Essays in Miniature/Children in Fiction

For works with similar titles, see Children in Fiction (Le Gallienne).


CHILDREN IN FICTION


MR. RUDYARD KIPLING has prefaced his little volume of Child Stories with a modest intimation that he finds the subject almost beyond his grasp. He says:


"Only women understand children thoroughly; but if a mere man keeps very quiet, and humbles himself properly, and refrains from talking down to his superiors, the children will sometimes be good to him, and let him see what they think about in the world. Yet, even after patient investigation and the condescension of the nursery, it is hard to draw babies."


This sounds disarming, and at the same time strikes a popular note respecting these fortunate little people, who, after having been considered for many years as unworthy of the novelist's regard, have now suddenly grown too complex and subtle for him to hope to understand. Mr. Kipling himself approaches them with great caution, and treats them with careful conventionality, except in that pitiful bit of realism, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," where the misery and swift deterioration of a child are almost too painfully portrayed. Punch, with his dim comprehension of his own unhappiness, and his pathetic attempts to be friendly and "oblige everybody;" Punch, swaying alternately from clumsy deception to helpless rage, badgered into sullenness, and betrayed by the inherent weakness of his poor, peace-loving little soul, is a picture burdened with bitter truth, drawn with revengeful fidelity. Once, I am sure, a half-blind, solitary boy measured those lonely rooms in hand spans: "fifty down the side, thirty across, and fifty back again—one hundred and eighty-one exactly from the hall door to the top of the first landing." Once, I am sure, he knocked his blundering head against the walls, and upset the glasses that he tried to grasp, in the gathering gloom of his doubly darkened life.

But when we turn from the sad sincerity of "Black Sheep" to the brighter atmosphere of the other tales, we find nothing very genuine or convincing about the happier children who figure in them. "Drums of the Fore and Aft" is an exceedingly clever story, and Lew and Jakin may be typical British drummer boys, but to the uninitiated reader they seem a trifle overdrawn both for good and evil. They know so much and talk so marvelously; they are so very bad and so very upright; and they insert such a bewildering number of "bloomin's" into their conversation, that, like the eternal "well" with which Mr. Howells's women begin all their sentences, the word loses its vraisemblance through unbearable repetition. "His Majesty the King," even when we forgive him his cumbersome title which destroys all good-fellowship at once, is a child dear to story-writers, and consecrated to their uses for many years, but so exceedingly rare in every-day life that he has to be taken strictly on faith; While "Wee Willie Winkie" is even more unveracious in his character. These wonderful babes, with their sense of honor, and chivalry, and manhood, these Bayards in pinafores, these miniature editions of King Arthur and Sir Launcelot rolled into one, are picturesque possibilities only when we have forgotten what an earthly little animal a real boy is. Willie Winkie rides into a forbidden and dangerous country to protect and rescue a woman nearly old enough to be his mother. He is keenly and conscientiously distressed because, having been told to keep within doors, he has thus "bwoken" his "awwest;" but he feels it his paramount duty to pursue and guard from evil the able-bodied betrothed of his father's friend. When Miss Allardyce accommodates herself to circumstances by promptly wrenching her ankle, and the pair are surrounded by ruffians of the skulking, cowardly Indian type whom Mr. Kipling paints with such generous scorn, we are gravely told: "Then rose from the rock Wee Willie Winkie, child of the Dominant Race, aged six and three-quarters, and said briefly and emphatically, 'Jao!'" What "Jao" means is lost to our occidental ignorance, but the effect is magical. The twenty armed men thus confronted and defied are awed into milder measures, and finally routed with shame, while the hero of the hour restores the prostrate heroine unharmed—save for the wrenched ankle—to her lover's anxious embraces.

