Who loves working class children?

One seldom finds persons who really love all children. Most people show themselves selective in their affection, while some don’t like children at all. Usually it is a family affair, one loves one’s own children, but not those of other people, and this attitude gets a wide support in society, since children are implicitly considered as their parents’ property.

Otherwise, one can have preferences for one age range or for one gender. I can understand this, I am myself guilty of such bias. Boys and girls, older and younger ones, have different minds and quite distinct charms. However I find it more questionable to distaste children because of their ethnicity or their lower social background.

Concerning a most famous lover of children—at least of girls—Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, I found some disappointing detail reported by his biographer, Morton N. Cohen; in Lewis Carroll, A Biography, Macmillan (1995), he wrote in Chapter 9, “The Man”, pages 300–301:

He was tightly bound up in Victorian values and decidedly class-conscious. Recounting to his brother Edwin an extraordinary backstage visit at the Haymarket Theatre to watch a group of child actors prepare for a performance, he wrote (March 11, 1867): “There was not much real beauty [in the little actresses], but 2 or 3 of them would have been much admired, I think, if they had been born in higher stations in life.” Commenting to Miss Thomson (January 24, 1879) on some draft sketches she had sent him, he objected to “the diameter of the knee and ankle” of one of the children she had drawn. “Still,” he added, “you may have got those dimensions from real life, but in that case I think your model must have been a country-peasant child, descended from generations of labourers: there is a marked difference between them and the upper classes—especially as to the size of the ankle.” Again he wrote Miss Thomson (September 27, 1893), after the Moberly Bells (Mrs. C. F. Moherly Bell was Gertrude Chataway’s older sister) agreed to allow her to use their children as models, asking her “to put them into a few pretty attitudes, and make a few hasty sketches of them. … These you could finish,” he added, “with the help of hired models. But hired models,” he insisted, “are plebeian and heavy; and they have thick ankles, which I do not agree with you in admiring. Do sketch these two upper-class children. One doesn’t get such an opportunity every day!”

On September 29, 1881, Charles made a new child friend on the beach, on Julia Johnstone, “who proved very pleasant and quite free of shyness. The mother is pleasant, but hardly looks a lady. I fancy the father is in business … but of course I shall not drop her acquaintance for that.” Weighing the wisdom of publishing a cheap edition of Alice, he concluded (March 4, 1887) to Edith Nash: “It isn’t a book poor children would much care for.” And writing to a lady friend in Oxford from Eastbourne, he complained (July 27, 1890): “The children on the beach are not the right sort, yet. They are a vulgar-looking lot! I should think there’s hardly any one here, yet, above the ‘small shop-keeper’ rank.”

On the day after telling an assembly of fifty or sixty girls “Bruno’s Picnic” and other stories at a school where Beatrice Hatch was teaching, he wrote her (February 16, 1894): “I should like to know … who that sweet-looking girl was, aged 12, with a red nightcap. … She was speaking to you when I came up to wish you good-night. I fear I must be content with her name only,” he added; “the social gulf between us is probably too wide for it to be wise to make friends. Some of my little actress-friends are of a rather lower status than myself. But, below a certain line, it is hardly wise to let a girl have a ‘gentleman’ friend—even one of 62!”

His argument, that lower classes have through many generations evolved physical features distinct from those of higher layers of society, is ludicrous if one knows that the 19th century bourgeoisie, including the intellectual middle class, arose from freed farmers and craftmen at the end of the Middle Ages.

The writer Ernest Dowson showed a healthier attitude towards working class children. Managing the family business, a dry dock on the river Thames located in Limehouse, he could see workers’ children, and he recognized that it is only their later life as labourers that distorts their features. In The Letters of Ernest Dowson, edited by Desmond Flower and Henry Maas, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967, one reads in Letter number 5 (11 January 1889), p. 25:

I have discovered an adorable child here, hailing from one of the three publics that surround us on either side—“which pleases me mightily” as Pepys would say. It is astonishing how pretty & delicate the children of the proletariate are—when you consider their atrocious after-growth. Of course it is the same in all classes but the contrast is more glaring in Limehouse. This child hath 6 years & is my frequent visitor, especially since she has realised that my desk contains chocolates.

Featured image: Lewis Hine, “Little Lottie, a regular oyster shucker in Alabama Canning Co.” (1911), Wikimedia Commons.

