When children were seen and not heard

Songs of Innocence - review.

Children at a summer camp in 1967
Children at a summer camp in 1967. Photograph: Getty Images

Songs of Innocence: the Story of British Childhood
Fran Abrams
Atlantic Books, 304pp, £20

In 1693, the philosopher John Locke challenged the prevailing belief that a baby arrives predrenched in original sin. Instead, Locke explained, the child was a “tabula rasa”, a blank page, on which adults could write for good or evil. Yet this attributes too much consciousness to adults. Attitudes towards childhood have always revealed more about the hang-ups of the adults who hold them than they have about the natures of children.

The child is not so much a blank page upon which a design for a child is written as a screen on to which the adult’s relationship with himself is unconsciously projected. The parent who physically abuses his baby communicates a rage of two kinds, the unacknowledged one being towards his own innocence and vulne - rability, each shown in Technicolor on a baby made in his image.

In her new book, Fran Abrams gives a lucid account of the evolution of English attitudes towards childhood, from Victorian times on. Her judicious presentation of evidence gives the book gravitas. For example, she describes how the Scout movement founder, Robert Baden- Powell, enabled children to die as Scout soldiers and shows that he also established them as members of society. She explains that it was not only Sigmund Freud who revealed children’s individuality but also Marie Stopes, whose arguments for contraception shrunk families to emotionally intelligible proportions.

Though Abrams’s favoured dimension is breadth, her evidence also gives depth to her analysis. The “cult of childhood” in the Edwardian era was, she suggests, a reaction to “the stresses of urbanisation” and to “sexual degeneracy” then being empowered by feigned “collective innocence”. J M Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, deemed “exquisite” by the Times Literary Supplement on its publication in 1902, contains a lurid passage about undressing a little boy: “I came somewhat too suddenly upon his little braces, which agitated me profoundly . . .” Had it been published today, this might have led to the confiscation of Barrie’s laptop by police.

Despite its generous helping of evidence, Songs of Innocence is often light on inquiry. Abrams doesn’t ask why so many female voices argued in the early 20th century for the supreme importance of motherhood – at the moment when women were gaining rights to education. Was it frightening to contemplate intellectual liberty, safer to retreat to the four known walls of the nursery? Stranger arguments have been mounted in the unconscious cause of self-sabotage.

Abrams shows the vulnerability of childhood to adult reformulations but she doesn’t give sufficient attention to the motives behind changes in thought. Feminists in the 1970s concluded that “childhood” was “an oppressive social construct” in the service of patriarchy. Though it appears to relate to this view and seems worthy of analysis (even psychoanalysis), Abrams doesn’t question the wording of a late-Victorian writer’s assertion that society was “marching to certain ruin” because it was “too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks”. To what extent did late-Victorian male fears about loss of empire (and potency) find expression, during the Boy Scout movement, in the ritual dressing- up and marching around of small boys?

What analysis does appear in Songs of Innocence can lack in discernment. Abrams makes the casually reductive assertion that now, “When we talk about self-worth, surely what we’re really talking about is economic worth.” And the idea that teenage gangs in the 1950s embodied a desire, in the midst of the cold war, “to find new ways of enjoying themselves” can only be a fraction of the truth. Weren’t these gangs also acting out disgust with an adult society hauling them towards nuclear holocaust? Similar questions might be asked now about the English riots of August 2011. Why would young people have no respect for the law or feel entitled to steal expensive merchandise? The youth in a society – like the youngest child in the family –performs the vital, Cassandra-like function of declaiming the fate of the current way of life.

A subject notable by its absence from Abrams’s book is the treatment of babies. The rights granted to voiceless human beings are always suggestive of society’s most primal convictions. Even now, despite the groundbreaking work of the child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, it is still considered fanciful to suggest that adult anxieties may be derived from the birth experience or babyhood. Implicit in this
scepticism is a belief that language and logic are the whole machinery of consciousness.

This belief has numerous implications with regard to 21st-century babies. One is the idea that circumcision, performed without consent or general anaesthetic, will do no damage to the psyche of a baby boy. When, in the context of adult psychotherapy, the non-linguistic or non-logical aspects of experience are given value, the transformative effects on mental health are evidence enough of their importance. Yet these elements must be seen to be believed; we must acknowledge them in ourselves before we can sincerely attribute them to babies. Now, as ever, charity begins at home.

Talitha Stevenson is a writer and psychotherapist