Laps(epõlv) 19. sajandi teise poole Eestis omaelulooliste tekstide näitel. Child(hood) in 19th Century Estonia: a Study of Autobiographical Texts

Ave Mattheus


In this article I discuss autobiographical texts which focus on children and childhood in late 19th century Estonia. Childhood memories as well as other autobiographical material became popular in Estonia in the 1920s-1930s, when most of the studied works--the memoirs by Anna Haava, Mait Metsanurk, Jaan Lattik, Jaan Vahtra, Friedebert Tuglas, August Kitzberg and Marta Sillaots--were written. Some texts come from the 19th century (e.g. Lilli Suburg’s autobiographical works) or early 20th century (e.g. manuscripts by Hans Leoke, and Johannes Kõrv). Childhood as described in these autobiographical texts covers a period of circa 1850-1900, and the majority of the authors come from the families of South-Estonian peasants or manorial servants. In addition to being written in Estonian and having the same theme, they were all also written by authors of fiction for children or by people who had close contact with children, such as schoolteachers. The article offers a novel approach in the Estonian context by presenting a typology of childhood stories and looking at childhood recollections as an important part of childhood studies. The researchers of childhood investigate how society understands and values children and childhood, what children’s everyday life is like, what possibilities there are for development and if there exists a specific children’s culture in society (such as clothing, food, language, leisure activities, or independent creative work). Childhood studies as a separate discipline does not exist in Estonia, although some important works have been published by educational scholars and art historians. The autobiographical texts under discussion show that in the late 19th century, the majority of Estonian children lived in the countryside in patriarchal families, and childhood was short because children had to help their parents with farmwork quite early, at the age of six. The boundary of childhood was around the age of 10-11, when children started school and often left their childhood homes as the schools were usually far away. Childhood in the city is described by one author (Sillaots) and this is only natural as urbanisation in Estonia gained momentum in the early 20th century. Although childhood in Estonia in the late 19th century had scarcely any specific elements of children’s culture (children in the cities had more toys, children-style clothes, leisure, etc.), this period in the authors’ lives is remembered as a carefree and happy time. We should emphasise that in early Estonian childhood memories, the child is described as emotionally vulnerable (i.e. feels strongly about punishment), with intellectual interests and creativity; these are features that are not usually associated with agrarian society. These characteristics, however, may be connected with the fact that memories were written by creative people and construed as stories about the growth of a creative person. Another important aspect of childhood stories is that as confessional texts they are stories of individualisation and socialisation. In the second part of the article, I analyse the self-images of the authors, which are closely connected with the motivation and purpose of writing that may be worded explicitly (in the title or in the preface) or hidden between the lines. Several texts are construed as stories that focus on the development of the writer and the growth of the self (e.g. Metsanurk, Tuglas, and Vahtra); even if the text is a family history or a social history, it is a story of the awakening of the creative power (e.g. Haava, Kitzberg, Sillaots). The analysis of the self-image in childhood stories led me to the conclusion that female protagonists define themselves through familial or social communication networks (such as representatives of an ethnic group), and male protagonists are described as relatively independent individuals. In the last part of the article the narrative and rhetoric techniques are discussed by using literary terminology. Although all the late 19th century Estonian childhood stories share similar techniques (such as the perspective of the first-person or personal narrative, the split of the storyteller into the first-person child and the first-person adult), story elements (such as the first memory of a room flooded by golden sunlight), and recurrent motifs (such as child’s loneliness and close relation to nature, educational strivings), each story is written in a different way. The works written by professional writers are characterised by lively dialogue, individualised descriptions of the scenery, symbols, metaphors and other stylistic devices, whereas the texts written by the so-called ordinary intellectuals are not as rich in imagery and style. It is quite natural that the childhood memories written by professional writers have better withstood the test of time. The present study is the first to have a more comprehensive view of childhood as reflected in autobiographical writing in Estonia in the 19th century and therefore is somewhat fragmented; I attempt to make a list of possible research ideas and offer some methods for analysis that may be productive in the future. The broadening of the research perspective in the temporary, linguistic and spatial sense may offer more scope; a large number of childhood stories have been published in the 20th and the 21st century in Estonia and the comparison of stories telling us about Estonian children’s childhoods with those recounting German or Russian children’s experiences may offer new insights, as these ethnic groups have occupied one and the same geographical space, although there are significant differences. Another topic for research would be the study of autobiographical texts against the background of the authors’ fictional works.

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