Children in Fiction (Le Gallienne)

Children in Fiction


AS there are some painters who are especially "good" at painting sheep, so there are some writers who "do" children with that peculiar touch of truth and charm which only comes of one's being born to one's subject-matter—that particular subject-matter, be it what it may, and no other. Such writers seem to lose their skill when they attempt to apply it to other matters, and it is no more desired of them that they should thus "put to test art alien to the artist" than it would have been desirable for Kate Greenaway to paint after the manner of Rossetti. Specialists of the nursery, the play-room, and the fireside, their business is with the drama of life in its bud and earliest blossom, and such may well be content with the rare laurel that belongs to the creators of Alice in Wonderland, Tom Brown's School Days, Little Women, and Peter Pan. But there are greater writers who, while taking the whole full-orbed world of humanity for their province, include among their various powers a genius for depicting childhood with the rest, and it has not seldom happened with such writers that, masterly as has been their handling of the grown-up drama of life, some of their child-figures remain among their most striking creations, and their pictures of childhood prove to be those which, on reflection, we find most permanent in our memories. Often, indeed, where they carry one of their characters on from innocent childhood to tragic maturity, we find ourselves regretting—as in our daily lives we so often regret of some particularly charming child—that it was ever necessary for them to grow up at all. We seem to lose them as they grow up and fade into the light of common day.

Such a case is that of Richard Feverel. As we look back on that brilliant and beautiful book, it is those morning hours of the story, where Richard and Lucy meet in the first wonder of their boy-and-girl love, that come to seem the only reality in their romance; and whenever at times we take up the book again it is to turn to that chapter where Lucy stands by Farmer Blaize's chair while Richard takes heroic gulps at his little cup of apology, "a pretty little girl with the roses of thirteen springs in her cheeks, and abundant beautiful bright tresses," loitering "shyly by the farmer's armchair to steal a look at the handsome newcomer," Richard all too occupied with his business of humiliation to pay much heed to the beauty which in that other rainbowed chapter of the weir and the dewberries is to be as the opening of the gates of heaven. After this, Adrian Harley may be as witty as he pleases and the story go on amusing and harrowing us by turns; but I think that nowadays we close the book on those first chapters. That early vision was too supernaturally fair. We want to keep it as it is. We would not stain it with the piteous rest.

So with Lorna Doone. I have not read the book for years, and it may be merely a defect of memory. Yet I confess that all that survives of it for me, but that with undying vividness, is the scene where little John Ridd, exploring in quest of loaches the precipitous stream that glides down the mysterious glen leading to the secret fastness of the Doones, falls fainting on the greensward at its top, to find himself in the presence of a queenly little girl, like a fairy in the solitude, who bathes his brow with her little handkerchief and brings him back to consciousness of a new and strangely wonderful world. An enchanted freshness breathes back to one from the mere memory of the scene, so magically pervaded with the spell of running waters in secret rocky places, to the awe of a boy's first revelation of the fay-like being that must be more than mere mortal girl. It is the eternal Daphnis and Chloe, unsophisticated by afterthought, unshadowed by experience.

Intolerably sentimental as St. Pierre's romance may seem to-day, yet how deathlessly flower-like is his picture of the little Paul and Virginia in their East Indian paradise! "One day, as I was coming down that mountain, I saw Virginia at the end of the garden running towards the house with her petticoat thrown over her head, in order to screen herself from a shower of rain. At a distance, I thought she was alone; but as I hastened towards her, in order to help her on, I perceived she held Paul by the arm, almost entirely enveloped in the same canopy, and both were laughing heartily at their being sheltered together under an umbrella of their own invention, ... two charming faces in the middle of a swelling petticoat." Innocent petticoat! And the picture of the two children wandering hand in hand through the tropic woods, drinking of the crystal spring and eating of the cresses of the stream, is still far from fading from the memory of man. Such pictures of dream-like, happy childhood are all too rare in fiction.

But others, and none more beautiful, are to be found in the early stories of Björnson, in Synnöve Solbakken and Arne. How delightful is that first glimpse of the little Synnöve in church, to which the unruly lad Thorbjörn had been brought by his father for the first time! "'If you look over there you will see Synnöve,' said the father, as he stooped down to Thorbjörn, took him on his knee, and pointed over to the pew opposite, on the woman's side. There was a little girl kneeling on the bench and looking over the railing. She was still fairer than the man—so fair that he had never seen her equal. She had a red streamer to her cap, light yellow hair beneath this, and now smiled at him, so that for a long time he could not see anything but her white teeth. She held a shining hymn-book in one hand and a folded orange-colored silk handkerchief in the other, and was now amusing herself by striking the handkerchief on the hymn-book. The more he stared the more she smiled; and now he chose also to kneel on the bench, just as she was doing. Then she nodded. He looked gravely at her a moment. Then he nodded. She smiled and nodded once more; he nodded again, and once more, and still once more. She smiled, but did not nod any more, for a little while, until he had quite forgotten it; then she nodded." These infantile overtures are quaintly continued when, church being out, the grown-ups loiter for the after-service gossip, and the youngsters, too, fall into groups.

