Born to Die

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As a father, I am well aware that child rearing is as prone to styles and fads as any other human activity. That is why I am always fascinated by getting a glimpse at how previous generations raised their children.

The Victorian period was one in which most children were expected to think, act and feel as unusually short grownups from an early age. Therefore, they were also expected to deal with many topics that we tend to try and insulate our children from. First and foremost among those topics was death.

In this excellent essay by Jacob Middleton of The Fortean Times,  we get a closer look at the ghosts and uncertainties that haunted Victorian childhoods.

Pass grade in passing on

Jacob Middleton examines how the Victorians’ obsession with death extended to terrifying their children in order to prepare them for the grave…

In 1880, the philosopher Alex­ander Bain complained about the way in which Victorian society discip­lined its children. While he saw many meth­ods as ineffect­ual, he reserved his great­est hostil­ity to what he dubbed “spiritual, ghostly, or super­natural terrors”. Bain was a rationalist, heavily influenced by the utilitarian philo­sophers of the early 19th century, and his hostil­ity towards what he regarded as super­stition is therefore hardly surprising. What disturbed him most, however, was not the nature of this means of disciplin­ing children, but its ubiquity; in a society that wished to regard itself as rational and modern, most children were frightened into quiescence by the threat of supernatural terrors.

The period in which Bain was writing was one in which corporal punishment of children at school and home was habitual and the treatment to which many children was subjected was considered, even then, to be cruel and demeaning. Moreover, super­natural retrib­ution had long been considered an accept­able means of disciplining children. In The History of the Fairchild Family, probably the most successful children’s book in Victorian Britain, death is painfully visited upon those who disobey parental authority. A child might find itself burnt to death for the sin of vanity, while illicitly consuming preserved fruit would “merely” result in a near-fatal fever. Such punishments were regarded as natural consequences of disobedience, a divine retribution.

Cautionary tales, such as those in The History of the Fairchild Family, were made more believable by the ever-present threat of sudden death in an era of limited medical expertise, which was seeing the first discoveries of micro­bio­logy. Children were expected to be aware of their mortality from an early age, and there was even a literary genre devoted to teaching children how to die a ‘good death’. These works were invari­ably true stories, relating how partic­ular children met their end with appropriate Christian fortitude when struck down by disease.

However, while such literature was heavily promoted by the clergy, and by middle-class parents keen to give their offspring a religious upbringing, it formed only one strand in a popular culture preparing children for death. Perhaps it is surprising to the modern reader, used to stereotypes of relig­ious Victorians, to find how small a part Christianity played in their education. Although most Britons would have described themselves as Christian, it was found in 1851 that only a quarter of the population attended church.  Education about death, then, was provided for in other ways, often through popular literature and folk custom. From the mid-19th century, this was supplemented by Spiritualism, a movement that concerned itself with raising children with the ‘correct’ attitude to death and the afterlife. It is estimated that, by the end of the Victorian period, as many as 10,000 children were attending lyceums, the spiritualist equivalent of Sunday schools.  What we can be certain of is that the messages that the 19th-century child received about death and its spirit­ual implications were many and varied.

Middle-class commentators were most concerned about the influence of popular literature, feeling that ghosts and divine vengeance were all too popular themes and that such reading could do particular harm to the young. Charles Bray, for instance, complained that: “The represent­ations of death itself in pictures, and in pictures too that are given to children for their amusement, are of a hideous and revolting kind. The accompanying circumstances of death, churchyards, sepulchres, and coffins, are associated in their minds with dreariness, gloom, and super­stitious horrors.”  Bray thought that using such imagery to influence the behaviour of children was done without any benefit to their moral education and at great detriment to their happiness.

Returning to Bain, we see that he was not just challenging a lazy form of disc­iplin­ing child­ren, but an entire attitude towards child­hood, in which parents saw fit to frighten their offspring with an early introduction to the horrors of death. Moreover, it was an implicit critic­ism of Victorian society, which, though ostensibly rational, actively delighted in the supernatural. Educationalists warned against fright­en­ing child­ren with ghosts or other ‘imagin­ary terrors’, but such arguments were ignored in a culture that enjoyed ghost stories and balanced relig­ious belief with distinctly un-Christian ideas about fate and destiny. It was a society that provided fertile ground for Spiritualism, psychic research and other forms of what were, to the rationalist philosopher Bain, simply primitive superstition. To disc­ipline a child with super­natural threats was to perpet­uate what Bain believed to be a barely hidden failing of Victorian society; and at a time when cruelty to children was commonplace, to threaten a child with the bogeyman was perhaps the cruellest thing a parent could do.

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