Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Have we made much progress since 1880?

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

By Jacob Middleton
May 2007

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”. 1 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. 2 Such punishments were regarded as natural consequences of disobedience, a divine retribution.

You can read the rest of this fascinating article at:

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