Dr Emma Butcher (above) teaches in the English department at Manchester Metropolitan University. She argues that children provide some of the most thoughtful perspectives on war and their writing should be promoted as a useful historical resource.
Tell us about yourself
I completed my BA and MA degrees in English Literature at Brunel University in London, and ventured north to carry out an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded PhD at the University of Hull. I have just completed, and currently teach at Manchester Metropolitan University. I throw myself into all aspects of academia and enjoy everything from immersing myself in the archives to standing on stage and delivering a public lecture. I particularly enjoy the media and broadcast opportunities that come with this job.
I am currently writing for BBC History Magazine and The Guardian, and am about to throw myself headlong into the world of radio as one of the BBC/AHRC’s 2017 New Generation Thinkers. An academic job in the humanities allows for such enriching and motivating experiences, and it’s such a privilege to be able to express myself and my research through diverse and highly rewarding outlets.
What is the area of your research?
There are two interwoven strands to my research. The first is based on 19th-century masculinity, especially a ‘crisis’ in masculinity, and the second is on the history of children and war. As well as publishing on paternal infanticide in 1870s sensation fiction, I have been especially interested in military men. My PhD research focused on the Brontës (the famous 19th-century literary family) and the military. Surprisingly, their childhood fantasy writings, as complex as our modern day Game of Thrones, give a sophisticated insight into the impact of war on post-Napoleonic Britain. I argue that their understandings and representations of soldiers and war gives us important, and rare, information as to war torn emotional landscape they grew up in, where ideas of heroism and trauma were in conflict.
Currently, my research has moved on to consider children’s roles in 19th-century warfare more generally. I am most interested in how children read, understood, and wrote war. Using children’s discourse (letters, journals, memoirs), I consider the child within the military family as a form of social agent, able to not only act as an important cog within the military family unit (relaying information etc), but also give raw insight into adult states of feeling.
What is the importance of this research?
We rarely consider the voice of the child in war. So often, what they have to say is dismissed or ignored because their views are seen as undeveloped compared to that of adults. In fact, children provide some of the most thoughtful perspectives on war. They are able to interpret and imitate adult states of feeling, providing an important gap in war history and literature. We consider the child diarist Anne Frank to be one of the most important commentators of World War Two.
There are more child writers out there waiting to be found. The recent crisis in Syria has propelled the figure of the child to centre stage. Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old tweeting from Aleppo, captivated social media audiences with her vivid war commentary. Apart from this exception, however, a majority of children living in war torn countries still remain silent.
My research seeks to revive the voice of the child, promoting their writings as a useful historical source and a new way in which we can understand the effects of war.
Dr Emma Butcher’s research investigates children’s experiences and responses to war in the 19th century. With their own voices in journals and letters she will tell the stories of children through an original lens. She is one of the ten 2017 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC, in collaboration with the AHRC.