What was childhood like in the Victorian age?
Victorian childhood, of course, was very different for children of different classes and for boys and girls. There was, however, at least one very significant change in the treatment and perception of children which happened gradually over the course of Queen Victoria's sixty-year reign. This is often described as the "sentimentalization" of childhood, though in fact it was more than this. The frequent depiction of children as innocent, pure-souled and wise beyond their years began before the Victorian era with Wordsworth and other Romantic poets.
However, it clearly reached new heights in the Victorian era in books such as Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy. More broadly, childhood was considered in the Victorian era as something valuable in its own right, rather than a mere prelude to adulthood. This is why the era is a golden age of children's literature and, more particularly, of books for children which feature children in a leading role.
It is clear that while life was still, by modern standards, extremely hard for children during the Victorian era, it became much more civilized over the course of the sixty years. To take an instance from the education of the upper classes, descriptions of Eton College under the headship of Dr. Keate (which lasted until 1834) include students sharing beds with their teachers, plagued by cold and hunger, subject to regular, savage beatings and constantly on the verge of rioting.
By the end of the nineteenth century, under such tolerant and enlightened headmasters as John James Hornby and Edmond Warre, both the atmosphere and curriculum had transformed. Boys were given private rooms and regular hot meals and, while corporal punishment remained, it was much more sparingly used. Many of these reforms are attributable to the great reforming headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Arnold, whose relatively benign regime was described in Thomas Hughes's book Tom Brown's Schooldays.
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