A happy half-century and other essays/The Child


I was not initiated into any rudiments 'till near four years of age.—John Evelyn.

The courage of mothers is proverbial. There is no danger which they will not brave in behalf of their offspring. But I have always thought that, for sheer foolhardiness, no one ever approached the English lady who asked Dr. Johnson to read her young daughter's translation from Horace. He did read it, because the gods provided no escape; and he told his experience to Miss Reynolds, who said soothingly, "And how was it, Sir?" "Why, very well for a young Miss's verses," was the contemptuous reply. "That is to say, as compared with excellence, nothing; but very well for the person who wrote them. I am vexed at being shown verses in that manner."

The fashion of focussing attention upon children had not in Dr. Johnson's day assumed the fell proportions which, a few years later, practically extinguished childhood. It is true that he objected to Mr. Bennet Langton's connubial felicity, because the children were "too much about"; and that he betrayed an unworthy impatience when the ten little Langtons recited fables, or said their alphabets in Hebrew for his delectation. It is true also that he answered with pardonable rudeness when asked what was the best way to begin a little boy's education. He said it mattered no more how it was begun, that is, what the child was taught first, than it mattered which of his little legs he first thrust into his breeches,—a callous speech, painful to parents' ears. Dr. Johnson had been dead four years when Mrs. Hartley, daughter of Dr. David Hartley of Bath, wrote to Sir William Pepys:—

"Education is the rage of the times. Everybody tries to make their children more wonderful than any children of their acquaintance. The poor little things are so crammed with knowledge that there is scant time for them to obtain by exercise, and play, and vacancy of mind, that strength of body which is much more necessary in childhood than learning."

I am glad this letter went to Sir William, who was himself determined that his children should not, at any rate, be less wonderful than other people's bantlings. When his eldest son had reached the mature age of six, we find him writing to Miss Hannah More and Mrs. Chapone, asking what books he shall give the poor infant to read, and explaining to these august ladies his own theories of education. Mrs. Chapone, with an enthusiasm worthy of Mrs. Blimber, replies that she sympathizes with the rare delight it must be to him to teach little William Latin; and that she feels jealous for the younger children, who, being yet in the nursery, are denied their brother's privileges. When the boy is ten, Sir William reads to him "The Faerie Queene," and finds that he grasps "the beauty of the description and the force of the allegory." At eleven he has "an animated relish for Ovid and Virgil." And the more the happy father has to tell about the precocity of his child, the more Mrs. Chapone stimulates and confounds him with tales of other children's prowess. When she hears that the "sweet Boy" is to be introduced, at five, to the English classics, she writes at once about a little girl, who, when "rather younger than he is" (the bitterness of that!), "had several parts of Milton by heart." These "she understood so well as to apply to her Mother the speech of the Elder Brother in 'Comus,' when she saw her uneasy for want of a letter from the Dean; and began of her own accord with

'Peace, Mother, be not over exquisite
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils'";—

advice which would have exasperated a normal parent to the boxing point.

There were few normal parents left, however, at this period, to stem the tide of infantile precocity. Child study was dawning as a new and fascinating pursuit upon the English world; and the babes of Britain responded nobly to the demands made upon their incapacity. Miss Anna Seward lisped Milton at three, "recited poetical passages, with eyes brimming with delight," at five, and versified her favourite psalms at nine. Her father, who viewed these alarming symptoms with delight, was so ill-advised as to offer her, when she was ten, a whole half-crown, if she would write a poem on Spring; whereupon she "swiftly penned" twenty-five lines, which have been preserved to an ungrateful world, and which shadow forth the painful prolixity of future days. At four years of age, little Hannah More was already composing verses with ominous ease. At five, she "struck mute" the respected clergyman of the parish by her exhaustive knowledge of the catechism. At eight, we are told her talents "were of such a manifestly superior order that her father did not scruple to combine with the study of Latin some elementary instruction in mathematics; a fact which her readers might very naturally infer from the clear and logical cast of her argumentative writings."

It is not altogether easy to trace the connection between Miss More's early sums and her argumentative writings; but, as an illustration of her logical mind, I may venture to quote a "characteristic" anecdote, reverently told by her biographer, Mr. Thompson. A young lady, whose sketches showed an unusual degree of talent, was visiting in Bristol; and her work was warmly admired by Miss Mary, Miss Sally, Miss Elizabeth, and Miss Patty More. Hannah alone withheld all word of commendation, sitting in stony silence whenever the drawings were produced; until one day she found the artist hard at work, putting a new binding on a petticoat. Then, "fixing her brilliant eyes with an expression of entire approbation upon the girl, she said: 'Now, my dear, that I find you can employ yourself usefully, I will no longer forbear to express my admiration of your drawings.'"

Only an early familiarity with the multiplication table could have made so ruthless a logician.

