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How and why childhood became so important to such a wide range of Romantic writers has long been one of the central questions of literary historical studies. Ann Wierda Rowland discovers new answers to this question in the rise of a vernacular literary tradition. In the Romantic period the child came fully into its own as the object of increasing social concern and cultural investment; at the same time, modern literary culture consolidated itself along vernacular, national lines. Romanticism and Childhood is the first study to examine the intersections of these historical developments and the first study to demonstrate that a rhetoric of infancy and childhood - the metaphors, images, figures and phrases repeatedly used to represent and conceptualize childhood - enabled Romantic writers to construct a national literary history and culture capable of embracing a wider range of literary forms.
Walter Scott's introductory chapter to Waverley: 'Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), with its brief and breezy survey of the possible titles Scott has not chosen for his novel, offers itself as a clearing of the decks for nineteenth-century fiction. Choosing a supposedly unknown and therefore “uncontaminated name” for his hero rather easily, Scott lingers on the “second or supplemental title,” well aware that it will announce the book's generic allegiances and be “held as pledging the author to some special mode of laying his scene.” Scott rejects both “a Tale of Other Days” and “a Romance from the German” because of the Gothic expectations they raise: “would not the owl have shrieked and the cricket cried in my very title-page?” “A Tale of the Times” is also passed over for promising “a dashing sketch of the fashionable world . . . a heroine from Grosvenor Square, and a hero from the Barouche Club or the Four-in-hand.” Scott likewise rejects a “Sentimental Tale” for its promise of a “heroine with a profusion of auburn hair, and a harp, the soft solace of her solitary hours, which she fortunately finds always the means of transporting from castle to cottage.”
Ina Ferris and Katie Trumpener have alerted us to the many ways Scott obscures his debts to other novels in this opening gambit. Dismissing the “sentimental” along with the other major novelistic genres of the day, for example, Scott will proceed to write a novel that shamelessly exploits sentimental conventions and assumptions. Edward Waverley has all the “powers of apprehension,” “brilliancy of fancy,” and “love of literature” that any sentimental heroine could ever desire; Scott persistently places him before picturesque landscapes or outside the main scenes of action, giving Waverley the role of reporting on what he sees and on how it makes him feel; and then there is Flora, a heroine with a harp easily hauled from castle to grotto. Scott often reminds his “fair readers” that he's not writing a “romance” or that Waverley's troubles do not all arise from “sentimental source[s].”
In a 1787 letter, Walter Scott attributes his poetical pursuits to his lifelong love of “ballads and other romantic poems,” poems which he has “read or heard” from the “earliest period of [his] existence” as a “favourite, and sometimes as an exclusive gratification.” It would seem, however, that not all of Scott's beloved ballads provided gratification exclusively, for he continues:
I remember in my childhood when staying at Bath for my health with a kind aunt of mine, there was an Irish servant in the house where we lodged, and she once sung me two ballads which made a great impression on me at the time. One filled me with horror. It was about a mason who because he had not been paid for work he had done for a certain nobleman, when that lord was absent, conveyed himself into the castle with the assistance of a treacherous nurse and murdered the lady and her children with circumstances of great barbarity.
The ballad Scott describes here is “Lamkin,” one of the many Scottish ballads that contain an account of infanticide. In most versions of this ballad, a “false nurse” helps Lamkin achieve his revenge. Together, the nurse and the mason fatally wound the infant son so that its cries will bring the mother down the stairs to meet her own death. When the nobleman returns at the end of the ballad, he rights these wrongs by hanging, burning, or boiling Lamkin and the nurse to death.
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