Victorian Precocity as a Modern Complaint

This is a guest post by Mallory R. Cohn, a doctoral candidate in English Literature and Victorian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Mallory is a former managing editor of the journal Victorian Studies. Her dissertation, “Precocious: A Cultural History,” examines Victorian precocity and prodigiousness as both aesthetic fascinations and threatening pathologies across literary, religious, medical, pedagogic, and eugenic texts.

Parenting an “exceptional” child has arguably become something of a twenty-first-century status symbol. In her 2006 book Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child, Alissa Quart warns of the dangers of the contemporary, widespread practice of “prodigy-mongering,” or obsessively trying to nurture or create giftedness in children at the expense of non-productive, playful, and spontaneous childhood. Quart claims, in passing, that precocious children were idealized in the Victorian period, wanting to prevent us from repeating history, but I wonder if she knows how “Victorian” her project is. Her title’s reference to “hothouse kids” makes use of a trope that was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century. As Sally Shuttleworth has noted in The Mind of the Child, “The folk saying ‘Early ripe, early rotten’ was frequently invoked” to describe precocious children, “and literary texts drew inventively on the notion of the overblown flower” (145). In Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848), for example, Dickens prefigures Quart’s title by portraying the overworked classmates of the precocious Paul Dombey as hothouse flowers: “all the boys blew before their time” (162), and Paul’s death is only the school’s worst casualty.

In fact, mid-Victorians consistently correlated premature knowledge or ability with death. The novelist Dinah Mulock Craik’s  essay “A Child’s Life: Sixty Years Ago” was written about an old book she happened to stumble upon entitled A Father’s Memoirs of His Child, published in 1806 by Benjamin Heath Malkin. Malkin was the bereaved father of a highly intelligent son, Thomas, who before his death at six mastered a good deal of Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Craik was not convinced that the given cause of death—a stomach disorder—was accurate: “In spite of Mr. Malkin’s disavowals, we suspect the already too precocious brain had been overstimulated. . . . Far better, a thousand times, to have thrown English and Greek books together on the back of the fire, and helped, encouraged, nay, even forced, the child to be only a child—that in Nature’s slow but sure development he might become successively a boy and a man” (47, my emphasis). Despite Craik’s advocacy on behalf of the “natural,” it is really slowness that she preaches, an enforced re-pacing of childhood’s temporality that enables it to resist modernizing haste or early professionalization.

malkin-3Image of Thomas Malkin, engraving by William Blake

Precociousness children weren’t “new” in the nineteenth century: exceptional childhood has likely always existed. But the Victorians did transmute it into a problem and a pathology, one the psychologist James Crichton-Browne termed “pernicious precocity” and connected to “the practice of commencing artificial education too soon, . . .  to which the circumstances of the age are an ever-strengthening incentive” (344-45). Craik’s armchair diagnosis of Thomas Malkin with “water on the brain” illustrates the way that an abstract difference in cognitive processing—namely, precocity—can be pathologized by pairing it with an embodied, material condition, that of hydrocephalus. The two are mutually reinforcing, and framed as both congenital doom—the “already-too-precocious brain”—and as contingent, environmental violence simultaneously. Thomas’s inborn excess of intellect, by some mysterious intermediate process involving Greek and math, generates the water that drowns him. Craik’s belief, common in the period, in “the intimate connection between mind and body, physical and mental soundness” (58), represents a scarcity model wherein the waxing of intellectual power and functional competence either results in the waning of physical power or occurs as a consequence of bodily deprivation or disease. Craik, well over a century before Quart’s Hothouse Kids, has her own anti-child-gardening project, urging parents to cease “lopping them and propping them, training them after some particular form, forgetting that every human being, like every tree, has a growth of its own” (52). And while Quart does not use an explicitly biological model of precocity, or implicate it directly in early deaths, her goal does seem to be to re-pathologize modern precocity along nineteenth-century lines: to render it a mode of being that strikes adults as dangerous rather than desirable.

I question, however, whether all anti-precocity advocates are motivated by altruism. While Craik ostensibly writes her essay out of pity for Thomas’s untimely death and to excoriate his father for allegedly causing it, one detects an unmistakable throughline of distaste for the “priggish,” conceited, unchildlike boy she has decided to memorialize: “when we reflect what very unpleasant people . . . [Thomas and another deceased precocious child] might possibly have become, we think almost with satisfaction of the two little graves” (51). Craik’s concern for “poor Thomas” cannot quite hide the affective strength of her dislike of his unusualness: his refusal to perform childhood naturally. Precociousness is a complaint that induces complaining, a nuisance in every sense. We sense a relief in Craik’s essay, even sixty years on, that Thomas was culled from the social fabric. Here, the weakness that attends abnormality allows for a Darwinian cleansing: the precocious are unfit to survive.

References:

Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock. “A Child’s Life: Sixty Years Ago.” The Unkind Word, and Other Stories. Freeport, N.Y: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. Short Story Index Reprint Series.

Crichton-Browne, James. “Education and the Nervous System.” The Book of Health. Ed. Malcolm Morris. London: Cassell, 1883.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. London: Penguin, 2002.

Malkin, Benjamin Heath. A Father’s Memoirs of His Child. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806.

Quart, Alissa. Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mallory R. Cohn

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