Wild Boy by Jill Dawson - review by Martyn Bedford

Martyn Bedford

Ignoble Savage

Wild Boy


Sceptre 291pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

FRANCE, ON THE cusp of the nineteenth century: as Parisians emerge, bloodied and brutalised from the Revolution, a new citoyen comes to live among them - a wild child with his own tale of terror to tell, if only he could speak. A prepubescent savage, more beast than boy, he has lived alone in the woods of southern France for years, foraging for food and shelter, shunning human contact, evading wolves and bears. While many were losing their heads to the guillotine, he lay, near death, in the forest with a slash wound to his throat. Had soldiers done this, or was he an 'ihot-child' abandoned by his own parents? Regardless of how he got there, he has survived. When at last the boy is captured, or allows himself to be, he is brought to the capital to be paraded like a circus freak before astonished crowds. But, recognising that he has more than mere entertainment value, the authorities put him in the care of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, an ambitious young doctor at the Deaf-Mute Institute. Dr Itard's professional mission - soon to become his all-consuming personal obsession - is to civilise the child, and to teach him to speak. The boy, whom Itard names Victor, is not seen in terms of Dryden's romanticised creature, unsullied by civilisation, materialism and urbanisation, 'free as nature first made man ... when wild in woods the noble savage ran'. He is an animal to be tamed and trained.

Jill Dawson's story is based on a true one. The Savage of Aveyron, as he was known, was caught in 1798 and subjected to an experimental programme of tuition. The tale has already been fictionalised by Fran~oisT ruffaut in his 1969 film L'Enfant sauvage, but Dawson says her inspiration came

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend