Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Regime to the Third Republic.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Weissbach, Lee Shai
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Regime to the Third Republic (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Heywood, Colin
Accession Number: 209577963
Full Text: Growing Up in France: From the Ancien Regime to the Third Republic. By Colin Heywood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi plus 313 pp.).

Colin Heywood maintains that most histories of French childhood have been written from the perspective of what adults did to and for youngsters, and that the development of the new social history in the 1970s brought demographic evidence to the forefront in studies of the young. Thus, in Growing Up in France, Heywood attempts to restore the voices of young people themselves to the story of childhood and adolescence in France. Although it does not ignore other types of evidence, Heywood's study relies primarily on sources such as diaries, letters, autobiographies, oral histories, and even the autobiographical aspects of novels. He wisely recognizes, however, that such texts tell more about how individuals interpreted their experiences of childhood than about the realities of those experiences.

Heywood also acknowledges that the unusual is more likely than the mundane to be recorded in the so-called "ego documents" on which his study rests, and that one can not generalize to an entire population from what is learned from such sources. The sources he has uncovered, Heywood explains, are best used for "putting flesh on the bare bones of statistics, and giving an idea of the diversity of experience among different sections of the population" (34). Most importantly, Heywood recognizes that while there are some biological universals where the experience of childhood is concerned, much of that experience is conditioned by environmental influences. One of the overarching themes of this work is that childhood and adolescence are, ultimately, social constructions, their nature influenced by factors such as gender, social status, religion, and an urban or rural setting.

This book is divided into three sections. The first considers the sources available for the study of childhood in France from the 1760s to the 1930s and the various issues that arise concerning the use of these sources and the study of childhood more generally. Heywood finds, for instance, that with Catholicism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and other forces all playing a role, a wide variety of images of childhood and adolescence emerged between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, although he suggests that over time those images mellowed somewhat. He points out, as well, that over time the folk model of growing up, with its various rites de passage, was impinged upon more and more by new ideas and new institutions introduced into an increasingly complex society.

The second part of this book takes up the topic of how children interacted with others in their environments, including members of their families, their neighbors, and their friends. Heywood asks not only what various child-rearing practices were among the different social classes, but also how these practices changed over time and how children coped with them. Among the interesting observations contained in this section is that early modern French households were probably smaller than has been believed in the past. Among this section's fascinating subtopics is gang life in its various rural and urban manifestations.

The third section of this book focuses on the crucial issue of how children moved toward independence as they matured and how they developed their adult identities. This section considers such topics as industrial child labor, the crisis of apprenticeship, and the increasing intrusion of formal schooling into the lives of the young, concluding that during the nineteenth century the slow transition of the young into useful labor was replaced by "the set age for leaving school and starting work that was characteristic of a bureaucratic state" (237). This section also considers early sexual experiences, the selection of marriage partners, and the end of childhood as individuals reached their mid twenties.

Throughout, Heywood illustrates his observations with specific examples drawn from the writings of a great many individuals and also, occasionally, with reproductions of paintings of children, although it is a shame he uses evidence from art only in his discussions of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Another strength of this book is that it is full of fascinating bits of information about aspects of childhood not often discussed. Heywood reveals, for example, that young people often used prayers, talismans and pilgrimages to try to influence their fate when it came time to face conscription, and that they sometimes recorded the smells with which they had to contend in childhood (in one case, the reek of "fried onions, garlic, ... liquid manure spread over the soil, and on Mondays and Tuesdays, the lingering smell of washing" (171)).

If this book has any faults, they are not serious ones. Heywood may be too conscientious about reporting on the great variety of relationships, family structures, experiences, and so forth, that he has discovered in the course of his extensive research, so that it is not always easy to get a sense of which predominated at various points in time and of overall trends. So too, Heywood sometimes reports too fully on the many individual documents he has encountered; occasionally, his text reads somewhat dryly as a string of loosely connected examples drawn from his various sources.

Ultimately, Heywood concludes that the changes that took place in the experience of childhood as it evolved between the mid eighteenth century and the mid twentieth were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, children gained many new legal protections and material benefits and more opportunities were opened for them, but, on the other hand, they lost some of their traditional supportive social structures and some of their freedom and they came under increasing pressure to think and act for themselves. Growing Up in France adds significantly to our knowledge about the place of children in French society and, in doing so, it serves to enhance the reputation Colin Heywood has established as an erudite and insightful expert on childhood in France.

Lee Shai Weissbach

University of Louisville
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.