Up until about 20 years ago, the lives of children figured very little, if at all, in the teaching and learning of history. But as a historian of childhood, Associate Professor of History Lydia Murdoch ’92 is part of a movement that has been rectifying that omission while enriching the study of history in general.
And her contributions to this emerging field have not gone unnoticed. She has just returned from the 2013 Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS) Conference, where she was awarded the INCS Essay Prize for her article “‘Suppressed Grief’: Mourning the Death of British Children and the Memory of the 1857 Indian Rebellion,” originally published in the Journal of British Studies.
Murdoch’s first book, Imagined Orphans: Poor Families, Child Welfare, and Contested Citizenship in London (Rutgers University Press, 2006), was a cultural and social history of child welfare in Victorian London. While working on her next book, which examines Victorian attitudes toward child death, Murdoch found a renewed fascination with an event she first studied at Vassar—the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a bloody conflict little known to most Americans, and usually called the Sepoy Mutiny by those few who do. “It grabbed my attention as a scholar of imperial Britain,” she says, “because everyone in domestic Britain was talking about it. It was one of the key crises of empire. And looking at the British cultural response to it brought me back to issues of childhood.”
That is because, as in so many wars to follow, children figured prominently among the victims. Through a “combination of archival sources, visual culture, public memorials, and histories [that] is impressively interdisciplinary,” as the INCS selection committee noted, Murdoch’s article poignantly brings back to life the experiences of British women and children caught in the midst of the rebellion, notably those trapped in a months-long siege in the city of Lucknow. That event took a particularly terrible toll on children, both British and Indian (though, as Murdoch stresses, the deaths of lower-class British children, and particularly Indian children, were seldom acknowledged). They perished due to everything from shell bursts and cannonballs—there is a fearsome account of a little girl playing in a courtyard killed that way—to dysentery and malnutrition, notably a lack of milk for infants.
As the article goes on to point out, these child deaths, at first, were used to justify extremely violent reprisals against Indians; later, they were suppressed from accounts entirely, because they did not fit the standard narrative of empire. “It was a turning point,” says Murdoch of the rebellion and how it was interpreted. “After that, there was an increased emphasis on racist hierarchies in Britain’s relations with India.”
The award marks another milestone on an unexpected journey that began when Murdoch arrived at Vassar as an undergraduate with an especially keen interest in the Victorian era. As it happened, she says, “The early 1990s were when the field of childhood studies got going and was established.” She ended up writing her Vassar thesis on child prostitution in London in the 19th century, and after earning her M.A. and Ph.D. at Indiana, returned to her alma mater 13 years ago to teach.
One of her signature courses is “Children and Childhood in 19th-Century Britain.” “It was the most amazing thing to be able to teach this course,” she recalls. “I proposed it my first year here, and I’ve taught it six times now.” Part of the course’s appeal derives from the enormous, lingering influence of Victorian Britain on modern ideas of childhood as a unique “age of innocence”—a notion belied by some of the materials studied, including oral histories of working-class children and adults in London made famous by the novels of Charles Dickens.
Murdoch’s award-winning paper brings together her scholarship on Victorian Britain in general and her particular focus as a historian of childhood. In awarding her the prize, the INCS selection committee called Murdoch’s article “a major piece of historical research, by turns moving, disturbing, and breathtaking in its range of reference and analytical scope.” Nancy Bisaha, chair of the History Department, puts it more simply: “She has done the History Department and Vassar very proud.”
Photo © Vassar College-John Abbott