Memories of an Edwardian Girlhood

Barbara Wootton

  • Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England by Carol Dyhouse
    Routledge, 224 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0821 X
  • Hooligans or Rebels: An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939 by Stephen Humphries
    Blackwell, 279 pp, £12.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 631 12982 0

Carol Dyhouse’s book is concerned only with girls, and mainly with those drawn from middle or upper-class circles, although she makes one substantial digression in which she contrasts their educational history with that of their working-class contemporaries in the elementary schools of the day. Stephen Humphries’s story, on the other hand, theoretically covers both sexes, though boys and youths loom larger than their feminine counterparts, and his horizon does not extend beyond the working classes. Both stories are exceedingly well documented, but whereas Dyhouse draws largely on written memoirs, biographies and other published studies, Humphries justly observes that most of what has been written about working-class youths of earlier generations has not come from the subjects themselves, and therefore necessarily presents interpretations of working-class culture by middle-class outsiders. His book is an attempt to redress the balance by ‘rewriting the history of working-class childhood and youth largely in the words of working-class people who themselves experienced it between 1889 and 1939’. Since, however, few such people have left written records, Humphries’s data have been almost exclusively gathered from interviews with men and women now of advanced age (there cannot be many who go back to 1889) recounting childhood experiences.

Both authors reveal their personal points of view: but here is the most striking difference between them. Dyhouse never explicitly states her attitude, yet the reader is left in no doubt that she is not sympathetic to the idea that girls should be brought up to sacrifice their own interests to those of their menfolk, which was the dominant theme during most of the period of her study. By contrast, Humphries declares on his second page that his own ‘theoretical perspective’ is similar to that of the ‘emerging revisionist school of Marxist sociologists and historians who ... have challenged the method and metaphor upon which the orthodox literature on youth has been based’. His reader is therefore presented with a story of the clash of cultures in class conflict, and constantly reminded that juvenile delinquency or rebelliousness is merely an expression of ‘resistance’ (the author’s favourite word) against capitalist society. Even the apparently well-meaning attempts of social reformers to cope with these phenomena are presented as attempts to impose irrelevant middle-class standards of behaviour upon an autonomous working-class culture, and to produce a subservient work-force better adapted to perform the menial tasks required by capitalism.

As one born in 1897, my own lifespan includes the greater period of Dyhouse’s book (which she has at many points extended into the present century far beyond any Edwardian reign). But it so happens that the cult of ‘femininity’ which figures so prominently in her pages was more typical of the upbringing of wealthy or middle-class girls in general than of my own. In the earlier part of her story (and right up to the First World War) these girls were frequently not sent to school at all, but taught by governesses or by their mothers who duly inculcated the virtue of ‘femininity’ – comprising gentleness, self-sacrifice (always in the interest of the opposite sex) along with a smattering of French or German – and imposed total suppression of independent intellectual interests, on the principle that ‘bookishness or intellectual confidence diminished a girl’s sexual attractiveness’ and that ‘learning destroyed femininity.’ As a result, some of the more intelligent are said to have bribed their brothers by performing various small services in exchange for the loan of school books.

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