Marilla and Mrs Lynde

But physical punishment or ‘correction’ has been morally unproblematic until very recently, some of you retort.

I don’t buy it. I’m at least very skeptical. I agree that it’s been widespread – but not that it’s been morally unproblematic. Of course it was morally unproblematic to some people, to many people, but I’m claiming that to a substantial minority it was not. (I’m talking about the 19th century onwards, if only because there’s so much more literature for children and about children starting then. I could talk about Hogarth on cruelty – but I won’t, for now.)

After writing about Anne of Green Gables from memory I started wondering…wasn’t there a subsidiary character, who did recommend beating? That neighbor? Didn’t she say at some point ‘You ought to beat that child, that’s what’? In other words wasn’t the issue made explicit at some point – didn’t Marilla have a choice, which she made, for our edification?

So I re-read the first half or so. (Don’t scorn; it’s a good book; sentimental, yes, but not too cloyingly so, though I skip most of Anne’s long speeches about the fairies in the glen and whatnot – I’m as bored by them as Marilla is.) Yes, there is. Rachel Lynde comes up to Green Gables to meet Anne, and promptly points out how skinny and homely and red-haired she is, at which Anne loses her temper and shouts at her; Marilla rebukes her and sends her to her room. Mrs Lynde says to Marilla, among other things, ‘You’ll have your own troubles with that child. But if you’ll take my advice – which I suppose you won’t do, although I’ve brought up ten children and buried two – you’ll do that “talking to” you mention with a fair-sized birch switch.’ After she leaves Marilla wonders what she should do. ‘And how was she to punish her? The amiable suggestion of the birch switch – to the efficiency of which all of Mrs Rachel’s own children could have borne smarting testimony – did not appeal to Marilla. She did not believe she could whip a child. No, some other method must be found to bring Anne to a proper realization of the enormity of her offence.’

Well…why couldn’t Marilla whip a child? Or why did she not believe she could? Because she found it morally problematic. She’s a very unbending character, who conceals her affection for Anne for a long time, yet she can’t whip a child. This is apparently plausible, and not unreasonable, and in fact subtly admirable, in a very popular children’s book published in 1908. It can’t have been an extremely eccentric attitude. It wasn’t universal, but it wasn’t freakish, either.

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