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Children and society in eighteenth-century children’s literature Lang, Marjory Louise

Abstract

Perhaps in no other activity does society express its fundamental values more distinctly than in the socialization of children. While historians of childhood search the past for clues to link the growth of the individual to the movements of society, most overlook children's literature. . Yet children's literature is specifically designed to (or does by indirection) communicate the basic elements of culture to the rising generation. In children's stories we find the artifacts of the process of socializing children in the past. This study examines the stories written for children in late eighteenth century England. At one level these stories reflect the attitudes to children and child-rearing that evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; at another, they record the response to the social situation of a small group of educated reformers. The authors consciously promote a particular system of values, but not one specifically intended to prepare youth for industrial society. Rather, they present values that serve to protect their ideal of a reformed but traditional social order. The transitional state of eighteenth century society caused many to fear for its stability. Older problems of vice, crime, and poverty became more visible as the society became more urban and industrial. At the same time, a new class, unencumbered by the traditional social responsibilities embodied in landed property, was rising in wealth and power. Reformers sought to preserve the peace and order of society by attempting to improve the manners and morals of the lower orders and by systematically reinforcing the obligations of rich to poor. In the service of these goals, authors of children's stories directed their attention to youth, particularly middle class youth, for it was crucial to gain the allegiance of this group to the values that upheld the social order. In their stories they constructed realistic social situations in which to demonstrate the efficacy of these values and beliefs. They erected a model of harmonious society that accorded with a rational universe wherein diligence, frugality, honesty and benevolence inevitably led to security and happiness. They drew the boundaries within which the fulfilling life may be won, justifying the existing order by providing a reward for every virtuous child. The rock upon which their model of harmonious society rested was the family. Within the stable domestic family resides all virtue and happiness; it is the arena for all aspects of human life; its values maintain the stability of society. The primary function of the story-book family is to transmit these values to the young, to instill in the individual child those qualities that will prepare him for life in a peaceful orderly society. The image of the world and society that emerges from the children's stories of the late eighteenth century is not a direct reflection of actual conditions any more than the heroes and heroines of the stories represent the real behavior and experience of eighteenth century children. Nevertheless, we do see how at least part of society perceived its times, and, more important, the values thought necessary to sustain their way of life.

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