Circulating Childhood in Eighteenth-Century England: The Cultural Work of Periodicals
The following chapter seeks to gauge the contribution of eighteenth-century English periodicals to the circulation of ideas about childhood. Without a doubt, these early mass media were instrumental for the formation of tastes and the shaping of English morals, manners, political convictions, and mentalities. The enormous success of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s collaborative productions The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Guardian (all published between 1709 and 1714) is also reflected in the various imitations they inspired (among them The Female Tatler and Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator). Each of these periodicals addresses to a considerable extent topics connected with childhood, such as family values, the relationship between parents and children, child care or educational matters. Featuring not only child-related topics but also children in their exemplary tales, the periodicals identify childhood as a highly relevant topic for English society. In an earlier monograph (Müller 2009), I explored in detail the role of those early printed mass media in establishing a veritable discourse on childhood in eighteenth-century England. Informed by Foucauldian theories of discourse, knowledge, and power, I argued that a major function of those periodicals was to convey and popularize ideologies of childhood that were mostly shared by and supported the moral claims of the rising middle classes. The perspective of this earlier study was therefore framed by the questions of what kind of childhood was constructed in eighteenth-century English periodicals and by the possible motivations and purposes behind this construction. Accordingly, the child and childhood were perceived in those texts as social units. The periodicals themselves obviously appeared to perform ideological work, instilling attitudes towards childhood among their readers that should hitherto be regarded as normative. However, the very frequency of admonitions and criticism those periodicals voice about the many existing practices that deviate from the rules they seek to establish raise at least some doubts about the pervasive efficiency of this ideologizing. If the actual ideological effect of eighteenth-century periodicals cannot ultimately be gauged, what can we, then, say about the function and role of those still highly popular texts?