If Dr. Johnson, being childless, found other people's children in his way, how fared the bachelors and spinsters who, as time went on, were confronted by a host of infant prodigies; who heard little Anna Letitia Aikin—afterwards Mrs. Barbauld—read "as well as most women" at two and a half years of age; and little Anna Maria Porter declaim Shakespeare "with precision of emphasis and firmness of voice" at five; and little Alphonso Hayley recite a Greek ode at six. We wonder if anybody ever went twice to homes that harboured childhood; and we sympathize with Miss Ferrier's bitterness of soul, when she describes a family dinner at which Eliza's sampler and Alexander's copy-book are handed round to the guests, and Anthony stands up and repeats "My name is Norval" from beginning to end, and William Pitt is prevailed upon to sing the whole of "God save the King." It was also a pleasant fashion of the time to write eulogies on one's kith and kin. Sisters celebrated their brothers' talents in affectionate verse, and fathers confided to the world what marvellous children they had. Even Dr. Burney, a man of sense, poetizes thus on his daughter Susan:—

Nor did her intellectual powers require
The usual aid of labour to inspire
Her soul with prudence, wisdom, and a taste
Unerring in refinement, sound and chaste.

This was fortunate for Susan, as most young people of the period were compelled to labour hard. There was a ghastly pretence on the part of parents that children loved their tasks, and that to keep them employed was to keep them happy. Sir William Pepys persuaded himself without much difficulty that little William, who had weak eyes and nervous headaches, relished Ovid and Virgil. A wonderful and terrible letter written in 1786 by the Baroness de Bode, an Englishwoman married to a German and living at Deux-Ponts, lays bare the process by which ordinary children were converted into the required miracles of precocity. Her eldest boys, aged eight and nine, appear to have been the principal victims. The business of their tutor was to see that they were "fully employed," and this is an account of their day.

"In their walks he [the tutor] teaches them natural history and botany, not dryly as a task, but practically, which amuses them very much. In their hours of study come drawing, writing, reading, and summing. Their lesson in writing consists of a theme which they are to translate into three languages, and sometimes into Latin, for they learn that a little also. The boys learn Latin as a recreation, and not as a task, as is the custom in England. Perhaps one or two hours a day is at most all that is given to that study. 'Tis certainly not so dry a study, when learnt like modern languages. We have bought them the whole of the Classical Authors, so that they can instruct themselves if they will; between ninety and a hundred volumes in large octavo. You would be surprised,—even Charles Auguste, who is only five, reads German well, and French tolerably. They all write very good hands, both in Roman and German texts. Clem and Harry shall write you a letter in English, and send you a specimen of their drawing. Harry (the second) writes musick, too. He is a charming boy, improves very much in all his studies, plays very prettily indeed upon the harpsichord, and plays, too, all tunes by ear. Clem will, I think, play well on the violin; but 'tis more difficult in the beginning than the harpsichord. He is at this moment taking his lesson, the master accompanying him on the pianoforte; and when Henry plays that, the master accompanies on the violin, which forms them both, and pleases them at the same time. In the evening their tutor generally recounts to them very minutely some anecdote from history, which imprints it on the memory, amuses them, and hurts no eyes."

There is nothing like it on record except the rule of life which Frederick William the First drew up for little Prince Fritz, when that unfortunate child was nine years old, and which disposed of his day, hour by hour, and minute by minute. But then Frederick William—a truth-teller if a tyrant—made no idle pretence of pleasing and amusing his son. The unpardonable thing about the Baroness de Bode is her smiling assurance that one or two hours of Latin a day afforded a pleasant pastime for children of eight and nine.

This was, however, the accepted theory of education. It is faithfully reflected in all the letters and literature of the time. When Miss More's redoubtable "Cœlebs" asks Lucilla Stanley's little sister why she is crowned with woodbine, the child replies: "Oh, sir, it is because it is my birthday. I am eight years old to-day. I gave up all my gilt books with pictures this day twelvemonth; and to-day I give up all my story-books, and I am now going to read such books as men and women read." Whereupon the little girl's father—that model father whose wisdom flowers into many chapters of counsel—explains that he makes the renouncing of baby books a kind of epoch in his daughters' lives; and that by thus distinctly marking the period, he wards off any return to the immature pleasures of childhood. "We have in our domestic plan several of these artificial divisions of life. These little celebrations are eras that we use as marking-posts from which we set out on some new course."

Yet the "gilt books," so ruthlessly discarded at eight years of age, were not all of an infantile character. For half a century these famous little volumes, bound in Dutch gilt paper—whence their name—found their way into every English nursery, and provided amusement and instruction for every English child. They varied from the "histories" of Goody Two-Shoes and Miss Sally Spellwell to the "histories" of Tom Jones and Clarissa Harlowe, "abridged for the amusement of youth"; and from "The Seven Champions of Christendom" to "The First Principles of Religion, and the Existence of a Deity; Explained in a Series of Conversations, Adapted to the Capacity of the Infant Mind." The capacity of the infant mind at the close of the eighteenth century must have been something very different from the capacity of the infant mind to-day. In a gilt-book dialogue (1792) I find a father asking his tiny son: "Dick, have you got ten lines of Ovid by heart?"

