Marilla and Mr Murdstone

I was in a Facebook conversation earlier today with a friend who wanted to know if people recommended Anne of Green Gables, and later I remembered that I’d written at least one post on the subject. Actually there were two (I’m not counting one about a blasphemous cover for a new edition).

May 24, 2009

You know, I’ve been thinking. There’s this line the religious involved in the Irish nightmare have been giving us – this ‘we didn’t realize beating up children and terrorizing them and humiliating them was bad for them’ line. It’s Bill Donohue’s line too – ‘corporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times, and this is doubly true when dealing with miscreants.’

You know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s absolute bullshit. It is not true that in the past it was just normal to beat children, or that it was at least common and no big deal, or that nobody realized it was bad and harmful. That’s a crock of shit.

Think about it. Consider, for instance, Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908. Marilla doesn’t really want Anne at first, and she’s less charmed by her than Matthew is. She discourages Anne’s fantasies and her chatter, and she’s fairly strict – but she never beats her, and the thought doesn’t even cross her mind. If it were so normal to beat children – wouldn’t Marilla have given Anne a good paddling for one or more of her many enthusiastic mistakes? Wouldn’t she have at least considered it? But she doesn’t. Why? Because she’s all right. She’s a little rigid, at first, but she’s all right – she’s a mensch – she has good instincts and a good heart. She can’t be a person who would even think of beating Anne. Well why not? Because we wouldn’t like her if she did. So it’s not so normal and okay after all then. And this was 1908.

Think of Jane Eyre. There is beating and violence and cruelty to children there – Mrs Reed treats Jane abominably, and Lowood school (based on the Clergy Brothers School that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters attended) was very like Goldenbridge, complete with starvation and freezing and humiliation and beating. But it’s not okay! It’s not normal, it’s not just How Things Are – it’s terrible, and shocking, and wrong. Think of Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield – he’s not okay; he’s a very bad man. Think of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby – not okay. Think of the poor house in Oliver Twist – not okay. Think of the way Pap was always beating Huck Finn – not okay. Think of Uncle Myers in Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood – very Goldenbridge; not okay.

I’m having a very hard time thinking of any classic fiction in which children are beaten or smacked and it’s treated as completely routine and acceptable. I don’t think that’s some random accident, I think it’s because most people have always known that it’s wrong to treat children like punching bags. Beating and other cruelty may have been much more common a few decades ago, but it was by no means universal, and it was not universally acceptable. So if you hear people peddling that line – tell them it’s a crock.


  1. chrislawson says

    Well, even if it was true that people thought nothing of beating children in the past, it doesn’t mean that it’s morally defensible. Do we really need to list all the terrible things people have done in the past thinking they’re entirely justified?

    Having said that, I wonder if there’s some selection bias going on in that children’s books that *did* include lots of whippings and beatings are no longer published or stocked? Certainly there was a strong sadistic streak in a lot of the “moral guidance” type of stories for children. Struwwelpeter is pretty nasty.

  2. chrislawson says

    Addendum: by published or stocked, I mean for children. Struwwelpeter has been adapted into several different formats in modern times, but they were all intended for an adult audience. Conversely, Grimm’s original book of fairy tales was intended as a kind of permanent record of oral folk tales and the Brothers Grimm were appalled when they discovered that parents were reading these stories for children’s entertainment — which is why the second edition is so toned down compared to the first.

  3. says

    Definitely (@ 1). But I think it’s interesting that in fact it wasn’t universally seen as fine in, say, 1908. Moral history is interesting to me.

    Struwwelpeter is interesting for that reason. [shudder]

  4. anat says

    chrislawson – so those folk tales recorded by the Grimms – who was their typical audience when told as folk tales?

    There is also Wilhelm Busch’s Max and Moritz where the kids who repeatedly harm members of their community end up being ground through a mill.

    It might be a cultural difference. I definitely recall corporal punishment in stories from Jewish culture in Eastern Europe – in Bialik’s ‘Saphiah’ almost every section ends up with his father slapping him for engaging in imaginative play that his parents did not understand (he is also beaten nearly to death by his school teacher, but that is presented as exceptional, and he is later moved to a different school with a more understanding teacher). And in Shalom Aleichem’s ‘Motl, the Cantor’s Son’ Motl is constantly slapped by his elder brother Eliyahu (who becomes his authority figure after their father’s death).

    Hmm, I just remembered that in Bialik’s children poems a whip is considered a fun toy – presumably intended for a child playing at driving horses, but I wonder how else those toy whips got used.

  5. anat says

    Tom Sawyer got whipped at school and at home, frequently enough. OTOH in Little Women, when Amy got slapped with a ruler at school her mother removed her from school.

  6. Cressida says

    Another I can think of: Pa Ingalls spanks Laura exactly once (when she hits her sister, who honestly probably deserved it) and it’s a really big deal. I think she’s five or so, and it never happens again.

  7. Robert B. says

    Jem mentions once that Atticus has never “whipped” (beat, spanked) him – but in context, it sounds like Jem thinks that if he did something bad enough, he’d get hit for it. And I don’t think he could have gotten that idea from Atticus himself. I read that as saying that hitting children was common in the culture, sort of expected – and yet the best parents didn’t do it.

    That’s a later data point, Mockingbird was published in 1960 and set in the 30’s. But it’s one that stuck in my mind when I was a kid.

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    In “Laddie: A True Blue Story”, by Gene Stratton-Porter (“A Girl of the Limberlost”), 1913, the narrator’s schoolteacher slaps her across the face for correcting her (the schoolteacher) when she said something that the girl knew from personal experience was untrue. Her parents removed her from that school. Also, in “A Girl of the Limberlost”, the namesake is treated cruelly by a stepmother or something.

