Legacies of the Romantic Child: Teaching Post-Romantic Constructions of Childhood in Contemporary British Fiction

Sandra Dinter (RWTH Aachen University)
Stefanie John (University of Muenster)

The ideal of childhood in contemporary Western cultures is a legacy of Romanticism. Incarnations of the innocent child as once imagined by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and others are perceived as pervasive norms that continue to inform discourses concerning children, including debates on education, social policy, law, and media. This preoccupation with childhood comes to the fore in a great number of British and Irish novels published since the 1980s. This article addresses this recent trend and the opportunities it creates for the teaching of contemporary literature in English Studies degree courses. It presents the structure, methodology, and content of an advanced undergraduate course on the legacies of the Romantic child as previously taught at Bielefeld University in Germany. Reflecting upon the course’s goals and outcomes, we unite two fields of research into contemporary literature: constructivist childhood studies and the critical study of responses to and appropriations of Romanticism, epitomized by the notion of the post-Romantic. After an introduction to our terminology and its implications for classroom scenarios, we will outline the syllabus. Handouts, activities, and tasks will serve as illustrative examples, which colleagues are welcome to adapt for their own teaching.

Cultural Contexts and Theoretical Foundations: Conjoining Childhood Studies and Post-Romanticism

Contemporary Britain provides a gripping cultural and political context for students’ enquiries into constructions of childhood.

It must be noted that the syllabus included a novel by the Irish author John Boyne, which is, however, not particularly relevant for the novel’s rendering of childhood. Depictions of childhood in a specifically Irish context would undoubtedly constitute a fascinating subject for research and teaching, too (Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes comes to mind) but could not be included here. Colleagues who are interested in Irish childhood(s) may refer to Dunne and Kelly.

Despite its long-standing artistic celebration of childhood and ongoing political investments into child welfare, the United Kingdom has frequently been referred to as “a serious contender for the title of worst place in Europe to be a child” (Micklewright and Stewart 23). Having recently received harsh criticism in the assessment of children’s general well-being from the United Nations and UNICEF (Kehily 7), the UK is notorious for its widespread child poverty and its comparatively low age of criminal responsibility alongside its unusually high number of young offenders held in custody (Wyness 73). Moreover, the media coverage of events featuring binary constructions of children as vicious perpetrators and as innocent victims, such as the public condemnation of the two ten-year-old boys who murdered James Bulger in 1993 or the torture and death of Victoria Climbié in 2000, continue to fuel moral panics. Phenomena such as the disintegration of traditional family practices, excessive media consumption, juvenile delinquency, and bullying are often construed as indicators of an apparent crisis of contemporary childhood in Britain.

Since the 1980s, fiction from the British Isles has played a marked role in negotiating these very issues. Acclaimed novels by such authors as Pat Barker, A.S. Byatt, Roddy Doyle, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Ali Smith have tackled the debates surrounding childhood. Many of these works depict child characters’ subjectivities and attempt to convey cognitive development through formal means, which are specifically available to the medium of narrative, such as free indirect discourse and focalization. American, Canadian, and Australian childhood novels by Emma Donoghue, Jonathan Safran Foer, M.J. Hyland, and Lionel Shriver have been equally successful in the British Isles. Besides fiction, autobiographical accounts of childhood have enjoyed immense popularity in recent years. The contemporary childhood novel is, moreover, explicitly marketed as an emerging subgenre, with a group of leading authors in the field repeatedly commenting upon each other’s works (Dinter 54). The course, “(Post-)Romantic Childhoods in British Literature,” aimed to illustrate the remarkable thematic and formal variety in which the novels respond to Romantic concepts of childhood, by reaffirming, transforming, or subverting their precursors.

