The death of a child is the true modern nightmare, so dreadful that even the imagination often refuses to take it on board (comparatively few child deaths occur in otherwise violent films or novels). In previous centuries, literature has been ready to describe and sometimes celebrate this theme, occasionally almost to excess but always in a spirit of initial grief followed by final resignation. Yet in the world of folk beliefs, customs and tales, childhood death is often shown in a different light, with anxiety and dread coming to the surface rather than feelings of loss or personal devastation.
This contrast between the literary and the demotic is just one of the ambiguities discussed in Representations of Childhood Death , edited by Gillian Avery and Kimberley Reynolds. Eleven chapters from individual contributors tease out differ ing artistic reactions to the plight of stricken parents and , in particular, those mourning their dead children while also trying to believe that everything was really for the best. Not grieving does not on the whole seem to have been an option, save perhaps for some handicapped babies, sometimes virtually put to death during ritual investigations aimed at discovering whether they were truly human, or else fairy changelings that could claim no place in any Christian home. The alternative was to see them as a judgement from God; again, not a formula designed to increase parental care and affection.
The love for those ordinary babies who died did not necessarily drive out other negative feelings; more likely, it often seems to have exacerbated the anxiety and guilt common with child death, then and now. Worries about not having done enough to protect the child could once easily translate into fears of haunting by unbaptised infants, denied burial in consecrated ground and therefore free to fly by night, released from Limbo, sometimes crying revenge. Burying unbaptised infants in graveyards within the coffin of an unrelated adult was a common pre-emptive act during the last century, as Jacqueline Simpson describes in her outstanding chapter, “ The folklore of infant deaths: burials, ghosts and changelings ”. Those parents denied this possibility, might sometimes use sites with supernatural associations such as “ fairy forts ” for burials. The link between infant ghosts and fairies is an old one, still hinted at in those paintings where fairyland comes over as a type of aerial kindergarten.
Parents thought to be mourning dead infants excessively were sometimes blamed as self-indulgent or insufficient in their Christian faith. There was also the fear that a child too grieved over would not be allowed to rest in peace. This judgement, however rough, could possibly have helped many parents get on with the task in hand of bringing up their other children. It was always important to keep a balance; something that Kimberley Reynolds feels was lacking in descriptions of child death in some Victorian and Edwardian fantasy writing. Children have often been known to imitate events found in their reading, so how come nobody ever worried about the risk that some of the extra cloying fictional accounts of child death might have led to a few young readers trying out the delights of the after life for themselves? More to the point, why were there quite so many extended juvenile deathbed scenes in child and adult literature during this time? Could they represent an underlying resentment of children masquerading as a higher form of love? To depict the best of childhood as lying beyond the grave does not say much for those children fortunate or unfortunate enough to remain alive.
Murderous hatred of the young cannot be discounted at any age, and is evident today in the occasional slaughter of street children in the Third World. But it could also be that dwelling on childhood death in literature was one more way of indulging in a universal death wish. This possibility is not mentioned, but Freud’s original idea is still surely a valid concept, with its seductive promise of returning to the blissfully inanimate as a way of escaping all the normal exigencies of everyday life. Adult authors or artists who might not want to admit such unmanly cravings, could still give them an airing in their depictions of beautified infant deaths.
Children at the time, however, may not have been quite so impressed by such scenes. Peter Pan, chosen by Reynolds as one of the most compelling literary glorifications of child death, can also be seen as a lonely and finally tragic figure. Parents in the audience may sympathise with his desire to stay for ever young - the fate of all dead children. But junior theatre goers are usually happy to end up identifying with all the joyful activity going on without him in the newly restored Darling family. Flirting with Never-Never Land is fun while it lasts, but when Peter tries to keep his new friends with him in perpetuity by flying ahead in order to close their nursery window, he is not applauded by children in the audience and sometimes even mildly booed.
Other notable chapters include Vic Gammon on death in British and American ballads, A. O. J. Cockshut on children’s death in Dickens, and a final contribution from Janet Goodall on what is now known about the process of mourning. Some pictures also feature in this excellent, provocative volume, whose sheer interest soon overcomes an unwillingness to open up any text which has on its cover a harrowing stoneware portrait of a little girl on her death bed , clutching a bouquet of flowers. She is eloquent, in the loving care with which she is depicted, of the terrible grief suffered by her artist father, who fashioned this likeness in 1674 with an emotional immediacy that still comes over just as powerfully today.
Nicholas Tucker is senior lecturer in cultural studies, University of Sussex.
Representations of Childhood Death
Editor - Gillian Avery and Kimberley Reynolds
ISBN - 0 333 69579 8
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £45.00
Pages - 246