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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The cruel indifference to children in English fiction

Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica (ca 1930) is more direct than any other novel I've read about the peculiar almost obscene indifference that English characters of the "upper" classes felt toward their children (a matter usually not even acknowledged by authors of that class and era, who just simply write the children out of their books - e.g., FM Ford, Anthony Powell): Hughes, however, actually examines this issue, the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton, believe that they are central to the lives of their children and the children, as Hughes shows us, are generally indifferent to the parents. This is a switch; how can this be? We see how in chapter 2: Chapter 1 ends with a hurricane sweeping the island and the family taking shelter in a basement; on emerging, they see the island and all that they own pretty much completely smashed. After a period of adventure living in the one standing stone building, the parents decide the kids - 5 of them I think - need to be sent back to England for a proper education. So here you go: drop them off on a sailing ship (the time of this novel is never quite clear to me but must be the late 19th century?) with I think one "servant" to look after them, a few words to the captain, and off they go. Then, in a rather startling development, the parents receive a letter from the seemingly benevolent captain who, after spending about two pages describing the weather and the shoals on the voyage out, drops the bomb that the ship was taken captive, robbed, and all the children were killed. He does note that their deaths were quick, so there's no need to fret about that. Who on earth could write such a letter and in such a manner? In the 3rd chapter we learn that the captain's account was not entirely accurate - the children may have survived, we don't know yet, though I'm guessing that yes, they do. But the casual indifference of the parents - at least up to the point of receiving the news - is what continues to astonish me. Who can put five young children on a boat and just wave good-bye - and expect everything to be OK? I don't necessarily mean to put all of this on the English, but it seems to me that the long tradition of governesses, private tutors, boarding school, primogeniture did horrible things to English families and to British culture.

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