Lewis Hine - Little Lottie, a regular oyster shucker in Alabama Canning Co. (1911) - from  Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Hine – Little Lottie, a regular oyster shucker in Alabama Canning Co. (1911) – from Wikimedia Commons

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7 thoughts on “Who loves working class children?

  1. I detest strict class hierarchies but that is not the same thing as saying there are no class differences – and we have barely begun to understand genetics, much less epigenetics. I suspect that those arguing that five centuries is too short a time for differences to arise do not fully appreciate how quickly evolution can act. Take a look at pedigreed dogs from a century ago and compare them to the latest generations and then tell me that evolution acts too slowly to have had any effect on humans in five centuries.

    The real reasons to detest strict hierarchies are twofold: because talent can arise from unexpected quarters, and because a fair number of lower class women will bear the illegitimate children of the upper classes – a fact which can quickly compound on itself.

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    • Pedigree animals (dogs, pigeons, etc.) are carefully bred to enhance specific traits. This is not the case with manual workers, who marry the person of their choice, so in terms of specific traits, it is like a random choice. And there is social mobility, a family can move from one class to another in a few generations.

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  2. Ahh – as fascinating and provocative as always Christian!

    Yes, CLD was frightful snob and nowadays this is (rightly) an almost as unforgivable sin as being a paedophile! But somehow I cannot admire him less for that: I sometimes suspect that ‘we like our friends for their virtues, but it is their failings that make us love them’.

    Are there any good biographies of Dowson – one’s that are reasonably open and unapologetic with regards to his love of little girls? He seems a wonderful character. Unfortunately I think he was not quite up to the level of CLD in his output – everything work CLD is known for seems to justify its existence as a new work – whereas I find that if I read more than two Dowson poems at a time I start to feel that he is really writing the same poem over and over again in slightly different forms. But that doesn’t diminish the power of each poem taken individually. Other poets suffer from the same failing – Ivor Gurney, a favourite of mine, becomes repetitious if read en masse.

    As far as working-class kids are concerned… well, their lives must have been SO harsh back then. When we look at photographs taken by Hine (is the photo you link to meant to appear in the article), Riis, and even the more optimistic work of Paul Martin and Frank Meadow Sutcliffe we see how soon Life can leave its traces on children.

    When I worked for a while in a very depressed part of my country, somewhere with endemic unemployment, I was often saddened to see large families walking in the streets in which you’d see a gradation from a stunningly beautiful little girl of 4, still unmarked by Life, to the parents, who’d look ugly and rough ‘as fuck’: mouths puckered like arseholes from a life-time’s smoking, crude tattoos, ingrained expressions communicating ‘I’m hard – don’t fuck with me’, and strutting walks. And the older children showing a graduation of this ‘hardness’ in proportion to their age.

    I must say that my feelings, when faced with this evidence of the uglification that certain conditions and a certain way of life can foster, couldn’t have been that far from what CLD must have felt, and I’ve felt ashamed of the uncharitable judgmentalism of my reaction. But the basic observation still stands: that a hard life, and hard attitudes to life, do damage children.

    However I’ve worked and been friends with children from such backgrounds and often been moved to find that behind a veneer of hardness often lies a truly charming and delightful human being.

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    • A “featured image” does not appear if you view the post individually; to see it (before the title) you must either go to the “home page” or to a category|tag|month archive (click at the bottom). Many of my posts, in particular this one, have a “featured image”, for which I usually give the reference.
      This article touches my political sensibilities, and indeed CLD was a bourgeois conservative, for instance he opposed Irish home rule and labour strikes, he supported the Church and the monarchy.
      Dowson’s life was shorter than CLD’s, but he did a lot of work; beside poetry, he wrote novels and short stories; he also made a lot of translations of French works. I don’t feel that his poems are repetitive, in particular they have various topics, the selection I have given here is rather restricted. The Sun-journalist Jad Adams has written a biography, I have not read it, but Willem Van den Daele reproaches him an excessive focus on Dowson’s drinking. The edition of Dowson’s Letters by Flower & Maas and the one of his poems by Thornton & Dowson contain biographical data; the latter is more recent and indeed follows current stereotypes on intergenerational love, like the “potentially sinister side”, “pathological need”, etc., while the former is non-judgemental. However Flower is vigorous in his defence of Dowson against the reputation of being an alcoholic and a drug addict.

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    • Yes, even supposing a Darwinian process of natural selection among manual labourers on the one hand and intellectuals on the other, four or five centuries are not enough to produce significant differences. I am a mathematician and computer scientist, but my ancestors in the 16th century were horticulturists.

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