this process of growing-up was enabled or constrained by inheritance or the environment was a central area of debate, as Shuttleworth shows. A negotiation was made between the child as something to be affected by its environment (for example, the dangers of educational over-cramming: ‘I am not clever, I am only crammed’, says one fictional child (p.350); real children were reportedly new owners of spectacles, headaches and anxiety) and the restricted product of its ancestral traits, doomed to atavism and repeating actions and thoughts, particularly, as in Jude the Obscure, when a result of familial intermarriage. These were not necessarily alternative options: contemporary theories of heredity stressed the continued influence of the environment as well as pedigree.

It is clear that childhood was a central concern to Victorian Britain: the period witnessed a significant alteration in both the conception of the child’s mind and how one was able to access or depict that mind. Children were not the polarised extremes of either dangerously feral, threatening creatures, or the mute puppets of popular cliché, meant to be ‘seen and not heard’. A more interesting middle-ground was described and imagined, diagnosed and witnessed, lived and remembered; and can be revealed through what Shuttleworth terms ‘intricate patterns of exchange between science, literature, and medicine, developed further through social practice and debate’ (p.359). It is these ‘patterns’ that have become the subject-matter of our discipline, and The Mind of the Child uses them, masterfully, to embed canonical literature and forgotten classics, childish disease and deception, in the cultural debates of the nineteenth century. This extremely readable, enormously wide-ranging work is a welcome addition to the shelves of literature and science scholarship.

Melanie Keene, Homerton College, Cambridge