This is very amusing, but a little absurd, and a little vulgar as well. It strikes that jarring note of provincialism which Matthew Arnold condemns with all the weight of his critical eloquence in Kinglake's "Invasion of the Crimea." "Wee Willie Winkie, child of the Dominant Race," is on a literary level with the description of Marshal St. Arnaud, cowed by "the majesty of the great Elchi's Canning brow and tight, merciless lips;" a style of writing bad enough in newspaper correspondence, but unpardonable in artistic fiction. How has it happened that Mr. Kipling, who tells us with such irresistible grace and simplicity the "Story of Muhammad Din," should stray into mock heroics when handling the children of his own nation, the jolly well-bred little English lads, to whom all picturesque posing is an art unknown.

Perhaps the trouble lies in the curious but highly esteemed fallacy that the child of fiction is expected to be always precocious and sprightly, to emit sparks like a cat, and electrify the sluggish atmosphere about him. He does this at the expense alike of his sincerity and of his manners; we cannot accept him as a fact, and we don't approve of him as a theory. A few years ago a critic in the Contemporary Review protested very seriously against such writers as Florence Montgomery, "by whom the bloom of unconsciousness has been wiped from childhood, and boys and girls have learned to see themselves, not like old-fashioned children, as good and naughty, but as picturesque beings, whose naughtiness has an attractive charm, and whose very imperfections of dialect are worth accurate record." Most of us are only too familiar with this kind of fiction, which for a time enjoyed such great and hurtful popularity. The patronizing attitude of children to their parents is sufficiently illustrated by the really nice little boy in "Transformed," who calls his father "Puppy," a most objectionable thing for a nice little boy to do; while what might be termed the corrective attitude of children to their parents is still more sharply defined by that unpleasant child, Nina Middleton, who sees so clearly, and suffers so intensely from the "careless superficiality" and rigid narrowness of the unfortunate couple whose painful privilege it was to have given her birth.

One of the latest types, however, to seize and hold the hearts of the big, sentimental, child-loving public is Mrs. Burnett's Lord Fauntleroy, who may be best described as the good little boy with the clothes. It is quite impossible to separate him in our minds from his wardrobe, to divest him of his velvet suits and sashes, his "rich Vandyke lace collar," his leggings and neat little Oxford ties. He is always and in all places "a small copy of the fairy prince," picturesquely grouped with a dog, or a cat, or a pony, as circumstances direct. We cannot be coarse enough to imagine him with cropped hair, and muddy boots, and a torn jacket, and a hole in his stocking, like so many, many real little boys who daily break their mothers' hearts by their profound neglect of appearances. He is so ready in conversation, too, and pays such charming compliments to pretty young ladies, instead of hustling into corners and staring owlishly, after the fashion of those awkward little boys I know. And he is so very, very good! Not consciously and morbidly virtuous like that baby prig, Little Saint Elizabeth, who comes from the same hands, but artlessly and inevitably correct. He gives all his money to pay poor Michael's rent, and we rejoice rightly in his generosity, with only one wistful recollection of that vastly different specimen of boyhood, for whose misdeeds Mr. Aldrich is responsible, and who spends his funds gloriously in indigestible treats to his friends. It is very charming in Lord Fauntleroy to offer his eager plea in behalf of the farmer Higgins, and probably just what any warm-hearted child would have done in his place; but we cannot but contrast his wonderful unconsciousness afterward, "not realizing his own importance in the least," with the familiar figure of little Paul Dombey strutting up and down the room at Brighton, full of the new-blown dignity of being a financier, and lending young Gay the money for his uncle. It would take the sternest of moralists to object to Paul's infantile strut; it would take the most trusting of sentimentalists to believe that Cedric is quite as innocently unconscious as he seems.

There is a remarkably nice little girl in that pleasant English novel, published a few years ago, Sir Charles Danvers—a little girl who can be safely recommended to all child-lovers, who will only wish they could hear a great deal more about her. Molly Danvers is not particularly precocious; she is not at all supersensitive, and we are not even told that she is pretty. There is absolutely no inventory given of her personal charms; and as to her clothes, "a white frock and two slim black legs" are casually mentioned on her first introduction, and we never hear another word about them. "A white frock and two slim black legs!" Could any description be more meagre? Imagine Little Saint Elizabeth, or Sara Crewe, reduced ruthlessly to a white frock, and not another allusion to their wardrobes in the whole course of their histories. But Molly does n't care. I have a suspicion that her white frocks don't stay white very long, and that her slim black legs are better distinguished for activity than for grace. She is anything but heroic, and runs fleetly away from danger, leaving both her cousin and her donkey to their fate; but she has a loving little heart, nevertheless, and when her terrier dies, this heart is as nearly broken as a healthy little girl's can be.


"'He is dead, Uncle Charles. He was quite well, and eating Albert biscuits with the dolls this morning, and now'—the rest was too dreadful, and Molly burst into a flood of tears, and burrowed with her head against the faithful waistcoat of Uncle Charles—of Uncle Charles, the friend, the consoler of all the ills that Molly had so far been heir to.

"'Vic had a very happy life, Molly,' said Charles, pressing the little brown head against his cheek, and vaguely wondering what it would be like to have any one to turn to in time of trouble.

"'I always kept trouble from him except that time I shut him in the door,' gasped Molly. 'I never took him out in a string, and he only wore his collar—that collar you gave him that made him scratch so—on Sundays.'

"'And he was not ill a long time? He did not suffer any pain?'

"'No, Uncle Charles, not much. But, though he did not say anything, his face looked worse than screaming, and he passed away very stiff in his hind-legs. Oh!' (with a fresh outburst) 'when cook told me that her sister that was in a decline had gone, I never thought' (sob, sob!) 'poor Vic would be the next.'"


This is not the less heartrending for being amusing, and that short sentence "his face looked worse than screaming" is a master-stroke of realistic description. On the whole, for ordinary family purposes, Molly Danvers is one of the nicest little girls I know; and if we seek—as many people rightly seek—for the poetry, the beauty of childhood, subtly transferred to paper, let us turn back a few years, and re-read for the fifth or the fiftieth time, as it chances, those seven delicious chapters of Quatre-Vingt-Treize, which describe a single day in the lives of the three babies, René Jean, Gros Alain, and Georgette. How many hours must Victor Hugo have watched patiently and gladly the ways of little children before he could paint them with such minute and charming truth, and what sheer delight is embodied in every line! They do nothing remarkable, these tiny French peasants; they say nothing worth noting; they are clothed in rags; they are alone all day; they are mischievous, healthy, and natural. They hang enchanted, all three, over a wood-louse, their curls touching, their breath suspended, their eyes fixed on the embarrassed insect: and we watch them with a joy and wonder equal to their own. "It is a she-creature," announces René Jean, and Georgette laughs, Georgette who, at twenty months, has not yet acquired the art of conversation. She utters a single word from time to time, but sentences lie beyond her scope. She is occupied with grave thoughts, and when she breathes a soft monosyllable, her brothers pause encouragingly to listen. A belated bee comes buzzing in the window and departs.


"'She is going home,' said René Jean.

"'It is a beast,' said Gros Alain. 'No,' said René Jean, 'it is a fly.' 'A f'y,' said Georgette."


This is the extent of their conversational powers, and how very limited it seems. They do not talk, these babies; they act. They lay their destructive hands on the rare old folio of Saint Bartholomew, and tear out the leaves one by one, solemnly, innocently, conscientiously. Georgette, who cannot reach the volume, sits on the floor, and tears each leaf into little pieces with painstaking amiability; and all three are so happy over their self-appointed task. By the side of their absolute unconsciousness, the Willie Winkles and Lord Fauntleroys of romance grow suddenly Utopian and unreal. The chivalry, honor, generosity, loyalty, picturesqueness, and brilliancy, all the story-book virtues of story-book children, seem less winning and less dear than the birdlike contentment of three silent, sleepy little creatures, curled softly together, and painted by a master's hand.