A crucial point of departure for the Romantics was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s understanding of childhood as a separate, formative period of life characterized by a condition of natural innocence, as outlined in Emile (1762). Since, for Rousseau, civilization immediately corrupts the state of natural goodness, he outlines an educational program that would form and prolong childhood according to this ideal. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, poetry by William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as books for children by Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, and Charles Lamb, appropriated the subject of childhood and turned it into a prevalent literary concept of the period. In Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, childhood emerges as an ideal state of purity, authenticity, and spontaneity. Yet Blake always contrasts the pastoral world of innocence displayed in poems such as “Laughing Song,” “Nurse’s Song,” or “Infant’s Joy” with darker realms of experience, and his poetry also speaks to the harsh social conditions for children of his time. The child speaker in “The Chimney Sweeper,” (from Innocence) for instance, laments how “my father sold me while yet my tongue, / Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep” (Blake 18). Wordsworth’s poetry, too, incorporates pastoral child figures, often setting them amid scenes of loss and death. The young girl in “We Are Seven,” for instance, refuses to confront the facts of death on adult terms. Her persistence first seems naïve, but comes, over the course of the poem, to win out over the reductive, rational response of her interlocutor. In the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” The Prelude, and other works, Wordsworth employs childhood in distinctly autobiographical contexts as a basis for explorations of memory and selfhood (cf. introductory overviews by Chaplin; McGavran and Smith Daniel; McGillis). Already these examples of two canonical poets suggest that no such thing as one homogeneous, self-evident and fixed concept of “the Romantic child” exists in the literature of the period. Although we are very much aware of this variety, we employ the term “the Romantic child” as a perceived norm in contemporary fiction. It is above all the celebratory stance, the idea of childhood as a near-sacred stage of inherent yet transient goodness and innocence, which has enjoyed powerful afterlives.

In our course, one major goal was that learners become familiar with contemporary fiction’s wide spectrum of responses to this received Romantic norm. A major section of the course addressed these responses in detail by examining three thematically and formally disparate novels: Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1979), Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988), and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Discussions of the novels drew on constructivist approaches to childhood. Such approaches first emerged in the 1980s with the rise of the so-called “new sociology of childhood.” Directed against a “widespread tendency to routinize and ‘naturalize’ childhood” in a variety of discourses in which it is “regarded as necessary and inevitable, and thus part of normal life” (Jenks 7), the most central assumption in this field is that childhood is a variable social and cultural construct (Prout and James 8) determined by complex power structures.

In literary studies, childhood is still predominately associated with the study of children’s literature, although an increasing amount of research into other literary genres has emerged in recent years under the heading of “children in literature.” Several survey texts constitute helpful resources for teachers and students and were consulted for the design of this course. Adrienne E. Gavin’s edited volume The Child in British Literature: Literary Constructions of Childhood, Medieval to Contemporary (2012) includes sixteen chapters dedicated to specific literary and cultural contexts and epochs. The Children’s Culture Reader (1998), edited by Henry Jenkins, comprises central theoretical texts from a variety of disciplines. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein’s volumes Children in Culture (1998) and Children in Culture Revisited (2011) contain a broad range of interdisciplinary contributions. Slightly older, but nevertheless relevant monographs include Peter Coveney’s The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature (1967), Reinhard Kuhn’s Corruption in Paradise: The Child in Western Literature (1982), and Hugh Cunningham’s The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood Since the Seventeenth Century (1991). Two monographs dealing specifically with modern and contemporary fiction are Susan Honeyman’s Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction (2005) and Ellen Pifer’s Demon or Doll? Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture (2000). James Holt McGavran’s collections Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations (1999) and Time of Beauty, Time of Fear: The Romantic Legacy in the Literature of Childhood (2012) are two rare examples centering on childhood from a post-Romantic perspective. The largest corpus of secondary literature derives from scholarship on Romantic literature, including, for instance, Judith Plotz’s Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood (2001) and Ann Wierda Rowland’s Romanticism and Childhood: The Infantilization of British Literary Culture (2012).

