Enfants through history

Growing up in France
August 31, 2007

Before 1914, fathers in France had more rights over their children than those in any other country except Sardinia. Peasant children had little chance to play because their time was taken up with chores. In the late 19th century, prolonged wet-nursing was responsible for the exceptionally high levels of infant mortality in France. These are some examples of the facts collected by Colin Heywood in this history of childhood. Was childhood seen as an age of innocence in the 18th and 19th century? Until what age was it deemed appropriate that children should be kept separate from the corrupting influence of adults?

This fascinating and wide-ranging survey explores the way French people wrote about their own childhood and youth between 1760 and 1930. Drawing on a large variety of source materials, Heywood provides compelling examples from literature, psychology and philosophy as well as quoting folklore, popular culture and oral history.

He discusses the value of "ego documents" - texts in which authors write about their own acts, thoughts and feelings - to the historian and their use. But can they be taken as a straightforward window on reality? While Heywood is aware of their shortcomings, he argues that they offer the social historian the opportunity to see how ordinary people make sense of their world.

Jean Jacques Rousseau emerges as an influential figure. Emile (1762) was taken as a crucial text for the ways in which childhood and adolescence should be treated, and his Confessions (1792) was a starting point for the autobiographical genre. Other well-known writers whose experiences are quoted include Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Georges Sand.

Heywood takes what he calls a "swings and roundabouts" approach and suggests that there was a certain trade-off between the material benefits of economic development and the pressures on young people in an increasingly mobile society.

He shows how the modern period brought efforts to re-evaluate children and adolescents, noting their charm, creativity and willingness to learn. Linked to this were campaigns to tailor child-rearing and education practice to the needs of the young. This discussion is one of the strongest aspects of the book; the chapters on education, which explore how the important historical changes of the late 19th century were experienced by schoolchildren, are especially interesting.

The structure of the book, which suggests that it is designed as a reference text, should appeal to specialists and non-specialists alike. Chapters feature numerous short sections arranged thematically, though at times the conclusions to each section break up the text and disrupt the narrative.

Some chapters are particularly successful in using apposite details to evoke children's lives, especially the one on private play; others, such as those on motherhood and fatherhood, can come across as a little sweeping in their generalisations.

A few sections read rather like a list of examples grouped under different headings. Indeed, Heywood might have chosen to focus on framing this overview in more analytical terms by further developing the ways in which adults represent their childhood retrospectively for example. While he deals with "females" (a peculiarly awkward terminology), little consistent reference is made to gender except towards the end of the book when exploring gender identity.

All in all, the book is at its best when it combines important historical analysis with examples from this body of rich illustrative material. This is a solid work of cultural history that offers valuable insights into the treatment of children and attitudes towards childhood in France.

Hanna Diamond is senior lecturer in French history and European politics, Bath University.

Growing up in France: From the Ancien Regime to the Third Republic

Author - Colin Heywood
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 326
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 9780521868693

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