Colin Heywood. Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 326 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-86869-3.
Reviewed by Anne Rose
Published on H-Childhood (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Patrick J. Ryan
Growing Up French
Colin Heywood’s new study is a major contribution to a reorientation of the historiography of childhood. Now, future students of children’s history may no longer be satisfied to learn about what childhood meant to those who cared for (or neglected), educated, socialized, healed, or analyzed children. Perhaps they will insist that historians include analysis of the voices of children themselves through whatever primary sources can illuminate that side of the picture--even if the sources are based on memory. Those of us who produce historical knowledge about childhood and adolescence will become more sensitive readers of primary sources by embracing the challenges put forth by this historiographic trend. Alongside such recent studies as Rudolf Dekker’s Childhood, Memory and Autobiography in Holland: From the Golden Age to Romanticism (2000), Marcel Liebman’s Born Jewish: A Childhood in Occupied Europe (2005), and A Life under Russian Serfdom: The Memoirs of Savva Dimitrievich Purlevskii (2005), Heywood’s book shows us where our field is headed and what it means to make the journey. His pursuit of identity formation from “the perspective of the young in earlier generations” adds to our understanding of how children responded to social change (p. 289).
The book’s most significant strength is its integration of psychology theory and memories of childhood experiences. That strength is embodied in the book’s organization, which is inspired by the developmental human life cycle in its socialized forms. The first third of the book focuses on representations. By representations, Heywood means, in part, the ways in which people thought about what it meant to be a child. How does Heywood historically reconstruct representations? His discussion of “ego documents” permits the reader a behind-the-scenes tour of his methodology. The section on autobiographies is especially well developed in terms of the question of how literary theory informs reading first-person narratives. We learn about the many problems associated with relying on autobiographies and memoirs as credible elements of an evidentiary framework. Did “the democratization of autobiography” endow the historian with representations of experiences that previously may have eluded him--the memoirs of self-taught peasants and workers, for instance--or did it merely tempt him into naively trusting testimonies without scrutinizing their possible fictional content (p. 32)? Heywood’s confidence in building his book on such sources--“they remain its spine”--is tempered by his commitment to scrutinize the personal agenda of the author and the literary conventions to which s/he may have adhered (p. 34). Heywood leaves unexplored the question of whether the historian can access an author’s personal agenda (a question made all the more imperative since the authors of the ego documents are usually deceased and thus cannot be interviewed).
Parts 2 and 3 demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of Heywood’s innovative methodology. Part 2 opens with an account of the “Wild Boy of Aveyron,” a feral child studied by Dr. Jean-Marc Itard in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Because the case circulated on a popular level the debate over innate ideas versus sensationist psychology, it serves to draw out the stakes of Heywood’s apparent position: that familial relations and emotional bonds took on increasing significance for French children in the nineteenth century in ways that can be traced through written reminiscences compared with treatises on childcare and demographic research. While the importance of the family during this period has been noted before, Heywood’s approach privileges personal experiences of being part of a family and a community. He analyzes voices as divergent as Stendhal, Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Talleyrand, and a wide range of peasants, artisans, and ordinary middle-class folks whose memories of their youth mattered enough to write about them and, in many cases, publish them. Not all memories were pleasant, as Heywood’s discussions of discipline and child labor make clear. Heywood’s multifaceted picture of childhood contains details of material culture, including food, clothing, and housing. The most memorable aspects of this picture are again drawn from memoirs of such individuals as Pierre Loti, who described how his family spent Sunday evenings playing games in their immense salon. Heywood’s analysis of reminiscences support his point that environmental influences surmounted innate nature in nineteenth-century society--a claim that was tested by the Wild Boy case. Heywood’s willingness to bring past sources into dialogue with more recent theory (both psychological and literary) could have been extended to include discussions over the past two decades about whether feral children, such as the Wild Boy of Aveyron, were suffering from autism.
By concentrating on how children felt about their experiences, Heywood has clearly made an enduring contribution not just to the historiography of childhood but also to a field that I would like to see receive more attention: the history of emotions. Heywood’s reader becomes privy to the dramatic language French adults used to convey how they felt about the paternal indifference that permeated their young years. We feel sympathy for a boy whose buttocks were reddened by nettle beatings administered by his father while his mother “not dare say anything” (p. 163). The most excruciating account is that of young Madeleine Henry, whose visit to the dentist to treat a case of tonsillitis during WWI in Paris resulted in an unanestheticized procedure tantamount to torture (p. 184). Pleasure and triumph defined daily life as well, as we sense from the reminiscences of sons and daughters who cherished the sentimental bonds they formed with parents and who sometimes acquired sufficient confidence to question parental authority. The emotional lives of adolescents that Heywood features in part 3 are narrated in relation to conventions of arranged marriages and the formation of political allegiances. Recent psychological research suggests that the human memory is sharper when emotion is involved. Is this the case for reading as well? Do we remember more acutely the content of what we read if we feel sympathy for the historical actors? If so, Heywood’s book will prove a memorable read for many students of history.
Given the richness of the book’s sources--which provide a vivid sense of what it felt like to dress, eat, learn, and play as a nineteenth-century French child--some scholars may find unsatisfying or inadequate Heywood’s analytic depth. To cite just one example, when asserting that spiritual diaries provide accounts of girls’ efforts “to assimilate the Catholic model of femininity," Heywood neglects to explain what that model was and how it was emulated--a three-page section entitled “A Religious Identity” in part 3 of the book does not address the question satisfactorily (p. 19). Here, Heywood’s analysis would have benefited from a reading of Sarah Curtis’s Educating the Faithful: Religion, Schooling, and Society in Nineteenth-Century France (2000). Given Heywood’s emphasis on the construction of personal identity, and the ways in which it is formed through lived experience, the book would have been strengthened by a more rigorous treatment of religion as a fundamental element of cultural formation. This would include non-Catholic communities, especially Jews, which are given short shrift when we consider the impact of recent excellent studies, such as Jay Berkovitz’s The Shaping of Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century France (1989) and Nadia Malinovich’s French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth-Century France (2008). On the one hand, the book’s marginalization of non-Catholic childhoods is mirrored by its lack of any substantive discussion of ethnicity and race (even with respect to imperialist repercussions). On the other hand, a reviewer would be remiss not to point out that a constant dynamic of conformity and marginalization itself was--if we are persuaded by Heywood’s evidence--a defining feature of what it meant to grow up and form a generational identity in a deeply Catholic country.
Insofar as Heywood has shown how children increasingly became subjects of normalizing practices, such as educational surveillance and diary keeping, he has succeeded in telling a story of the remaking of child rearing in terms of an “authoritarian regime” (p. 289). Such Foucauldian language will--given Michel Foucault’s opposition to the idea of an unmediated subject--register as contrived to those readers who ask whether Heywood’s methodology conflates memory with experience. While many readers will be stimulated by the prospect of considering reminiscences as historical evidence, Heywood is sure to be criticized for claiming that the view ‘from below’ can be reconstructed on the basis of adults' recollections of their childhood memories.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-childhood.
Anne Rose. Review of Heywood, Colin, Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Régime to the Third Republic.
H-Childhood, H-Net Reviews.
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