Introduction | The Governess | Working-Class Children  | Children's Literature | William Blake and the Child | Wordsworth and the Child

Romanticism and the Child: Inventing Innocence

Story of the Three Bears
An illustration of “The Story of the Three Bears,” by Robert Southey (England’s Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843), versified by G.N., 1839. Southey’s “Three Bears” represents an interesting merger between education and fantasy for children. While the story teaches about the boundaries of private property, the humanized bears keep the story in the realm of the fairy tale. Interestingly, Southey’s version features an old woman (not a Goldilocks figure) who infiltrates the bears’ home and, through her inappropriate behavior, teaches a lesson to child readers.
The figure of the child prompted poetry, prose, and political debate during the Romantic period. This debate occurred because society reconsidered what it meant to be a child. Before the nineteenth century, children were seldom viewed as having an identity separate from adults; instead, they were miniature adults, not much different from their parents.

In contrast to Enlightenment thinkers, Jean-Jaques Rousseau recognized the child as its own entity. Rousseau’s unique characterization of the child led to discussion surrounding the way children were raised and the manner in which they developed into adults. The material conditions of children’s lives changed, specifically in terms of education and early employment, as definitions of children and childhood shifted. With a much shorter life expectancy in the nineteenth century, diseases as well as maternal deaths following childbirth left many children orphans. As an abandoned child at the mercy of rapidly changing social and economic systems, the orphan became an important literary and political figure as contemporary politicians and public reformers struggled to care for these children left without support.

Even families with both parents living might still have to fight in order to survive, and with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, working-class children were often sent to work at an early age in factories and workshops, depending on the region in which their families lived, whereas in earlier periods they would have done mostly agricultural work. The mechanized nature of factory work and its long hours led people to question if it was endangering children’s health. Middle-class and upper-class children lived very differently from those of the working class and were often primarily raised by a governess, a figure who would inspire literary depictions as well as social anxiety, and who would educate children and teach them how to behave. Working-class children would have received their education from various types of informal schools since they did not have a governess. However, because schooling was not legally mandated, not all children were educated.

Even though children’s literacy was hardly universal during the Romantic period, more and more children were learning to read and, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, children’s literature began to develop. Although literature written for children was coming into its own, literature about children was also equally important. Ideas of the child influenced adult literature in the way poets such as William Blake in Songs of Innocence and Experience and William Wordsworth in “Intimations on Immortality” portray children for adult readers. British Romantics often figured children in adult literature and poetry because of ideas about the child’s closeness to nature. The child, some Romantic poets believed, had access to a unique worldview, precisely because a child has not yet rationalized and assimilated the workings of society the way an adult has. The literary and political influence of Romanticism retains its potency even today as it still colors our perceptions of children.

Stephanie Metz

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