Dr Edel Lamb: Reading children in early modern culture

When Dr Edel Lamb began her research into the children’s literature of early modern Britain she did not imagine it would bring her to Sydney.

Dr Edel Lamb

Dr Lamb, ARC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English, made her way to Sydney via Queen’s University in Belfast, where she completed a PhD on early seventeenth-century child actors, and University College Dublin.

It was here, when seeking ways to develop a new research project into the connections between childhood and textual cultures in early modern Britain, that she stumbled upon a notice about postdoctoral opportunities on the University of Sydney’s
Early Modern Literature and Culture Research Group website. With the support and encouragement of Professor Margaret Harris
and Associate Professor Liam Semler , she was successful in gaining an ARC Discovery Grant.

Dr Lamb is researching children’s books and reading practices in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the University’s
Department of English.

“Most people respond to this by commenting that they did not realise there was any children’s literature at that time. My project demonstrates that there was, but that it differed in many ways to what we now refer to as children’s literature,” Dr Lamb explains.

“I am identifying a range of genres, such as riddle books, verses, anthologies of tricks, tales and rhymes, religious texts from prayers to books of martyrs, advice books, moral guidance, and educational books, including ABCs, fables and school textbooks, that were written for, adapted for or marketed to children”

It is not only the texts that are of interest to Dr Lamb, there are broader questions about childhood itself to explore.

“In recovering this overlooked aspect of literary history, I want to move beyond simply asserting the existence of these texts to examine what these books can tell us about attitudes to childhood and reading at this time. I am arguing for a fresh understanding of the periodization of children’s literature and childhood itself,” says Dr Lamb.

“Studying the books produced for children sheds new light on adult attitudes to childhood, but I am also keen to approach literary cultures from the perspective of the child. My work seeks to identify how individuals perceived to be children in the context of early modern culture engaged with their books. How did they acquire literacy? Did reading shape experiences of childhood? To what extent was this inflected by age. gender, social status and geography? These are challenging questions given the fragmentary nature of the evidence.”

Locating and studying evidence is a challenge but, as Dr Lamb points out, no chore.

“A major element of my research involves visiting archives to examine marginalia, school notebooks and diaries in an effort to establish what and how children read through an analysis of annotations, copied extracts and accounts of reading from the hands of children,” she says.

“Finding new sources and analysing texts and annotations that have previously been disregarded is one of the most exciting aspects of my work. It allows me to explore early modern textual cultures from a fresh perspective and to demonstrate the extent to which literature can provide access to children’s experiences throughout history.”

The results of Dr Lamb’s research will ultimately be presented in a book, Reading Children in Early Modern Culture, which will offer understandings of childhood and reading as historically- and culturally-contingent constructs and will, she hopes, pave the way for further critical scrutiny of childhood and children’s literature across different contexts, including our own.

When asked about the challenges of being an early career researcher, Dr Lamb points to the difficulty in achieving balance.

“Perhaps the most difficult aspect of being an early career researcher is finding the time, funding and support to negotiate the transition from postgraduate to established lecturer,” she says.

“With the teaching and administrative demands of a first lectureship, it can be challenging to develop new projects and establish your research profile. I am extremely fortunate in this respect. As an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow I have time to progress my ideas and funding to travel to archives and conferences, in addition to the opportunity to form relationships with new colleagues and gain experience in another research culture. Of course, daily views of Sydney Harbour are a bonus!”