Depictions of the “ideal child” in nineteenth-century British literature and legislature

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This interdisciplinary paper examines representations of poor children in two contrasting sets of sources from the nineteenth century: parliamentary papers on children’s work, and literature written for children. Both had wide readerships and were influential in setting the agenda for reformers and also in shaping the depictions of poor childhood that were internalized by the educated public. However, while the parliamentarians were primarily concerned with excessive labor and the physical insults that it brought to children’s bodies in the 1830s and 1840s, children’s authors focused on poverty as a vehicle for moral reform, foregrounding their writing in the more general social surveys of living conditions and child neglect of the 1850s to 1880s. Nonetheless, by studying the two sets of sources alongside one another we are able to broaden our understanding of a nascent sense of a childhood in poverty in this period, as well as to unravel ideas about what child readers should be allowed to “know” about social ills. Children’s authors wrote predominately to reveal, but with a view to encouraging moral growth and compassion rather than action. Child labor was not critiqued in novels for children in a more sustained way until the modern era.


Alysa Levene
Jean Webb


Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

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Levene, A. and Webb, J. () 'Depictions of the “ideal child” in nineteenth-century British literature and legislature', Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 12(1), pp.26-44. DOI: 10.1353/hcy.2019.0002.