Sunday, February 14, 2010

Victorian Gender Pronouns

I recently read Kate Summerscale's intriguing The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for the class I'm tutoring. It's a great read and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in Victorian England, detective fiction, or the beginnings of modern law enforcement.

The book concerns the 1860 murder of 3-year-old Saville Kent, a crime that captured the attention of the nation and inspired the genre of Victorian detective fiction.

One peculiar thing that caught my attention was the tendency of all of the participants — family members, neighbors, detectives, reporters — to refer to the murdered child as "it," as in, "Its little head fell almost off" (pg. 17) or
the child has woke and recognised its Father that the Father through Fear of an Exposure in the Family strangled it in the Room after the Nurse Maid had gone to sleep that  he there carried it to the Closet and cut the Throat (pg. 166).
The use of a gender-neutral pronoun does not seem to indicate that the speaker wished to dehumanize young Saville. Rather, the widespread usage makes me think that Victorians considered a 3-year-old to be more of a gender-neutral child than a gender-specific boy or girl. A few of the court records and press reports do call Saville a boy, but most call him a child and use gender-neutral pronouns.

I can't imagine calling a modern 3-year-old it without being punched by its mother. We talk about infants and toddlers in very strongly gendered language from birth, if not earlier. We dress them in gender-specific clothing and provide them with gender-specific toys. Despite our apparent return to some elements of Victorian mourning culture, a wide gulf separates us on this issue.

1 comment:

Porter said...

I found that when my second child was born, I would often tell her older sister to "watch the baby" or "don't bother the baby". I never referred to her as "it", though. I noticed that I stopped saying "the baby" around the time she started talking. I've noticed other people do this, as well, but I'm not sure why we're referring to babies that way!