"Yes, Papa, and I've wrote my exercise."

"Very well, then, you shall ride with me. The boy who does a little at seven years old, will do a great deal when he is fourteen."

This was poor encouragement for Dick, who had already tasted the sweets of application. It was better worth while for Miss Sally Spellwell to reach the perfection which her name implies, for she was adopted by a rich old lady with a marriageable son,—"a young Gentleman of such purity of Morals and good Understanding as is not everywhere to be found." In the breast of this paragon "strange emotions arise" at sight of the well-informed orphan; his mother, who sets a proper value on orthography, gives her full consent to their union; and we are swept from the contemplation of samplers and hornbooks to the triumphant conclusion: "Miss Sally Spell well now rides in her coach and six." Then follows the unmistakable moral:—

If Virtue, Learning, Goodness are your Aim,
Each pretty Miss may hope to do the same;

an anticipation which must have spurred many a female child to diligence. There was no ill-advised questioning of values in our great-grandmothers' day to disturb this point of view. As the excellent Mrs. West observed in her "Letters to a young Lady," a book sanctioned by bishops, and dedicated to the Queen: "We unquestionably were created to be the wedded mates of man. Nature intended that man should sue, and woman coyly yield."

The most appalling thing about the precocious young people of this period was the ease with which they slipped into print. Publishers were not then the adamantine race whose province it is now to blight the hopes of youth. They beamed with benevolence when the first fruits of genius were confided to their hands. Bishop Thirlwall's first fruits, his "Primitiæ," were published when he was eleven years old, with a preface telling the public what a wonderful boy little Connop was;—how he studied Latin at three, and read Greek with ease and fluency at four, and wrote with distinction at seven. It is true that the parent Thirlwall appears to have paid the costs, to have launched his son's "slender bark" upon seas which proved to be stormless. It is true also that the bishop suffered acutely in later years from this youthful production, and destroyed every copy he could find. But there was no proud and wealthy father to back young Richard Polwhele, who managed, when he was a schoolboy in Cornwall, to get his first volume of verse published anonymously. It was called "The Fate of Llewellyn," and was consistently bad, though no worse, on the whole, than his maturer efforts. The title-page stated modestly that the writer was "a young gentleman of Truro School"; whereupon an ill-disposed critic in the "Monthly Review" intimated that the master of Truro School would do well to keep his young gentlemen out of print. Dr. Cardew, the said master, retorted hotly that the book had been published without his knowledge, and evinced a lack of appreciation, which makes us fear that his talented pupil had a bad half-hour at his hands.

Miss Anna Maria Porter—she who delighted "critical audiences" by reciting Shakespeare at five—published her "Artless Tales" at fifteen; and Mrs. Hemans was younger still when her "Blossoms of Spring" bloomed sweetly upon English soil. Some of the "Blossoms" had been written before she was ten. The volume was a "fashionable quarto," was dedicated to that hardy annual, the Prince Regent, and appears to have been read by adults. It is recorded that an unkind notice sent the little girl crying to bed; but as her "England and Spain; or Valour and Patriotism" was published nine months later, and as at eighteen she "beamed forth with a strength and brilliancy that must have shamed her reviewer," we cannot feel that her poetic development was very seriously retarded.

And what of the marvellous children whose subsequent histories have been lost to the world? What of the two young prodigies of Lichfield, "Aonian flowers of early beauty and intelligence," who startled Miss Seward and her friends by their "shining poetic talents," and then lapsed into restful obscurity? What of the wonderful little girl (ten years old) whom Miss Burney saw at Tunbridge Wells; who sang "like an angel," conversed like "an informed, cultivated, and sagacious woman," played, danced, acted with all the grace of a comedienne, wept tears of emotion without disfiguring her pretty face, and, when asked if she read the novels of the day (what a question!), replied with a sigh: "But too often! I wish I did not." Miss Burney and Mrs. Thrale were so impressed—as well they might be—by this little Selina Birch, that they speculated long and fondly upon the destiny reserved for one who so easily eclipsed the other miraculous children of this highly miraculous age.

"Doubtful as it is whether we shall ever see the sweet Syren again," writes Miss Burney, "nothing, as Mrs. Thrale said to her" (this, too, was well advised), "can be more certain than that we shall hear of her again, let her go whither she will. Charmed as we all were, we agreed that to have the care of her would be distraction. 'She seems the girl in the world,' Mrs. Thrale wisely said, 'to attain the highest reach of human perfection as a man's mistress. As such she would be a second Cleopatra, and have the world at her command.'

"Poor thing! I hope to Heaven she will escape such sovereignty and such honours!"

She did escape scot-free. Whoever married—let us hope he married—Miss Birch, was no Mark Antony to draw fame to her feet. His very name is unknown to the world. Perhaps, as "Mrs.—Something—Rogers," she illustrated in her respectable middle age that beneficent process by which Nature frustrates the educator, and converts the infant Cleopatra or the infant Hypatia into the rotund matron, of whom she stands permanently in need.