It should not come as a surprise that this recent interest in constructions of childhood in sociology and literary studies has been paralleled by a wave of research focusing on the multifaceted legacies of and responses to Romanticism. These studies have looked at cultural and literary afterlives of Romanticism throughout Victorianism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. Examples include Edward Larrissy’s volume Romanticism and Postmodernism (1999), Andrew Radford and Mark Sandy’s Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era (2008), Carmen Casaliggi and Paul March-Russell’s Legacies of Romanticism: Literature, Culture, Aesthetics (2012), and Michael O’Neill’s monograph The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900 (2007). While the interest in poetic inheritances of Romanticism is certainly not a new phenomenon (cf. earlier publications by Bloom [1976] or Bornstein [1976]), scholarship has broadened its scope as it regards the cultural range of post-Romantic material examined, from poetry to pop music, films, and fiction. Recent studies also increasingly point to the challenge of defining Romanticism as a literary epoch and of conceptualizing the very idea of its continuities or legacies.

This research therefore provides a second fruitful point of departure for discussing contemporary fiction’s negotiation of “the Romantic child” in the classroom. A term pervading these studies that may prove helpful is the notion of the “post-Romantic.” This term, which has mostly been used in a historical sense but has hardly been theoretically defined, lends itself well as a structural category to describe the simultaneous affirmations of and resistances to the “norm” of Romantic childhood as found in contemporary novels. Through the prefix “post,” it puts emphasis on the (self-conscious) awareness of historical and conceptual difference as viewed from the perspective of the contemporary. As Michael O’Neill asserts, with regard to twentieth-century poetry, “‘Post-Romantic’ is, in its way, as uncertain and fluid a term as ‘Romantic’; it is a necessary term, however, since, even as poets . . . seek to renew the Romantic for a later age, they are conscious of differences from Romanticism” (10).

Reading negotiations of the “naturally” innocent child in post-1980s fiction as post-Romantic thus highlights the self-conscious dimension of responses to Romantic concepts in these texts. The notion of post-Romanticism enables students to develop an awareness of literary epochs as heterogeneous constructions, which emerge a posteriori and may change over time. In this context, students may be invited to reflect on the importance of maintaining a self-critical distance towards seemingly given concepts in literary scholarship. The importance of such an awareness is of course a key argument of Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology (1985), which points to the risk encountered by any reader of Romantic—and, indeed, post-Romantic—texts of pursuing an “uncritical absorption in Romanticism’s own self-representations” (1).

Teaching (Post-)Romantic Childhoods: The Course

Our course on “(Post-)Romantic Childhoods in British Literature” was part of the module “Advanced British Studies” designed for third year undergraduate students at a German university. In order to be admitted to the degree program Anglistik: British and American Studies, which is taught entirely in English, students need to demonstrate advanced skills in English (level C1/C2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). The participants had practiced the analysis and discussion of literary and historical texts in previous modules and had acquired a basic overview of the literary history of the British Isles. They were thus familiar with the tools and literary categories necessary for the analysis and interpretation of poetry and narrative as well as a critical reception of secondary literature. To a lesser extent, they had already engaged in reading critical theory. Noteworthy in the specific context of post-Romantic childhoods is the fact that most participants studied English literature as part of a degree that would lead to the German postgraduate certificate in secondary school teaching. The course was thus directly linked to the practical dimensions of their future professional lives. Moreover, most students would have encountered essentialist notions of childhood in their pedagogy seminars, notions that our course sought to question.

Like most seminars at German universities, the course was taught on a weekly basis for a total of fifteen weeks, with each session consisting of ninety minutes. After the introductory seminar, two weeks were dedicated to theoretical approaches to childhood. A historical overview prepared the group for the engagement with Romantic constructions of childhood in the subsequent three sessions, followed by a brief excursion into the legacy of Romanticism in the Victorian era. The eighth session then moved over to cover contemporary British culture and literature. The remaining seven weeks were dedicated to the three contemporary novels before a final seminar summarized what the students had learned. Three “study questions” were assigned by the tutor in advance of each session (see appendix).

