Since the myth of Romulus and Remus and before, there have been stories about feral children: Mowglis who live like animals and are nurtured by them. Jill Dawson became fascinated by the ideas behind these stories. “I thought about the taboos we have in society, about the notion that we concocted these ideas because what we couldn’t accept was the possibility that we abandoned our disabled children, to think about what as human beings we find too shocking for words.” She has hit on something very true here, I believe. Of course, it is easier to imagine a child must have been orphaned, then nurtured by kindly wolves or bears than to enter the darkest places of early childhood fairy tales: where Snow White’s wicked stepmother arranges for the child to be slaughtered in the woods, where the hapless Hansel and Gretel are lured so deep into the forest they will never return. The whole fascination with these wild children, then, rests more strongly on a sentimental anthropomorphism than on the comfortable examination of the nature of our own humanity, an admission in fact of our inhumanity, of every man’s heart of darkness. Jill Dawson does not flinch from such a rigorous approach and her story gains some of its power from the setting and time of the events – every French citizen’s memory is still fresh from witnessing some of the atrocities of “The Terror” and, in one particularly gruesome passage, Madame Guerin recalls the lynching of the Princesse de Lamballe whose head was stuck on a pike and paraded through the streets of Paris.
Small wonder then, that Parisian intellects took up with fervour the concept put forward by Jean Jacques Rousseau – that of the noble savage. In 1762, Rousseau published Emile, a biography of an invented boy, who grows up to be a pure untainted paragon of human nature. A treatise on education according to “natural” principles, it caused a sensation. Rousseau’s suggestion that innocence could be regained only if a child could be cut loose from the fetters of society’s expectations, freed from any education except that chosen by the child himself, that in fact the whole concept of Original Sin was false and that philosophers like Hobbs (“Life is nasty, brutish and short”) and Locke have misconstrued humanity’s very essence was embraced and lauded by the intelligentsia. Itard’s work with Victor was in many ways an antidote to this simplistic vision and Jill Dawson’s novel Wild Boy skilfully balances and toys with our concepts of good and evil, of natural innocence or of knowing wickedness. She is too intelligent to believe she, or anyone, could or should provide a clear-cut answer, but she knows she must ask the questions.