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Deconstructions of Childhood in Contemporary English Fiction for Adults

Sandra Dinter Childhood in the Contemporary English Novel

This month the International Committee welcomes Dr. Sandra Dinter of Friedrich-Alexander University who discusses the inspiration and research that led to the creation of her book Childhood in the Contemporary English Novel (Routledge, 2019). The International Committee welcomes responses, reviews, and comments about Dr. Dinter's work, particularly from scholars who have read her new book and/or work in the field of childhood studies.

The inspiration for my book Childhood in the Contemporary English Novel came to me in 2011 when I lived in Edinburgh, a city full of wonderful independent book shops. Browsing the shops’ tables and shelves containing bestselling fiction, I noticed that a remarkable number of books either featured images of young children on their covers or referred to childhood in their titles and blurbs. I bought and read A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, all of which had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In the following months, I kept asking myself why childhood seemed to be so popular with adult readers and reviewers in the new millennium. After all, childhood was something that I had associated primarily with other literary periods and genres, such as Romantic poetry, the Victorian novel, and, of course, children’s literature.

Doing a bit of research in the university library, I quickly discovered that scholarship on representations of childhood in contemporary British fiction for adult readers was sparse compared to the extensive research on the three fields above. This was rather surprising, given the large number of novels on the subject that had been published between the 1980s and the 2000s. Neither standard companions on contemporary British fiction really registered this thematic trend, nor did much criticism on children in literature reach into the late twentieth century. Even Ellen Pifer’s Demon or Doll: Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture (2000) did not consider any works published after the Cold War. In my eyes, recent fiction about childhood was such a prevalent phenomenon that deserved more academic attention. Thus, it became my ambition to find out what distinguishes the contemporary childhood novel from earlier epochs and to write the first systematic book-length study on this topic.

Childhood in the Contemporary English Novel is the product of this endeavour. Focusing on six novels published between the late 1980s and the early 2010s – Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, P. D. James’s The Children of Men, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English – my book provides the first suggestion of how to periodise and contextualise the ‘contemporary’ childhood novel in England and an assessment of the formal and thematic heterogeneity that characterises these works. In short, I wanted to extend the literary history of childhood to the immediate present and to add to it relevant bestsellers and lesser-known works, a reason why my book also includes an appendix listing all of the novels that I encountered during my years of research.

In my book, I argue that the notion of a self-reflexive ‘late modernity’ best captures how British society deals with children and childhood and how literary works respond to these issues. Following the sociologists Ulrich Beck, Ulrike-Beck-Gernsheim, Zygmunt Bauman, and Anthony Giddens, I claim that childhood attains a special symbolic status in the late modern period. In contrast to other forms of relationships that have become increasingly fragile around the turn of the century, the parent-child bond is largely exempt from postmodern scepticism and relativism. The idea of the child as a naturally innocent, vulnerable, and playful being that was created in the Romantic age remains influential, often even unquestioned. Going against Neil Postman’s concept of the disappearance of childhood, my book proposes that childhood is a surprisingly resilient metanarrative that British society and its governments continue to invest in.

But my book is more than just a simple survey; it is also concerned with theoretical maxims. One of my first tasks in the writing process was to define my own understanding of and approach to childhood, which led me to the debate surrounding the idea of childhood as a construction that was initiated by Philippe Ariès in the 1960s and revived in the 1990s in the wake of the publication of Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction and the rise of the new sociology of childhood shortly thereafter. Grappling with the intricate question of how to conceive of childhood as a construct, I realised that this was an issue that not only kept many scholars preoccupied, but that also seemed to be a central concern of contemporary English fiction. The six novels that I analysed in my book denaturalise childhood; from a metaperspective, they highlight and scrutinise the ways in which different discourses and institutions produce and enforce it. In other words, many contemporary English novels adopt the constructivist paradigm of childhood studies. However, on closer inspection, I discerned that there were limits to and pitfalls in this agenda. The literary constructivism of childhood is an ambivalent and inconsistent project. In some works, the child is only denaturalised in order to be essentialised, while other works take their constructivism quite far. In Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, for instance, the Thatcherite concept of childhood is presented as a ‘false’ construct so that the Romantic notion of childhood can be affirmed as the ‘real’ essence of childhood. Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child develops a more radical form of constructivism, suggesting that the child is only available and perceivable as discourse. The final task was thus to map these different literary constructivisms of childhood and to reconstruct how, as the blurb of my book puts it, novels oscillate between an acknowledgement of constructivism and an endorsement of the last irrevocable quintessence of humanity.

I hope that my book will inspire more scholars to engage with childhood in contemporary literature around the globe and to return to the concept of childhood as a construct – two issues that are more closely related than I would have ever guessed strolling through the book shops in Edinburgh in 2011.

Sandra Dinter

Sandra Dinter is a lecturer at the English Department at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuermberg in Germany. Her work on childhood has appeared in the journals Neo-Victorian Studies, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, and C21: Journal of 21st-Century Writings. Sandra is author of Childhood in the Contemporary English Novel (Routledge, 2019) and co-editor of Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Childhood in Contemporary Britain: Literature, Media and Society (Routledge, 2017). Currently, she is conducting research on the role of female pedestrianism in nineteenth-century British culture and literature.

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