The introductory session included a group activity, in which students were asked to define what they believed to constitute “childhood” and “non-childhood” in a chart on a handout (see appendix). What became clear through this exercise was that most students’ conceptions of childhood corresponded to a simplified notion of Romantic childhood; often, however, they were not aware of its origins. Furthermore, students’ definitions of childhood always related to what they claimed to be its binary opposition: adulthood. Students referred to aspects such as sexuality, political participation, paid employment, education, and maturity as distinguishing features of what they regarded as two poles. The chart exercise motivated students to start thinking critically about their assumptions. In the final seminar, they were asked to look at the chart again in order to reflect on the learning outcomes. In addition, an enquiry into the course’s title “(Post-)Romantic Childhoods in British Literature” intended to encourage students to identify some of the leading questions and topics of the course by problematizing the implications of the title’s three major concepts: “Romantic,” “post-Romantic,” and “childhoods.”

For the next week, students prepared an excerpt of a seminal theoretical work on childhood: Philippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1960). Ariès, a representative of the histoire des mentalités, is known as the founding father of the constructivist approach. He claimed that the modern conception of childhood as a separate stage in human life with distinct privileges and restrictions arose as a product of a complex set of social transitions active since the Renaissance, such as the formation of the private nuclear family, the institutionalization of education, and newly emerging notions of morality. Despite its massive impact, Ariès’s claims have been harshly critiqued from a variety of angles. Students thus also read Roger Cox’s “The Child in History: Introduction,” a short book chapter which outlines some of the major points of attack. In addition, it proved productive to analyze some of the paintings Ariès refers to in Centuries, including Pieter Brueghel’s The Peasant Dance and Peasant Wedding (both 1568), Hans Holbein’s portrait of Prince Edward (ca. 1538), and the portrait of Barbara Sidney, Countess of Leicester with six of her children painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1596). The group was asked to describe these pictures, paying attention to aesthetic means, such as composition, colors, and perspective. They noticed that children are constructed as miniature adults, wearing the same clothes and engaging in the same activities as adults. At the same time, they noticed that these paintings also function as prestigious status symbols and cannot be taken as representations of a given reality, which is exactly one of the major points of criticism concerning Ariès’s methodology.

The second part of this block moved on to more recent theories. Students prepared an excerpt from Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984) as well as the essay “Childhood Studies: Past, Present and Future” by Martin Woodhead. Woodhead reflects upon transformations in research on childhood, which eventually led to the constructivist paradigms of a disciplinary conglomerate he labels “childhood studies.” We discussed these shifts, related them to their previous reading of Ariès, and critically debated Woodhead’s impetus of “‘child centered’ research” which is “built around children’s agency, their rights and well-being” (25). This agenda partly undermines a constructivist approach as it claims knowledge of “the child” in a process that is, from the start, governed by adults. Rose’s text makes a similar point as it deconstructs children’s fiction as: ‘a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between. To say that the child is inside the book—children’s books are after all as often as not about children—is to fall straight into a trap. It is to confuse the adult’s intention to get at the child with the child it portrays. If children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp. (58, emphasis in original)’ As this quotation suggests, Rose problematizes numerous common assumptions about children’s literature. In order to give students an idea of the heated debates Rose triggered amongst scholars, a longer exercise consisted of reading part of Perry Nodelman’s response entitled “The Case of Children’s Fiction: Or The Impossibility of Jacqueline Rose” and relating it to the texts previously read in class.

With these theoretical foundations in mind, the fourth seminar gave a broad overview of changing conceptions of childhood in Britain in their social and historical contexts. Harry Hendrick’s “Constructions and Reconstructions of British Childhood: An Interpretative Survey, 1800 to the Present” served as the basis for discussion. Hendrick emphasizes the crucial role of ideology and the desire for control pervading adult perspectives on what constitutes a “proper” childhood (60). He thus introduces the function of constructions of childhood as norms, a concept relevant to understanding the lasting power of Romantic ideas of the child in literary texts. Powerpoint slides helped to summarize the central authoritative constructions of childhood listed by Hendrick (including, for example, the “Natural” and the “Romantic child,” the “delinquent child,” the “schooled child,” the “child of the nation,” and the “psychological child”). In a group exercise, students worked with two documents that exemplified Hendrick’s claims: an extract from Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). As the authors and origin of the text passages were not given to the students, they had to deduct which of Hendrick’s concepts the respective text advocated and guess the authors themselves.

