Child prodigies in the nineteenth century and now

A young boy taking a photo of a girl in a dress

Today, social media is full of stories featuring children with amazing talents; we appear to enjoy reading about child prodigies like never before. But although the technologies through which we share and comment on them may be new, Roisín Laing argues that our twenty-first century attitudes towards children and child prodigies are actually very similar to those of our Victorian ancestors.

The idea that we are all that different from our nineteenth-century ancestors might be comfortable, but it is not necessarily true. When it comes to children, for example, we seem to have held on to quite a lot of Victorian ideas.

A recent news story exemplifies this. Just a few weeks ago, Alma Deutscher’s first full-length opera, Cinderella, premiered to standing ovations. Her success made headline news, because she is only eleven years old.

The story would have been just as newsworthy in the nineteenth century and for some of the same reasons. An analysis of nineteenth-century commentary about precocious children, and of contemporary commentary, not only tells us something about nineteenth-century childhood, but also points to the traces of those ideas in our own society.

Precocious children in the nineteenth-century were newsworthy for two prominent reasons. Firstly, precocity invoked a story the ending to which was both tragic and, seemingly, quite satisfying. Thus, for example, when one musical prodigy of the period—a pianist, aged twelve—performed a programme of ‘seventy-two pieces—sonatas, concertos, fantasias, fugues, variations, études, by Beethoven, Weber, Cramer, Bach, Handel, Liszt, Thalberg, Chopin, etc., which she knew by heart, and could, without hesitation, play from memory’, composer Hector Berlioz remarked that the performance seemed ‘calculated to inspire as much terror as admiration.’

Admiration is an obvious response – but why would her performance have inspired terror? Anyone who has read, for example, Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) or Dombey and Son (1848) might guess. Like her fictional counterparts Little Nell and Paul Dombey, the remarkably precocious child who performed for Berlioz ‘was struck down by a premature death’. Berlioz’s prescient terror suggests that in the nineteenth century precocity was associated with premature death, in life as much as in fiction.

The Dombey Family, by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nor do those prodigies who do make it to adulthood survive unscathed. One psychologist noted that such children go on, as adults, to:

develop every form of hysteria and neurasthenia. They spend their lives in seeking patent cures for exhaustion bred by passion, and shriek and rail against an inappreciative world. They sometimes end in monomania or perhaps in lunacy or suicide—or they swell the roll of cranks and faddists who burn to reform something and to punish somebody, and usually end in extinguishing themselves.

Precocity clearly had ‘an evil significance’ for many in the nineteenth century.

It is all too easy to dismiss such commentary as dated, and to assume that we live in a more rational age. What, then, should we make of the following comments, made in response to the Daily Mail’s story of Alma Deutscher’s recent performance in Vienna?

We’ve all seen how these things can turn out.

hopefully she won’t turn out to be a bitter oddball.

child Prodigy’s need careful handling as they can crack as adults.

Such comments invoke that litany of examples from our own era which ‘turned out’ just as badly as their nineteenth-century counterparts. Precocity clearly retains, today, some of the evil significance it had in the nineteenth century.

The second element of stories about precocious children which nineteenth-century commentators found particularly newsworthy was scepticism or suspicion towards the prodigy herself. As one writer remarked, ‘one never knows how many forcing-tricks may have been resorted to’ in developing an ostensibly precocious talent. Even the amazingly and famously precocious John Stuart Mill is not impervious to this cynicism: Alexander Bain claimed that Mill’s classical knowledge, ‘such as it was, could easily be forced upon a clever youth at that age’, and so, perhaps inevitably, we find that only on those subjects which Mill’s father, James Mill could teach him effectively was ‘John…a truly precocious youth’. Even the admission that Mill’s ‘innate aptitudes…must have been great’ is followed by the insistence that those aptitudes ‘received the utmost stimulation that it was possible to apply’. Mill’s abilities are dependent on his father’s abilities, and even, implicitly, on his forcing-tricks. In fact, Mill’s ‘application’ was ‘excessive’ so that, like many precocious peers in literature and in medicine, ‘his health suffered.’ In Bain’s analysis, Mill’s precocity itself inevitably becomes suspect, and his childhood achievements seriously diminished.

The Governess, by Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Governess, by Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Such reluctance to attribute adult ability to a child is, once again, equally evident in responses to our own example of a twenty-first-century prodigy, Deutscher:

So rich Mummy and Daddy are pushy parents and would rather swap school and real life for music lessons.

Mummy wasn’t going to be a dinner lady, now, was she?

Pushy parents, kid has no life.

I am sure her mom helped her compose.

And, perhaps most bizarrely:

Anyone can just string notes together. It should be much easier for an 11 year old to write music than an adult because an 11 year old’s head isn’t swimming with other people’s sounds and ideas

Why this unwillingness to credit Deutscher’s success? Why the unpleasant speculation about her future? These are difficult questions, but perhaps by understanding why nineteenth-century commentators responded the way they did, we might be better equipped to understand our own, very similar responses. At the very least, we should recognise that the continuity between nineteenth and twenty-first century discourse about precocity undermines that comfortable but dangerous assumption that our present is different from, and an improvement on, our past.

Roisín Laing recently completed her thesis on The Precocious Child in the Late Nineteenth Century. You can listen to her discuss other links between Victorian psychology and culture in this podcast.


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