In the first chapter of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, the narrator encounters the child who will become notorious to those with no sweet tooth for sentimentality as Little Nell. He helps her to find her way home to her grandfather. Once there, the child begins the task of preparing supper, and the narrator is disturbed to realize that she has full charge of the household. Like the decent Victorian gentleman that he is, he raises his concerns with the grandfather:
“It always grieves me,” I observed, roused by what I took to be his selfishness, “it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of children into the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It checks their confidence and simplicity—two of the best qualities that Heaven gives them—and demands that they share our sorrows before they are capable of entering into our enjoyments.”
“It will never check hers,” said the old man looking steadily at me, “the springs are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but few pleasures. Even the cheap delights of childhood must be bought and paid for.”
This encounter encapsulates one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century Western culture and one of the great sources of tension in our own time: the invention and preservation of the protected realm of childhood. When Dickens was writing, the pragmatic notion that the children of the poor should pay for their cheap delights had been received wisdom for a very long time. In his time, and thanks in no small measure to his influence, the belief that children should not be initiated too soon into the ways of life gradually took hold as the new received wisdom of developed societies. Yet today, the special status of childhood is again a source of deep anxiety. The sexual exploitation of children has become a subject for headlines in the domestic and foreign news. The pervasiveness of mass media imagery has challenged the ability of parents to filter out from their children’s consciousness the complications and disturbances of the adult world.
In Andrew O’Hagan’s luminous new novel, Personality, one of the characters, Hughie Green, recalls how, when he was a child with showbiz ambitions, his father copied out the first part of this quotation from The Old Curiosity Shop for him. The second part—the old man’s assurance that the springs of Little Nell’s confidence and simplicity run too deep to be polluted by early exposure to the adult world—is not quoted, but it hangs like a question mark over the entire novel. The novel’s main character, Maria Tambini, is a child star, a Scottish-Italian girl from the holiday island of Bute, whose marvelous singing voice and sparkling performances win her fame on Green’s television talent show, Opportunity Knocks, when she is just thirteen years old. Personality tests the springs of her confidence and finds them tainted with pain and loss.
In writing about …