This overview paved the way for two weeks focusing on literature from the Romantic period. For the fifth session, students prepared a section from Aidan Day’s introduction to Romanticism that focuses on “Constructions of the term ‘Romantic’” as well as three of Wordsworth’s shorter lyric poems, “We are Seven,” “Lucy Gray,” and “My Heart Leaps up When I Behold.” The chronology was reversed here and Blake was discussed in the subsequent week, so that a full seminar could be devoted to the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Day’s chapter served to reactivate students’ prior knowledge of the Romantic period and its key authors, concepts, and literary practices. Day also emphasizes the fact that literary epochs are always conceptualized retrospectively: “the identification and historical description of a named British Romantic movement really began to take shape only in the second half of the [nineteenth] century” (87). This insight may help students more generally to understand how childhood came to be associated prominently with the Romantics. Powerpoint slides helped to briefly outline concepts such as the sublime, the elevation of the poet as prophet, and the poetic focus on subjectivity and authenticity. Some of these issues could be linked to ideas of childhood as encountered earlier in the seminar series, for example in Hendrick’s text. The second half of the seminar was then dedicated to Wordsworth’s poems. The aim was to highlight his use of natural motifs in relation to children, the role of the autobiographical self, and the function of the seeming simplicity of verse structures and other linguistic features that support the idea of childhood as a superior state, which is celebrated by the speaker. The advantage of Wordsworth’s shorter works for the teaching scenario was clearly the accessibility of these texts in terms of vocabulary and structure. The Prelude, the Immortality Ode, and other longer works were briefly introduced by the lecturer and suggested as possible topics for student essays.

The next seminar then took a chronological step backwards, looking at Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in their entirety. At home, the students had researched the pastoral tradition and acquired contextual information on Blake’s illustration and writing practices from Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant’s introduction to the Songs (Blake 811). They were also asked to think about similarities and differences between the introductory poems to the volume’s two sections, which helped to explore the opposing states of innocence and experience. Divided into five groups, the class studied “The Lamb,” “Little Black Boy,” and “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Innocence section, as well as “Holy Thursday” and “The School Boy” from the Experience section. The form and content of Blake’s seemingly simple yet symbolically charged lyrics were analysed, with special attention paid to their uses and their functionalization of childhood. Similarities with and differences to Wordsworth were examined, for example with regard to the function of the lyrical persona, religious motifs, and the hymn-like structure of many of Blake’s “songs.”

Having thus covered some canonical Romantic conceptualizations of childhood, while also pointing out differences among poets, the course then took a brief excursion into the Victorian period, taking as a point of focus Chapters I to IV of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837–39). The novel was introduced as central to the ambivalent “cult” of childhood in Victorian literature and culture. The Victorians were also the first in England to establish the idea of Romanticism as a literary movement as such—in a way, acting as posthumous creators of the Romantics. Finally, Dickens constitutes an initial canonical example for discussing post-Romantic textual strategies—how authors adopt, but also extend or subvert aspects of Wordsworth’s or Blake’s Romantic childhoods. The session was introduced with a historical contextualization of the themes covered in Oliver Twist. The class gained a more profound idea of the miserable condition of the lower classes in Victorian England, looking at the situation in the workhouses and key government policies, such as the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The classroom discussion of the novel was partly informed by an article on childhood in Dickens by Robert Newsom, who delineates but also questions Dickens’s decisive role in perpetuating Romantic ideas of childhood in fiction. The students examined the beginning of Oliver Twist in regard to its melodramatic sentimentalizing of the child character, its use of an authorial narrator and irony, hyperbole, and other tropes. While the class easily recognized continuations from Wordsworth’s and Blake’s works, they also reflected on alterations in comparison to Romantic constructions of the child. These were also related to the different characteristics and techniques of the social novel as opposed to poetry.

