What Anthony Fletcher claims for his latest book is "an entirely fresh view of the upbringing of English children between 1600 and 1914". To be more precise, it is the upbringing of children from the English upper class: the experience was of a world of country houses, landed estates and all the other trappings of wealth associated with the gentry and the professional classes during this period. There is not a hint here of the features of the plebeian English childhood such as child labour, juvenile delinquency, deficiency diseases and street games.
The reason for this elite perspective is the availability of archival sources: the letters, diaries and memoirs on which this study relies come down to us mainly from the great landed families and the more successful professional ones. The author has proved diligent in unearthing this type of personal documentation. The work emphasises in particular the pervasive influence of gender on the experience of growing up before 1914. It is difficult to deny that parent-child relations, education, leisure activities and other salient features of the early years diverged markedly for boys and girls in this period.
The book is divided into three sections. The first investigates the advice manuals written for parents. Here, the author notes the gradual evolution in the way people thought about childhood and the implications this had for child-rearing, from the Puritan inclination to beat the daylights out of the young to the gentler approach of Victorians inclined to sentimentalise childhood.
The second section shifts to his findings from letters and memoirs on parenting. Fletcher asserts that parental care and affection prevailed in the family throughout this long period - although this is surely open to the criticism that this conclusion is only to be expected from this type of source material produced in this type of elite family.
He has a rich haul of material on such issues as attitudes to the death of a child, relations between both fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters, and schooling. He notes that if boys had to endure the grim regime of an English public school - the index has plenty of entries under the headings "canings; correction; floggings; spankings" - girls suffered in their own way from training for "their polite and accomplished, but ultimately submissive, social destiny".
The final section uses a handful of diaries written by teenagers to give a voice to the children. Fletcher claims that the material presented is "raw, powerful and authentic", and he certainly has fascinating detail on the way young people wrote about such topics as home, school and love.
Yet one wonders whether "raw" is quite the word, given that boys, as he notes himself, were extremely reluctant to reflect on their own emotions and girls adopted a veil of modesty on sexual matters. Nonetheless, this section rounds off a splendidly documented study that recreates in detail the world of an upper-class childhood.
Growing Up in England: The Experience of Childhood, 1600-1914
By Anthony Fletcher
Yale University Press
Published 30 April 2008