Reviews 2010

Conceptualizing Cruelty to Children in Nineteenth-Century England. Literature, Representation, and the NSPCC

Conceptualizing Cruelty to Children in Nineteenth-Century England. Literature, Representation, and the NSPCC. Monica Flegel. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. 208 pages. £55 (hardback).

“Couple try to sell baby son for £20.” “Drunken mum jailed over baby death.” “Teen admits squirting bleach over mother after Harry Potter film.” “Parents of disabled girl found hanged are charged with child neglect.” “Cruel mum beat 6 kids.” As recent British newspapers show, any combination of “children” and “cruelty” makes for catchy headlines and fascinating stories. Whether the child is the victim or the perpetrator, cruelty and children seems to be a contradictio in terminis. As an expert in the recently mediatized case of the “Edlington torture brothers” states in The Daily Mirror: “Child attackers aren’t born evil, pathological monsters. But the Edlington brothers [...] were born into a world of violence which set them on a path to evil. From a young age they will have witnessed domestic violence, drunken arguments and severe physical and sexual abuse. And violence breeds violence” (24/01/2010). This fragment, picked from a 2010 newspaper, might just as well have appeared in the nineteenth-century journal The Child’s Guardian, published by the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Up to the present day this Society advertises in British newspapers with headlines like “No child’s cries for help must go unheard” and statistics saying that “a child is killed every TEN DAYS in the UK by a parent or carer.” The NSPCC continues: “it just goes to show that there’s never been a greater need to protect children, the most vulnerable members of society” (The Daily Mirror, 24/11/2009). The discourse is still very similar to that of nineteenth-century NSPCC, as Monica Flegel shows. Of course these days children are urged to “email for help, interact on message boards, and access information on bullying, abuse and neglect” (idem), but the appeal to the public remains the same: “Help them to make sure no cry goes unheard – and donate today. Every pound helps save children from suffering in silence” (idem).

Monica Flegel’s Conceptualizing Cruelty to Children in Nineteenth-Century England provides an interpretative framework for understanding the specific formulation of child cruelty popularized by the NSPCC in the late nineteenth century. The NSPCC played a major role in developing and disseminating the concept of what is now known as child abuse. “In charting the territory of this new crime,” Flegel writes, “the NSPCC built upon pre-existing narratives of child suffering” (2). Literary texts functioned at the time as “authoritative voices” in the field of social intervention. The rise of professional discourse, brought about by organizations like the NSPCC, reduced the impact of literature and art on the definition of social ills and their cure. Flegel’s research into “the displacement of narratives of child endangerment with the narrative of child protection” is thorough and detailed. She aims to “trace the persistence of, and divergence from, pre-existing stories and representations of child endangerment in order to reveal the irresolvable contradictions located within a rationality of childhood and of child endangerment that persists to this day” (4). As can be derived from this quote, Flegel’s research method is discursive: she is not concerned with facts or figures, but with texts (stories, representation, rhetoric, narrative). She takes into account two textual genres that heavily relied on each other, literary and social-scientific narratives, and examines how they represent childhood in general and the endangered and abused child in particular. She traces how the discourse on endangered children in the late Victorian period shifts from an individual, ad hoc concern to an institutionalized social system. It is interesting how she applies the same kind of detailed, “literary” reading to both textual genres. She is very convincing and thorough in her reading of any text, be it a novel by Charles Dickens, a poem by Barrett-Browning or a report by NSPCC’s Benjamin Waugh.

Flegel’s first chapter provides the reader with information on the NSPCC and its role in defining the concept of cruelty to children. It traces the origin of child protection in England. The next chapters are all concerned with one more or less specific topic in narratives about endangered children in the nineteenth century. Chapter Two traces in a most intriguing way how the discourse on child protection was modeled on the discourse on animal protection. Representations of children and animals – sharing a kind of mute innocence – as companions in suffering continually reoccur in Victorian literature. It seemed to be inevitable that the child and the animal should come to be represented in competition with each other for the compassion of English society, Flegel states. Chapter Three deals with the nineteenth-century child performer, who proved to be “a source of anxiety because it encapsulated contradictory narratives about what it meant to be a child: playful versus manipulative, open and artless versus deceitful and artful, natural versus artificial” (74). This chapter immediately calls to my mind the story of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, written in 1883, which also balances on these two narratives. Flegel strictly limits herself to Victorian England, thereby largely ignoring the probability that similar ‘conceptualizing’ and ‘representation’ can be found across Europe. This impression that England is a self-contained entity with its own values and discourse ignores the “intertextuality” of the narratives she examines.

In Chapter Four Flegel discusses the child as victim of commerce. She calls the chapter “Cannibalism in England,” referring to the economic exploitation of children (making them feed the family). Flegel reconstructs the way in which England’s “defining characteristics” – its industry and its domestic virtues – were balanced in narratives on working children. Chapter Five focuses on the combination of children and cruelty from another angle. Not the endangered child, but the dangerous child is being discussed here. Flegel examines how the NSPCC, but also novelists like Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist!) deal with the irresolvable contradiction between the innocent child victim, and the aggressive child produced by violence. In her conclusion Flegel comments on the emergence of the Inspector, representing the (new) institutionalized discourse on endangered children. The inspector, Flegel states, “was both an important player in the NSPCC as an institution, and a symbolic construction of NSPCC propaganda” (183). He marks the end of her interesting study.

In this short overview of Flegel’s book I have not done justice to the nuanced way in which she disentangles the narratives she examines. She sees the complexity and ambiguity of the texts, both literary and social-scientific. Not only does she provide insights into nineteenth-century discourse and society, she is also convincing in stating that our present-day discourse still largely depends on concepts such as childhood, crime, innocence, and evil as they were defined during that period. Throughout her book, Flegel continually takes into account the influence of class and gender on the narratives she examines, which gives her discursive research an important ideological angle as well. There are two drawbacks to her approach: since it is an in-depth reading, it is limited in its scope. Alongside the NSPCC, other organizations were at work, but Flegel leaves those unexamined. Also, as I have already mentioned, she has no eye for the broader international context of the discourse she unravels. The frequently used term “Victorian” reinforces this, I think: it suggests that England had its own, incomparable isolated microcosm of norms and values; it is a term which carries its own narrative as a normative burden. Second drawback: the meticulous reading makes this book a bit tedious. It is not told like a compelling story, it is a study. But I can advise everyone to make the effort to read it: it is definitely worthwhile.

Elke Brems
University College Brussels, Belgium