The subsequent session left the nineteenth century behind and addressed the current state of childhood in Britain. An inquiry into the alleged crisis of childhood from the Thatcher years up to the present day provided the first thematic focus. Students began by reading a copy of the entry “Disappearance of Loss of Childhood” from Allison James and Adrian James’s Key Concepts in Childhood Studies. James and James refer to Neil Postman’s thesis that there has been a disappearance of childhood in contemporary society based on the transition from textual to visual media. Students were asked to scrutinize some of the rather problematic arguments Postman provides and to formulate counter-arguments to his hypothesis. They referred to the opposing thesis of a prolongation of childhood and adolescence in late modernity, the datedness of Postman’s argument in the age of the digital revolution as well as his ignorance regarding children’s media literacies. Students were then asked to debate how Phil Scraton’s more nuanced texts and the newspaper article by Amelia Hill et al. position themselves towards the notion of a crisis of childhood and what historical factors and incidents they refer to. Then the discussion shifted to literature. Of particular interest were Katherina Dodou’s claims that “[w]hat is particular about contemporary fiction is the prevalence of the aim to scrutinize the idea that the child is inherently innocent and that this innocence is precious and worth protecting” and that “the contemporary novel invites an approach to the child that views it as an artifact” (239, 249). These claims clearly relate to Romantic notions of childhood as previously discussed in class. Furthermore, Dodou points to a “self-consciousness” of contemporary texts concerning their literary precursors, which provides an overarching theme according to which one could analyze the three contemporary novels.

The first of these novels was Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1979). Narrated retrospectively by Jack, the eldest brother, the novella depicts a summer in the lives of four siblings who decide to encase their mother’s corpse in cement in the basement of their house instead of informing the local authorities of her death. Without any parental supervision, the children engage in a series of transgressive activities, which climax in sexual intercourse between Jack and Julie, the eldest sister. Whilst obviously breaking with the ideal of childhood as a state of innocence, the novella equally perpetuates and partially perverts simplified notions of Romantic childhood. This shows in the child characters’ primitivism, their utopian spirit, and the nature vs. nurture debate, captured in the once highly stylized and later overgrown garden. After a brief introduction to McEwan’s life and the prevalence of the theme of childhood in his oeuvre (based on Childs), the first exercise consisted of a close reading of the novella’s first paragraph. The students recognized that the paragraph introduces several of the central conflicts and sets up the particular style of Jack’s narration. Further exercises included an analysis of the novella’s constructions and transformations of spaces and temporalities. Noteworthy aspects are the role of the basement as the sphere of the unconscious and the repressed, the garden as a symbol of patriarchy, and the fairytale-like atmosphere evoked by images of sleep and references to timelessness, which prompted several students to a Freudian reading. The lecturer used the opportunity to point out the significant ramifications Freudian psychoanalysis brought about in the twentieth century by introducing theories of infant sexuality. An analysis of McEwan’s constructions of gender and sexuality followed, including the power struggle between Jack and Julie, the employment of the male gaze, Tom’s cross dressing, and the idea of original sin.

The next novel considered was Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988), published only nine years after The Cement Garden, at the height of Thatcherism in Britain. Often interpreted as a Gothic narrative (Anievas Gamallo 115), the novella focuses on the couple Harriet and David Lovatt whose family idyll shatters when their eponymous fifth child Ben is born. Narrated by a third-person narrator and internally focalized through Harriet (and thus formally distinct from The Cement Garden) Lessing’s novella constructs Ben as a deviant, violent, and opaque child. Ben’s perspective, in contrast, is left out. The aim of the first session was to read Ben as an allegorical figure against the backdrop of Thatcherism, as initiated by one of the study questions. As various scholars have noted, Ben can be viewed as “figure of the ‘enemy within’” (Yelin 104) as “Lessing utilizes the xenophobic paranoia characteristic of Britain in the aftermath of the Falklands War as a departure point for a comprehensive satirical dismantling of the contradictions and paradoxes that render Thatcherism unsustainable and doom it to collapse” (Brock 7). After a broad introduction to the 1980s in Britain, students analyzed the Lovatt family as a microcosm of Thatcherism (Brock 7).