    In the Bible, parents are allowed to murder their own children – for as minor an offense as “disobedience” (Deut. 21:18-21). In fact, the entire town helps execute the child. As late as 1874, there were no laws protecting children from abuse. When Sweden adopted its no-corporal-punishment statutes in the 1970s, there was no punishment connected with the ban. None at all! But it sent a strong message that hitting children was unacceptable in Swedish society. For several years now, not a single child has been beaten to death by parents or caregivers in Sweden; by contrast, in the überChristian USA, where just a few years ago, in California, Christian parents shouted down a proposal to ban physical punishment of children on the grounds that it is their right to beat their children if they wish, an average of 5 children are killed EVERY DAY.

  9. carlie says

    Pa Ingalls spanks Laura exactly once (when she hits her sister, who honestly probably deserved it) and it’s a really big deal. I think she’s five or so, and it never happens again.

    But they do talk about whipping boys more than once, and it’s a given that it’s a normal thing for them (cousin Charley, Almanzo, Pa when he was a boy). However, those whippings revolve around them either doing things that could be truly horrifying in result (safety/farm issues) or breaking religious rules. (hmmmm, child abuse and religion, where have I heard that before?)

  10. Malachite says

    It is not true that in the past it was just normal to beat children, or that it was at least common and no big deal, or that nobody realized it was bad and harmful.

    I can’t speak for Ireland or anywhere else, but from my own experience I can tell you that it was common for children to experience corporal punishment and it was not regarded as a big deal. It was also common for children to experience other types of punishment, like being sent to your room, or made to do chores, or sent to bed early without dinner.

    That “corporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times, and this is doubly true when dealing with miscreants”; this was absolutely true when I was a child (mid 1970s, growing up in middle-class England). This is not to in any way defend such punishment or people who use that line as a defence. This is to let you know that, far from being a “crock of shit”, that really really was how it was at that time.

    I do not say this just extrapolating from my own experience. As a child, I had one parent who never raised a hand to me, and the other did, plenty of times, usually when I had been naughty. The smacking/beating was by means of a hand applied to the buttocks, which were sore and red afterwards. It was never necessary. The viciously angry shouting beforehand was always reason enough to feel terrified and wanting never to do the naughty thing again. The last time occurred when I was 14. Whether for the other children at school experienced this kind of thing from their parents, I do not know. We didn’t discuss it.

    However the first school I went to, which had pupils aged from about 4 to 7, did use corporal punishment. This was smacking by means of a ruler applied to the calves, and was meant to hurt, but not to damage. There can have been very few children who did not get this punishment at some point, although I was one who escaped the ruler (probably because I was the goody two-shoes type). I recall an incident where I was 6 or 7, and I had been out of school one day (taking an exam for the follow-on school, I think) and returned to find that the whole class were to be punished because of some collective piece of mischief that had happened the previous day. I was sent out to stand in the cloakroom while all the other boys and girls in the class got the ruler treatment.

    So, please note: this kind of punishment was used for at least the 3 years or so that I was at the school; there can hardly have been a family who didn’t have a child affected by it; and this school was in an affluent neighbourhood. If parents didn’t like the way their children were being treated, they didn’t have to put up with it. They didn’t even have to send their children to other schools in the area; they would have had the necessary influence to simply go to the head of the school and get the practice terminated. Why didn’t they? For several years? Because the corporal punishment was indeed routine and acceptable.

    (sorry about the lack of line breaks, it doesn’t seem to want to)

  11. anat says

    Malachite, I was raised with corporal punishment at home in Israel of the 1970s (hand to clothed buttock at young age, then hand to face at older age, until about 12 or so). My husband was raised with corporal punishment in Argentina, 1970s. I know at lest one set of my cousins had a similar experience. Neither of us experienced corporal punishment at school – at least in Israel it was formally illegal for school staff to do.

    What I find interesting is that we never talked about it to people outside the family. I found it a shameful thing to share, while at the same time believing my parents justified in hitting me. But I think I do have evidence that this kind of treatment was considered ‘normal’ enough, because sometime in the 1990s a popular radio show did an interview with a mother of several children (more than 2, but not an extremely huge number) who claimed neither she not her husband ever hit the kids and it was dealt with as something unusual and ‘newsworthy’.

  12. Robert McLiam Wilson says

    Ophelia, You’re absolutely on the money about Dickens and Murdstone especially. Dickens was a particularly good writer of children (it helped that he never quite grew up). The crucial aspect of the suffering of children that he describes is its total injustice. It is coercion or dispossession as an expression.of the dark heart of adulthood. It is not a reaction to infantile misdemeanour or error. And it is matchlessly brilliant. Murdstone is very scary biscuits indeed.
    You make a very fair point. With all the cultural, epochal and class differences knocking around, it was never very cool to hit kids. I grew up in working class Belfast where it was not an uncommon to see a local matron lift a kid up by his hair to give him a better type of slap across the chops. I would contend that most kids accepted the odd boot up the bum as the price of doing business. There were two types of punishment that were accepted. The very considerable thump you received if you did something dangerous (and which you could almost accept a a clumsy expression of proletarian love). And the miffed crack you got for misbehaviour (less wholesome but definitely factored into the calculation).
    But all children burn bright and hard with their own hot sense of justice. And violence as anger, dislike, inebriation or mere malice could make you froth and rage like a tiny Robespierre or Danton.
    And let’s not forget, Plutarch was fighting the good fight really quite some time ago.

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