Story of the Week

I had a lot to do this week.  I’m going to talk about that with a focus on a course I went on these past two days.

On Monday we had a meeting for the women’s oral history project.  Sarah handed out a draft of the questionnaire, and I must say I feel a bit more confident knowing what I’m going to be asking, though my efforts to recruit interviewees have, after an initial flurry of enthusiasm, come to very little.  We also learnt to use the machines for recording.  Having grown up in the ’90s and ’00s, that wasn’t too much of an ordeal, though I was surprised by how big they were - for some reason I was expecting something the size of an MP3 player.  I’ve also volunteered to do some online stuff for the project.

On Tuesday, I had a class called Effective Use of Voice.  I went for this because I have problems speaking loudly and clearly, which I obviously need to do if I’m going to be teaching and lecturing.  I think my favourite part was doing exercises to relax and loosen my body, and therefore my voice, possibly because they were very similar to exercises I do at the gym, so they weren’t totally daunting or alien.

On Thursday **and **Friday, I went on a course called Narrative Research and Documents of Life.  I wanted to do this because I’ll be using oral histories and autobiographies in my research.  However, the main thing that I took away from it was that stories are everywhere - not just in those particularly obvious deliberate attempts at life stories.  It made me think of a couple of things in particular:a book cover I’d read about and example stories in childcare manuals.

A notable theme of the course was the analysis of photos - not just by themselves, but in conjunction with background information about the photographer and subject.  I came across the description of the book cover in Karl König’s 1958 (so slightly outside of my period, but not so far that it can’t be included in my research!) book Brothers and Sisters.  He described the cover photograph of James Kirkup’s 1957 autobiography The Only Child (once again, slightly past 1950 but definitely one for the reading list, not least because Kirkup presumably detailed events that mostly happened before 1950) thus:

> > "The only child stands in the doorway, he is neither in nor out, he is almost always on the threshold … he is unable to enjoy the warmth of his nest nor does he dare to make the jump into the fullness of life".[1] > >

König supports this with details from the text itself, and it’s also obvious that König had similar experiences that may have influenced his interpretation of Kirkup’s work.  I’ve had a look on Google for the cover described without success, but I did find a couple of other editions’ covers:

Of course, the first thing that hits you about this picture - helped along by the book title - is that Kirkup is on his own, in the centre of the photograph.  He’s literally the centre of attention (though he isn’t paying attention to the camera - I wonder who/what he’s looking at?) and doesn’t have to share his space with another child.  I actually think, from the description of the other cover above, that this is a more positive portrayal of only childness - look at those dirty knees!  He could have had some fun exploring that industrial site (I wonder if the text enlightens us as to what the significance of the setting is).  That his parents were happy to photograph him in such a state, on the other hand, could be indicative of that old trope of only childness - indulgence.  So much easier to clean one child and their clothes than four.  I could be totally wrong about all of this - but that indicates the importance of finding out about the photograph.  König enlightened us a little.  He summarised Kirkup’s childhood experence as lonely - not just because he didn’t have company, but because he was “kept away from his immediate social environment”, liked being alone, “an observer who keeps a distance between himself and the world around” (does this explain his pensive expression in the photo?), disliked playtime because he didn’t like games of any kind and used to hide as much as possible from “shrieking, violent children” in the playground.[2]  Maybe he looks contented enough in the photo because he’d been playing by himself, as he wanted?

This cover, while not a photograph, makes me think the illustrator could have drawn it without even reading the book - there’s something archetypal about it, like someone just instructed them to ‘draw an only child for a book cover’.  This is reminiscent of the ‘threshold’ idea so beloved by König, though.  The child in the illustration is on the outside looking in - I’m imagining a green park full of playing children he doesn’t feel able to join in with, on the other side of a tall fence he can’t or won’t climb over.  The empty pavement adds to the sense of utter aloneness.  I definitely need to read this book.  Maybe I could do a follow-up blog when I have.

Moving on to the use of stories in childcare manuals, the Abbotts, who I discussed in my last post, were particularly fond of using stories as examples of good and bad practice.This week, I only had time to read one additional book, Felix Adler’s 1892 The Moral Instruction of Children.  This was a rather different book to those of John and Jacob Abbott, though stories came up in a different way - Adler devoted chapters and chapters to the stories from a variety of traditions - not just the Bible - and which ones teachers should use and skip over when supplying a moral education.