The subsequent session drew attention to the issue of childhood as it focused on Ben and his constellation to the other child characters. In a close reading of Ben’s birth (Lessing 59–62), students explored the strategies and metaphorical language the narrator employs to construct Ben as “the other.” At this point the tutor also introduced Freud’s notion of “the uncanny” as a possible approach to read his otherness. Afterwards, students compared the literary construction of Ben to his siblings Helen, Luke, and Paul whose “fair hair and blue eyes and pink cheeks” (27) can be read as a stereotypical reference to Romantic imagery of childhood. The major aim of this exercise was to make students aware of the fact that Lessing self-consciously juxtaposes and complicates different constructions of childhood. Whereas Ben clearly deviates from the norm of the innocent and endearing child, he nevertheless remains the novel’s center of attention; by contrast, the other child characters do not advance beyond their status as rather underdeveloped archetypes.

The final two sessions on contemporary fiction dealt with John Boyne’s controversial The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) and its 2008 film adaptation by Mark Herman. The novel is set in Nazi Germany, a challenging and problematic context for negotiating childhood. It concerns the unlikely friendship between Bruno, the nine-year-old son of an SS officer, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy imprisoned in a death camp. Again narrated by a third-person narrator and internally focalized through Bruno, the novel instrumentalizes and exaggerates concepts of childhood innocence and ignorance as Bruno displays no knowledge whatsoever of the Nazi regime. Two study questions prepared the students for a discussion of the allegation that the novel downplays the cruelty of the Holocaust. In addition, they were asked to come up with two study questions themselves and to post them on the course’s e-learning platform.

Bearing the controversies in mind, the first session on Boyne also gave students time to reflect on whom they considered to be the novel’s target audience, based on its narrative techniques, plot, and themes. The novel can be approached as a work of crossover fiction, being marketed for children and adult readers. The following seminar then looked in more detail at the sentimental functionalization of Romantic childhood by means of character construction, narrative perspective, and setting. These issues were taken up again when discussing excerpts of the film adaptation of the novel. Here, the students could practice translating their acquired knowledge about childhood from narrative texts to film. Participants examined how the film struggles to approximate the novel’s construction of the child characters’ strikingly limited capacity to “see,” evident, for example, in Bruno’s inability to interpret the symbolic meaning of the swastika.

The final week concluded the course by returning to the chart on “childhood” and “non-childhood” compiled in week one, an exercise that enabled students to revise their original preconceptions about childhood. In order to recapitulate the knowledge acquired throughout the course, groups worked on an unmarked end of term quiz, which included one question for each week’s contents. Based on the seminar group’s feedback and the tutor’s own reflections, we can conclude that the course achieved most of its goals. The students appreciated that the subject of childhood serves as a point of departure to explore a great variety of socio-political contexts (e.g., the Victorian workhouse and the New Right in Britain), theoretical approaches (e.g., the history of mentalities and psychoanalysis), and aesthetic and formal concepts (e.g., the sublime and the pastoral). They also found the study questions particularly helpful. A point of criticism was the high workload, particularly the lengthy texts. From the tutor’s point of view, it can be noted that the particular design of this course afforded a great amount of preparation and marking. This was largely due to the size of the group (forty students), which made it difficult to include more learner-centered activities, such as student presentations. Whereas in the class discussions students demonstrated a profound understanding of the constructivist approach, some of the essays still displayed essentialist notions of childhood. This could be seen as a consequence of the demanding, often meta-theoretical, issues addressed in this course. It must also be admitted that the course excluded over one hundred and fifty years of British literary history between the early Victorian period and the present, which could also have been studied in terms of post-Romantic engagements with childhood. However, as we hope to have shown, the topic of post-Romantic childhoods provides further scope for both research and teaching.

Works Cited

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1. It must be noted that the syllabus included a novel by the Irish author John Boyne, which is, however, not particularly relevant for the novel’s rendering of childhood. Depictions of childhood in a specifically Irish context would undoubtedly constitute a fascinating subject for research and teaching, too (Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes comes to mind) but could not be included here. Colleagues who are interested in Irish childhood(s) may refer to Dunne and Kelly. [back]