Nota Bene: Noteworthy books includes new work by Douthwaite

by Nina Ayoub

‘The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment’

Captured in the woods near the German town of Hamelin, Peter of Hanover was one of several feral children whose stories gripped the imagination of the Enlightenment.

His quadrupedal posture and liking for roots, nuts, and berries suggested an ursine upbringing to some. Whether bearish or just boorish, the mute and uncouth youth was sent, in 1726, to be a guest of England’s German-born Hanover court. There, notes Julia V. Douthwaite, he became a “political foil” for court critics, who charged that exposure to the court would corrupt “wild Peter,” not improve him. Peter too played into debates over “natural man” and human-animal differences. But efforts to educate him largely failed.

It was another wild, and highly carnivorous, child, Marie-Angelique LeBlanc, who became far more acculturated. Seized in France in 1731, she was confined to a convent and her “progress” charted in terms of docility, change of bloody eating habits, and penitence. “The writer Louis Racine, for example, read the wild girl’s past as a moral flaw,” says Ms. Douthwaite, “a vestige of original sin.”

The feral tales of Marie, Peter, and Victor de l’Aveyron open “The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment” (University of Chicago Press). The author uses a range of texts, from child-rearing manuals to Sade’s darkest fantasies, to explore Enlightenment notions of mankind as an “infinitely malleable entity, for better or for worse.” The era’s literature, she writes, built on an intimate knowledge of period science, a realm that embraced amateur experimentalism. “Writers in all literary genres were very interested in the testing of human limitsboth physical and moral,” says the scholar, a professor of French at theUniversity of Notre Dame.

Moving from wild children to “thought experiments,” she discusses scientists who speculated on Adamic figures or statues come to life. Human plasticity was also explored, notably in Rousseau’s novel-treatise Emile, ou de l’education. Ms. Douthwaite shows how his sometimes kind, sometimes cruel plans for the fictional boy were disastrously replicated in the real-life experiments of three “notorious parent-pedagogues”Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day, and Manon Roland.

From parents run amok to nations in turmoil, she traces ideas of human perfectibility in the notion of the “regenerated man” in revolutionary France. Later, Sade’s Justine and other dystopian fiction “symbolize the dangers of science and politics in the postrevolutionary age.”

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