Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eliot on adults not seeing what children see nor realizing what they feel

{Editorial note: Today's post from Maggie Bandur continues our back-and-forth through Eliot's Daniel Deronda. You can scroll down for earlier posts from the past couple of weeks.}

As someone who was not a terribly happy child--and as you can see in my post on Tom Brown's School Days--I am fascinated by the fact adults do not always see, and, more importantly, can't believe, that children can be deeply unhappy. Even if everyone else has had pleasant childhoods, this still involves a mass amnesia as to the intensity of one's own childhood passions and fears, and how often something said by an adult was taken to heart in a way the adults never suspected.

So, I was excited to see George Eliot's deep understanding of youthful psyches, as she describes Daniel Deronda's discovery, based on an unrelated and offhanded comment by an adult, that something about his own birth is irregular. When a tutor explains the Popes' many "nephews" were their illegitimate children, we see the alertness of youth as Daniel fixates on that fact, and the propensity of children to make imaginative leaps, as he assumes (it turns out, correctly) that his birth is illegitimate because he is also being raised by an "uncle":
Having read Shakespeare as well as a great deal of history, he could have talked with the wisdom of a bookish child about men who were born out of wedlock and were held unfortunate in consequence
--but he had never thought it applied to him until that one sudden flash of insight:
The ardour which he had given to the imaginary world in his books suddenly rushed towards his own history and spent its pictorial energy there, explaining what he knew, representing the unknown.
(It is also it is interesting how Eliot characterizes this kind of understanding: "He had not lived with other boys, and his mind showed the same blending of child's ignorance with surprising knowledge which is oftener seen in bright girls.")

Eliot understands the effect these sudden revelations can have on a child:
Who cannot imagine the bitterness of a first suspicion that something in this object of complete love was not quite right? Children demand that their heroes should be feckless, and easily believe them to be so: perhaps a first discovery to the contrary is hardly a less revolutionary shock to a passionate child than the threatened downfall of habitual beliefs which makes the world seem to totter for us in mature life.
And even more perceptively, why children may never say anything about them:
Those who have had an impassioned childhood will understand the dread of utterance about any shame connected with their parents. The impetuous advent of new images took possession of him with the force of fact for the first time told, and left him no immediate power for the reflection that he might be trembling at a fiction of his own. The terrible sense of collision between a strong rush of feeling and the dread of its betrayal, found relief at length in big slow tears, which fell without restraint until the voice of Mr. Fraser was heard saying--

"Daniel, do you see that you are sitting on the bent pages of your book?"
In spite of the turmoil going on inside--the upending of his whole world--Daniel doesn't betray his emotions beyond sitting on his book and one petulant outburst when Sir Hugo asks playfully if he would like to be a famous singer, which Daniel takes to mean he won't be raising him as a gentleman. Although Sir Hugo has a mild awareness that his ward is unhappy about something, he is completely wrong about what it is, and here Eliot captures the blindness adults have towards the feelings of children:
Let Sir Hugo be partly excused until the grounds of his action can be more fully known. The mistakes in his behavior to Deronda were due to that dulness towards what may be going on in other minds, especially the minds of children, which is among the commonest deficiencies even in good-natured men like him, when life has been generally easy to themselves, and their energies have been quietly spent in feeling gratified.
Sir Hugo feels no shame--feels pride even--in everyone assuming Daniel is his illegitimate son. And since he isn't bothered by the whole thing, it does not occur to him that Deronda might be. With a child's capacity for silent misery and an adult's inability to notice, Deronda reaches adulthood with Sir Hugo never telling him the story of his parentage--and Deronda never having the heart to ask!

And the outcome of this silent hurt is not all bad. Deronda certainly takes his early slights with more grace than I did:
The sense of an entailed disadvantage--the deformed foot doubtfully hidden by the shoe makes a restlessly active spiritual yeast, and easily turns a self-centered, unloving nature into an Ishmaelite. But in the rarer sort, who presently see their own frustrated claim as one among a myriad, the inexorable sorrow takes the form of fellowship and makes the imagination tender. Deronda's early-awakened susceptibility, charged at first with ready indignation and resistant pride, had raised in him a premature reflection on certain questions of life; it had given a bias to his conscience, a sympathy with certain ills, and a tension of resolve in certain directions, which marked him off from other youths much more than any talents he possessed.
Deronda's childhood disappointment forms him into a deeply sympathetic adult. The detailed, insightful description of his childhood mind only makes the insipid Mirah, whose own bad childhood unrealistically only intensified her inborn saintliness and didn't teach her a single practical skill for dealing with the world, stick out all the more. She has not reappeared for a while; she must get better.

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