Reviews 2010

Framing Childhood in Eighteenth-Century English Periodicals and Prints, 1689-1789

Framing Childhood in Eighteenth-Century English Periodicals and Prints, 1689-1789. Anja Müller. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009. 263 pages $99.95 (hardback).

The title of Anja Müller’s Framing Childhood in Eighteenth-Century English Periodicals and Prints 1689-1789 is very effective from a theoretical and subliminal point of view as it is easy to think of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a groundbreaking mix of live action and animation about the adventures of a rabbit framed for murder. Similarly, Müller originally mixes textual and visual materials to make the concept of ‘framing’ tangible and visible: we see fictional children ‘framed’/entrapped by adults within popular periodicals.

Stretching comparison, Müller originally reveals that, long before Peter Rabbit, eighteenth-century children had already undergone entrapment within the borders of an adult’s dangerous garden/pie. Yet another rabbit ‘framed’ but framed by what? Well, Müller shows that children have long been framed by adult history and thus digs into concepts of childhood and images propagated by early eighteenth-century periodicals (such as The Tatler, The Spectator, The Guardian, The Female Spectator and Juvenile Spectator), a neglected source but here thoroughly examined. In doing so, Müller illustrates the impact of mass media on the way children are conceived, debated, portrayed, and ‘framed’ by adults.

Müller starts from Philip Ariès’ idea that the various ‘frames’ depend on ‘socio-historical developments of childhood concepts’ that are not universal but cultural constructs characterized by contrasting, ‘localized’ views. Müller reveals those concepts that guide mass-media representations which construct, rather than mirror, children. And ‘reception through framing’ disturbingly involves ‘closure’, ‘separation’ and ‘selection’ (‘focalizing function’) by adults (p.12).

What is new is the longer time span Müller focuses on, thus convincingly dispelling the myth that situates the origin of childhood in 1790s. From the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the French Revolution of 1789-1799, Müller focuses on selected English periodicals and on the conceptualizations put forward by the emerging middle classes. The variety of philosophical/educational ideas shows that children were already ‘cherished topics of prints’ but also ‘targeted consumers’ (p.17). Early satirical prints curiously expose ‘conflicting areas of debate’ on earlier theories of childhood thus breaking or transgressing ‘normative frames’ or a ‘supposedly common image of childhood’ (p.17). There may be no way out of being ‘framed’ but there is possibility for change in the way children are framed since ‘eighteenth-century periodicals [also] function as a kind of educational media space negotiating theories, strategies and practices of the formation of children’s minds and bodies’ (p.88).

The book has a tightly-knit organization. It begins with ‘framing’ the child body as a local centre of Power Knowledge, subjected to vigilant ‘control’ at an early stage so as to construct gender and class borderlines. Yet, some case studies show how writers challenge and satirize the ‘pseudo-scientific discourse’ on child rearing practices in aristocratic families and expose them as cruel and fatal. Müller convincingly demonstrates that satire calls for a re-framing of child’s body and life. Moreover, in The Rambler (1712), a young girl criticizes the ill treatment/‘false framing’ girls receive and questions ‘the criteria of gendering’ by limiting girls’ education of the mind. However, at the same time, all periodicals tacitly agree to exclude illness and sexuality from childhood thus focusing only on its supposed deficiencies and helplessness. Hence, Müller exemplifies how the child’s body is constructed in contradictory terms as lack/potential/desirable object (p.19).

Focusing on the framing/targeting of the child mind as a local centre of Social and Political Reform, Müller explains that, with the rise of the middle classes, the old system of ‘tyranny in which an arbitrary teacher abuses his absolute power over the pupils and thus renders childhood a “long Servitude, [with] many Heart-Aches and Terrors”-’, is no longer valid for ‘free-born Englishmen’ (p.72). Yet, Müller’s detailed analysis of educational spaces in paintings and satirical prints reveals a bleak image of child alienation which, Müller claims, results from a ‘false education’ (p.93) evident in the periodicals’ ambiguous debates on topics such as legitimate or dehumanizing punishments (p.112).

In her discussion of the relational bonds within the family, Müller shows how periodicals contributed to the shift from paternal to parental power by underlining the importance of the mother’s role in creating an affectionate bond and a network of mutual responsibilities. Yet, affection is rather a functional element intended to ensure that the middle classes would be able to pass on their business from generation to generation. And, in the periodicals, children’s obedience remains a social duty even though The Female Spectator (1745) argues it is difficult to sustain this duty in cases such as those of neglectful fathers who squander all the family money (p.123).

Finally, the periodicals show how ‘children’s bodies, their education and their position in the family are also matters of public concern and are prone to politicization’ (p.183). Focusing on the child’s social position (class and race), Müller shows how satirical prints also function in debating collective images and knowledge categories much before the 1790s. Yet, there are rare cases which do not ‘visually reduce or glorify the child as an innocent creature and thus reject sentimentalization’ (p.188). Therefore, children appear victims of ‘collective submission’ to society premised on the ‘hierarchically low position’ (p.35) of a child body. In 1711, by focusing on the mere surface of the child body, The Spectator ‘denies the child any profound experiences of passion and pain’ and confines ‘girls to a permanent stage of childhood’ (pp.39-40).

Here, Müller brilliantly touches on a delicate, still very contemporary matter with long-lasting, damaging effects: frames deny children’s pain. It should suffice to mention the twentieth-century Italian literary critic, Benedetto Croce, who believes that: ‘…art “for children” will never be true art…you cannot put a child out to pasture pure art which requires, in order to be enjoyed, maturity of mind, attention training, and multiple psychological experience’ (La letteratura della nuova italia, vol. V, Bari, Laterza, 1974, p.327). By using the unfortunate metaphor of pasture, Croce epitomizes the extent to which adults can underestimate children by ignoring what they may go through in life from painful teething to loneliness, loss, false framing, bullying, divorce, immigration, poverty, domestic violence, child prostitution, or, in certain cases, even war. And yet, the child keeps signifying ‘lack of the severest sort – immaturity and incompetence’ (p.66)!

Müller urgently calls for historical awareness and respect for the reality of children’s struggles and sufferings (which indeed provide clues to the meaning of human life) aligning herself with the ‘undeniable continuity of affection and child-centred proposals for educational reform throughout the centuries’ especially by humanist and Renaissance educators (p.77). Her significant study demonstrates the crucial function of educating the educator starting by radically changing adult-child relations to promote larger societal changes.

Gloria Alpini
Pennsylvania State University, USA