Interview: Emma Butcher

Our New Generation Thinkers for 2017 were announced at Sage as part of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. This week we talk to Emma Butcher from the University of Hull.

The New Generation Thinkers for 2017 made their radio debut on Radio 3, Tuesday 4 April

Doctor Emma Butcher

Her story so far

Emma's research investigates children’s experiences and responses to war in the nineteenth century, including the writings of the Brontës penning fantastical war stories to reanimate the war in a post-Waterloo age. With their own voices in journals and letters she will tell the stories of children through an original lens. Emma argues that we no longer have to imagine: the writings of children embroiled in global conflicts are integral to our understanding of the brutality of war.

We need to listen to children more. Especially when they are talking about difficult subjects such as war and violence, according to Emma Butcher, University of Hull.

Her work on 19th century children's writings has revealed previously unknown aspects of warfare – and its aftermath – and how that century's imperial conflicts impacted on domestic life.

Emma's PhD looked at Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, and war. She examined their childhood writings and explored their role as commentators in a post-Napoleonic context.

“A lot of the plays they performed and their games were about Wellington and Napoleon,” she says.

Surprisingly, considering their literary fame, no-one had really looked at these youthful writings in much depth before.

“It was clear to me that the Brontës were able to understand and appreciate adult feelings about war,” says Emma. “They were able to express things like war trauma, which wasn't even really a concept at the time. But they could see it around them.

In 1837 a young Charlotte Brontë wrote:

He could not sleep!, his temples prest [sic]
To the hard pillow throbbed with pain
The belt around his noble breast
His heart’s wild pulse could scarce restrain.
And stretched in feverish unrest
Awake the Great Commander lay [...]
The sods of batle [sic] round him welter
In noble blood that morning shed.
And gorged with prey & now declining
From all the fire of glory won
watchful & fierce he lies repining
O’er what may never be undone.

These discoveries led Emma to look more broadly at the topic and to her surprise discovered that very little work had been done on how children saw war or how they wrote about it, especially in a domestic context; how they incorporated war and the aftermath of war in their play and how, through this, they kept the adults around them grounded.

“Their ability to write to those relatives at the front with news from home – their trips down to the pond, the normal, day-to-day aspects of life – kept those adults in touch with domestic reality,” she says.

As an example, Emma cites letters she discovered from girls at boarding school to their fathers, who were off fighting in the Anglo-Afghan War.

“They would be saying things like: 'I met up with a general the other day and he told me to tell you this',” she says. “It's clear that through the letters the children are active agents.”

Other letters reveal how war impacted on the home.

“I've seen a letter from a seven-year-old to his father who was fighting overseas, and he's talking about how he's got himself a knife so he can be a soldier like daddy. You can see in this the way war is changing the dynamic of family life, and almost bypassing childhood in some ways. It affects ideas of masculinity. There are lots of things going on here.

“If you think about the way that war is recorded or documented, children are normally excluded from that. Or they are reduced to the status of bystanders, and I want to challenge that.”

Emma believes that, because children are sensitive to a different side of history, they can give a powerful insight into the state of feeling in their families and communities – something all too often ignored in adult, masculine, narratives.

This was all the more true in the 19th century when education demanded a high level of literacy from young people and children were very well read from an early age.

“Nowadays children are expected to read children's books. But back in the 19th century they read the same things as adults. The same books, the same newspapers, the same military memoirs. Because of this they were then able to incorporate that level of understanding into their play and their own writing.

“This is particularly true when it comes to war trauma - but it's there in children's writings in the early 19th century.

“They are are able to pick up on something that is ingrained in society. But that adults aren't talking about. They can pick up on a moment and really encapsulate it.

“This is obviously still a current issue with what is happening in Syria and Yemen. A lot of the pictures we see – the very emotive pictures of the child in the ambulance or the dead child on the beach – these are silent children. But there's another side, for example Bana Alabed, the Aleppo 'Twitter Girl'.”

The voices of children are in fact very important in shaping the way the public understand war, and how disassociated groups find a way to empathise with war – and it's this that Emma wants to share with the Radio 3 audience.

“I'd like to advocate that we listen to children more, especially around war,” she says. “I'd like us to stop seeing them as passive characters and stop marginalising their insights.

“Children should be seen as important writers and commentators in their own right.”

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