Back on the Abbott front, I’ll start with an example from John which actually concerns only children (or a mother who really doesn’t value her daughters:

> > "I once knew a mother who had an only son. She loved him most ardently, and could not bear to deny him any indulgence. He, of course, soon learned to rule his mother. At the death of his father, the poor woman was left at the mercy of this vile boy. She had neglected her duty when he was young, and now his ungovernable passions had become too strong for her control. Self-willed, turbulent, and revengeful, he was his mother's bitterest curse. His paroxysms of rage at times amount- ed almost to madness. One day, infuriated against his mother, he set fire to her house, and it was burned to the ground, with all its con- tents, and she was left in the extreme of pover- ty. He was imprisoned as an incendiary, and, in his cell, he became a maniac, if he was not such before, and madly dug out his own eyes. He now lies in perpetual darkness, confined by the stone walls and grated bars of his dungeon, an infuriated madman. How hard it must be for a mother, after all her anxiety, and suffering, — her days of toil, and her nights of watching and care, to find her son a demoniac enemy, instead of a guardian and friend! You have watched over your child, through all the months of its helpless infancy. You have denied yourself, that you might give it comfort. When it has been sick, you have been unmindful of your own weariness, and your own weakness, and the livelong night you have watched at its cradle, administering to all its wants. When it has smiled, you have felt a joy which none but a parent can feel, and have pressed your much loved treasure to your bosom, praying that its future years of obedi- ence and affection might be your ample reward. And now, how dreadful a requital, for that child to grow up to hate and abuse you; to leave you friendless, in sickness and in poverty; to squander all his earnings in haunts of iniquity and degradation."[3] > >

What a story!  John Abbott made the story believeable by claiming he knew the mother in question.  He appealled to the reader - who was a mother herself (the book is addressed to mothers) by referring to all the hard work she put in, but at the same time issued her a warning - your child will turn into ‘an infuriated madman’, a ‘demoniac enemy’ if you indulge him too much, and he will leave you friendless - hence my assumption that this story was particularly directed at indulgent parents of only children - it’s possible that spoiling all your children would lead to the same result, but John specifies that the boy was an only son, and therefore hero-worshipped and allowed to rule his mother.

Jacob Abbott, as you might recall from my last post, was more positive than his brother.  Although his 1872 book, Gentle Measures, combines examples of good and bad practice, the general impression is one of cosy family practice.  The stories are a bit long to reproduce here, but if you skim through just the first couple of chapters at, you can get an idea of what I mean.  Multiple versions of the same story are told, with different outcomes.  I particularly like the ‘story within a story’ device - parents are seen tucking their children up in bed at night with a story related to some misdemeanour during the day - Abbott recommended parents use this method rather than shouting at the child at the time, which would agitate the child and make them hostile to parental explanations of why their behaviour was wrong.  Sometimes, the stories involve multiple children, siblings not getting along, or an older sibling being the one to correct the younger sibling’s behaviour using this method.  In the main, though, the stories are kept simple - the parent only has the one child to tuck up at night (or just one being put to bed at a certain time) and this allows them to speak to that child one-on-one without being interrupted by another child.  This gives an artificial impression - it looks like a lot of children at the time were singular units, when I don’t think this would have really been the case.  And, despite Jacob’s insistence, it wasn’t so workable for the lower classes.  I’m not sure many poor people of the time would have had the time to make up morality stories or have much of a bedtime ritual.  Without servants there was so much cleaning to do, not to mention paid work inside and outside the house, and I think a lot of poorer children would have put themselves to bed, or been assisted by a sibling who was also busy.

Quite surprised of how much I managed to write here, actually - clearly, the course had a bigger effect on me than I first realised!  I guess it already has had an effect on my research, but I want to take that further.  The speaker, Ken Plummer, mentioned loads of different ways of looking at documents, and gave us an extensive bibliography.  I plan to get out one of the general textbooks explaining all these different methods and see if there’s anything I can possibly use and look into further.

Finally, he talked about putting oneself into one’s research, and how a lot of people have a personal interest in their work, or else why would they sustain an interest in it?  I must say, I fell into doing a history of the only child pretty much by chance.  I read Leonore Davidoff’s book Thicker ThanWater, _which is about siblings in history, for a colloquium within the department at the start of my Master’s, and throughout I was thinking ‘what about my historical counterparts?’.  If I hadn’t read that book, I would probably still be doing early modern gender.  Although gender is something I’m personally interested in, everyone has a gender, whereas there aren’t a huge number of only children, so I find it difficult to say I’m especially invested in gender because I have one - surely has a personal link to gender just by default?  Or maybe women more than men because for so long they were excluded from the historical record, or queer people for the same reason?  Also, I found that when people were talking about what they’re doing in their research (and this applies to any time I’m in a situation where people discuss what their PhDs are about), I find myself thinking ‘oh my God, that’s really interesting, I wish I was doing that!’ even if I have no personal link to the subject whatsoever.  Something to ponder there.

[1] Karl König, Brothers and Sisters: The Order of Birth in the Family: An Expanded Edition, (originally published 1958; 3rd edition revised and expanded Edinburgh 2012), p. 38.

[2] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[3] John S. C. Abbott, The Child At Home: The Principles of Filial Duty, Familiarly Illustrated (New York, 1833),, pp. 25-6 (accessed 31/1/2014).

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK