By Erica Dolson
When we think about what changes things over time, what comes to mind? For George Mason University English Professor Teresa Michals, it’s not clothing, which, of course, has changed; or ideas about gender, which have been the topic of countless texts. Instead, she is interested in the ways that views of age have changed over time, and the ways in which we define adulthood.
The result of this interest – and five years of research and writing – is her book Books for Children, Books for Adults: Age and the Novel from Defoe to James, published by Cambridge University Press in March. This book, which Michals described as “a historical study of the intertwined rise of the English novel and rise of children’s literature,” considers one of the first times novels were classified “for children” or “for adults.”
“You can’t have a ‘crossover’ book – a children’s book that adults also buy and read – until you have…separate, stable ideas about adult readers and child readers, and separate markets for each. And that doesn’t happen until later than most folks think it does,” Michals wrote in an email.
According to Cambridge University Press, Michals argues in her book that age was first connected to social status and later considered a stage in psychological development.
“We take for granted the idea that people automatically get some very real kinds of power – the right to vote, for instance – when they turn 18. And we assume that such people also have a right to their own cultural space, a cultural space where it's good for them to enjoy [adult] things like eroticism and unresolvable moral ambiguity, things that would be very bad for children. I argue these are very recent ideas of adulthood,” Michals wrote. “Up through the early nineteenth century in England, such ideas weren't central at all. Politically, the great majority of people stayed in the position of children, and eroticism and unresolvable moral ambiguity weren't considered good for anybody of any age, at least according to the standard of respectable novels. Being an adult, a status based on the number of years you have lived, didn't count for much; being a master, a status based on the amount of property you have, did.”
In order to make her argument, Michals focused on the years between 1700 and 1900 and on books from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley; from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Hard Times, and David Copperfield to Henry James’s The Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew. Michals also studied the work of Maria Edgeworth and Laetitia Barbauld, who wrote some of the first children’s book series.
[It] “seemed pretty remarkable” to Michals that children’s literature was invented during the time period she was already studying – the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. “And so worth thinking about more,” she wrote.
“There’s no way that everything I say can turn out to be right,” she added. “But, if I’m lucky, other scholars will be interested enough in the questions I raise to spend time pointing out mistakes and adding information. That would be fantastic.”
Michals is currently at work on a project that examines public images of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (“who famously lost an arm and the sight in one eye in battle,” Michals notes) as they relate to disability studies.