Marilla and Mr Murdstone
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.