Book of the week

4th February 2000 at 00:00
REPRESENTATIONS OF CHILDHOOD DEATH. Edited by Gillian Avery and Kimberley Reynolds. Macmillan Press, pound;45.

Infant mortality rates may have plummeted, but we are still painfully preoccupied with child death. Morag Styles looks at an ambiguous obsession.

"If I should die before I wake

Take me to heaven for Jesus's sake"

These words from the familiar childhood prayer came back to me with new significance after I read this book, which opens with the chilling statement: "Once parents and communities lived knowing that many of their infants and children would fail to thrive and survive." A book about death in childhood does not seem a very cheerful way to welcome a new millennium, but as the editors say: "Confronting this topic is not distressing, but rather moving and liberating. Thinking about what it means for young people to die brings into relief the many ways in which they are and have been accorded and denied meaning both in our daily lives and in the institutions which govern us."

In fact, this book tells us a great deal about how children lived as well as how they died and, at best, how much they were valued by those who loved them and had to come to terms with their loss. At its heart is a painful social history of high infant and child mortality rates and human and institutional attempts to make sense of this dark reality between the 16th century and the present day. However, the authors also highlight the way varying interpretations of childhood have developed over time and emphasise that attitudes to death are culturally determined. Who better to deal with such a complex subject than the two distinguished editors - Gillian Avery is a historian of children's books and Kimberley Reynolds is director of the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Roehampton Institute.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the multi-disciplinary approach to childhood death and the meanings placed upon it through word and image - the book contains many well-chosen illustrations in a variety of forms, including folk tales, ballads, hymns, song cycles, diaries, novels, monuments, films, letters, medical records, conversations, poems and religious writing. The 13 chapters explore the topic through folklore, women's journals, memorials and tombstones, the religious messages of Puritans and other evangelical Christians and the literary work of Charles Dickens, Friedrich Ruckert (author of Kindertotenlieder - Songs for Dead Children - which Mahler set to music) and some Edwardian fantasy writers, in particular George MacDonald and Charles Kingsley.

The editors' introduction reminds us that child death, perhaps because it is now relatively rare, has paradoxically become almost unmentionable in contemporary society and an uncomfortable preoccupation, as the public reaction to the killing of Liverpool toddler James Bulger, the Dunblane school massacre and the demonisation of Moors murderer Myra Hindley suggest. Kevin McCarron and John Thompson bring us bang up to date, discussing adolescent horror fiction and the treatment of child death in the cinema. In the concluding chapters Paul Yates, an expert on the ethnoraphy of faith, considers sociological (Antony Giddens in particular) and religious accounts of the death of young people, concluding that current attitudes deny an "effective discourse of death and dying within which children might live and die in the comfort of meaningfulness", particularly considering how medical professionals handle the death of children. Janet Goodall, a consultant paediatrician, contributes a sensitive, humane exploration of some of the ethical issues surrounding what she calls "the long journey of a family's grief".

Some chapters drawing on fiction and non-fiction are disturbing as well as sad. Jacqueline Simpson confronts the anxiety, guilt and fear associated with child death in folk literature, while Vic Gammon's moving ballads tell stories of parental neglect, abusive employers and cruel fate. Elizabeth Clarke argues that gender politics were active in the apparently private journals of 17th- century women. Far from revealing an "authentic female voice, unadulterated by male editing or control", she says, even when the content is personal and tragic they are subject to a "voice gendered masculine in its opposition to what it construed as feminine weakness". Gillian Avery's informed discussion of the terrors surrounding child death in evangelical literature includes notorious works by James Janeway and Mary Sherwood, as well as more compassionate accounts by real, suffering parents, finishing with thoughts on death by probably the youngest author in the history of literature, Marjory Fleming, who died in 1811 at the age of eight.

There are treats for those with an interest in novels and their readership. A O J Cockshut provides a fascinating account of varied 19th and 20th-century critical responses to the literary deaths of Dickens's Paul Dombey and Little Nell, while Kimberley Reynolds considers the often ambivalent notions of childhood contained in Peter Pan, The Water Babies and At the Back of the North Wind, which combine "the consolatory and the exploitative". Kevin McCarron presents us with the paradox that while horror fiction offers its enthusiastic teenage readers the obligatory pile-up of bodies accompanied by graphic accounts of grisly deaths, "the primary concern . . . is to persuade the reader that death does not exist".

Peter Pan's memorable utterance: "To die will be an awfully big adventure," has become one of the great cliches of our age. This book gives the words new resonance, touching on the ambiguities that the subject of child death provokes in many adults. This was certainly a familiar topic to Peter Pan's creator, J M Barrie, hence perhaps the undeniable appeal of that brave little voice, provoking tenderness for the young and vulnerable and recognition of the gutsiness many children show in the face of adversity. But the statement also substitutes adult sensibility for children's own voices, sentimentalises the dying child as innocent and heroic, and, with its adventure metaphor, comfortably avoids the harsh realities that have always had to be borne by those who have loved and lost children.

Morag Styles is reader in children's literature at Homerton College, Cambridge

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