Review of Mary Hatfield’s Growing Up in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: A Cultural History of Middle-Class Childhood and Gender by Cara Delay

9780198843429Mary Hatfield. Growing Up in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: A Cultural History of Middle-Class Childhood and Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780198843429.

In this careful and innovative analysis, Mary Hatfield considers how evolving notions of class, religion, and gender coalesced around the figure of the middle-class child in nineteenth-century Ireland. Hatfield demonstrates a commanding mastery of both historiography and relevant sources as she explores the evolution of modern Irish notions of childhood. In five thematic chapters, the book chronicles how medical, educational, and religious authorities redefined middle-class childhood in the nineteenth century, creating cultural values that persist even today. Hatfield also makes a larger claim in Growing Up in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: that we must consider age alongside gender and class as a significant category of analysis, particularly as we continue to ‘reconsider traditional views of historical agency and power’. (4)

The book begins with an examination of Enlightenment-era philosophy and the growth of professional medicine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Hatfield analyses the attempts to redefine childhood that were part and parcel of the birth of modernity, asking what was at stake in this project. Following the lead of scholars working on other parts of Europe, she posits that a new scientific authority fundamentally reframed notions of childhood, ‘rationalising’ everything related to children, including education, parenting, and health care. (38) Hatfield then moves to a discussion of religion, showing how ‘experts’ linked the moral status of Irish children with not only parenting but also health and even food. Here, peasant culture appears briefly alongside the middle classes, as Hatfield shows that reformers used the alleged moral ‘dysfunction’ of the Catholic peasantry as a foil for the new middle-class respectable and religious family. Next, in her exploration of clothing, Hatfield links growing consumerism with emerging middle-class identities and observes how contemporary commentators increasingly viewed fashion as representative of both morality and class allegiance. Chapters 4 and 5 tackle the topic of education for both girls and boys, synthesising an impressive amount of first-hand accounts and historiographical literature. In these chapters Hatfield recognises the ‘real, material distinction’ between boys’ and girls’ education while also offering a slightly more positive interpretation of girls’ experiences. (172) For both sexes, she claims, education imparted discipline and enforced gender norms while also presenting opportunities for social mobility. Through schooling their children, she shows, the middle classes solidified their status and authority, ensuring that their world-views would dominate for decades.

Hatfield’s research for this book is impressive: in addition to mining contemporary published sources such as conduct literature, fiction, educational tracts, and medical treatises, she also consulted documents from an array of archives across Ireland. Her analysis of primary sources is sound throughout and best when she moves beyond the written word and interrogates the visual and material. For example, Chapter 3, ‘Fashioning Childhood: Gender, Dress, and Manners’, contains a fascinating exploration of children’s clothing depicted in portraiture and a discussion of actual examples from the National Museum of Ireland’s collections.

One of the most appealing features of this monograph is that its individual chapters, while clearly connected, also can stand alone. In particular, the last two chapters on female and male education could be considered separately from the rest of the book. Growing Up in Nineteenth-Century Ireland also contains an introduction that, rather than merely summarising what is to come in the body of the book, skilfully places Ireland within the literature on the intellectual developments of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Particularly useful to students here will be Hatfield’s excellent summary of the historiography on, and theory of, childhood in Ireland and beyond. Another strength is how the author situates Ireland within broader geographical contexts. Throughout multiple chapters, she links local developments with European Enlightenment thought, British medical advice, and transnational educational theory. Here, her analysis could also be expanded to engage more fully with the Irish Diaspora in places like the United States and Australia.

Hatfield’s monograph demonstrates authoritatively that Irish ideas surrounding childhood—not only parenting and education but also, significantly, health and religion—grew out of middle-class sensibilities in the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century. Growing Up in Nineteenth-Century Ireland reveals more about ideals, representations, and constructions of childhood than children’s actual experiences. This is understandable, particularly given the available printed and visual evidence and the author’s focus on the middle classes and cultural history. Still, when the evidence allows, Hatfield attempts to place children’s experiences and even desires at the centre of analysis. She finds agency in some children’s actions, arguing for example that boys and girls asserted themselves by selecting particular items of clothing and destroying others, or by writing letters from school that expressed views on teachers and education. These intriguing glimpses of agency offer kernels that could be expanded by future scholars, but they appear to be few and far between in Hatfield’s sources on the middle classes.

‘Children are forces of change, subjects to socialisation, objects of idealisation, and individuals with unique stories’, writes Hatfield. (2) Overall, Hatfield’s research reveals much more about socialisation and idealisation than children as ‘forces of change’ with ‘unique stories’. In this book, she provides a thorough synthesis of nineteenth-century cultural developments and does what she can, with limited sources, to illuminate actual children’s lives. Throughout, Hatfield convincingly demonstrates that childhood can be a window into larger issues, including ‘the contest for influence and control’ (24) that often has framed modern Ireland. Given the recent focus on childhood and institutions in Irish history, this is a concept worthy of further development. Growing Up in Nineteenth-Century Ireland should serve as a starting point for this conversation as well as the history of childhood in Ireland more broadly.

Cara Delay
College of Charleston

Cara Delay, Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyses women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. Co-authored with Beth Sundstrom, her new book, Birth Control: What Everyone Needs to Know, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.