"Synnöve drew lingeringly back. Thorbjörn then went nearer her, and looked at her, and she looked at him; and thus they stood for a long time, just looking at each other. Finally she said,

" 'Fy!'

" 'Why do you say fy?' asked he.

"'Fy!' said she, once more. 'Fy! For shame!' she added.

" 'Why, what have I done?'

" 'You have been fighting in church, and while the priest stood there saying mass. Fy!'

" 'Yes, but that was a long time ago.'

"This made an impression on her, and she said, presently:

" 'Are you the boy whose name is Thorbjörn Granliden?'

" 'Yes; and is it you they call Synnöve Solbakken?'

" 'Yes. I have always heard that you were such a good boy.'

" 'No, that is not true; for I am the worst one of all of us at home,' said Thorbjörn.

" 'Well, I have never heard—' said Synnove, and clasped her small hands. 'Mother, mother, he says—' " And so the odd little flirtation goes on, like a child learning its letters.

Another pretty picture of childish love-making comes to mind from Pierre Loti's The Story of a Child, which, though ostensibly autobiographical, is probably no more or less so than that modern Ulysses' other romances. Veronica was a little fisher-maiden, as was appropriate, and the famous novelist a little gentleman on a visit with his parents to the seaside. The quotation is given from his sister's diary.

"Veronica would slip near Pierre, take possession of his hand, and keep it in hers. Thus they walked along contentedly, without saying a word. They stopped from time to time to kiss each other. '1 wish to kiss you,' Veronica would say, and as she did so she embraced him tenderly with her little arms. Then, after Pierre had allowed her the caress, he would, in his turn, kiss her vehemently on her pretty little plump cheeks.... Little Veronica used to run and seat herself upon our doorstep as soon as she was up; and there she remained, like a faithful, loyal spaniel. As soon as Pierre woke he thought of her being there, and he would immediately get out of bed, have himself quickly washed, and stand quietly to have his blond curls combed out, and then run to find his little friend. They embraced each other and prattled of the events of the day before. Sometimes Veronica, before coming to our house to wait for Pierre, made a trip to the sea-shore and gathered an apron full of the beautiful shells as a love-offering to her sweetheart."

Nor from these idyllic memories must be omitted the flower-like Sylvie of Gérard de Nerval, the pretty peasant-girl of Valois, queen of old pastoral dance and song, wistfully celebrated by Mr. Andrew Lang:

"Go forth and seek, by wood and hill,
Thine ancient love of dawn and dew;
There comes no voice from mere or rill,
Her dance is over, fallen still
The ballad burdens that she knew;
And thou must wait for her in vain,
Till tears bring back thy youth again."

As I have said, however, happy idyllic childhood has curiously little place in the greatest fiction. It is the tragic, unhappy child that again and again comes to mind as we recall the masterpieces: the orphan at the mercy of pitiless taskmasters, the little dependent, the drudge and butt of prosperous relatives, the helpless waif tossed to and fro on the winds of an inclement world. We think of Cosette and the ogreish Thenardiers, carrying with frozen hands the heavy pail from the well; of Jane Eyre in the Reed household, bullied and beaten by a brutal booby of a Master Reed; or Fanny Price in genteel dependence on the aristocratic Bertrams of Mansfield Park; of Little Nell lost in the London streets and inquiring the way home to her grandfather; of Little Nello lying dead by his faithful "Dog of Flanders"; of Waldo, in The Story of an African Farm, with his little invention crushed beneath the brutal heel of Bonaparte Blenkins at the foot of the kopje—"a toiling and toiling and an ending in nothing." "The barb in the arrow of childhood's suffering is this," says Olive Schreiner: "its intense loneliness, its intense agony." Loneliness and terror, a fearful sense of moving about in worlds unrealized, the ever-present menace of hostile ruling powers, mysteriously punitive—this is the atmosphere in which the child of fiction must usually draw its breath. Happy indeed the child, however homely or misunderstood, who, like Maggie Tulliver, has a brother Tom at her side, or even a pet animal for companion and sympathizer.

As one reads the chronicles of childhood as set forth by the majority of romancers, one wonders how one's forefathers ever had the face to talk sententiously of "happy childhood." No such preposterous myth has even been conceived, and one can only bear to read some of those old stories at all by reminding oneself that the conditions of childhood have indeed been changed immeasurably for the better since the days when such stories were possible. Children of our more humane, not to say indulgent, day must regard the stern training of a David Copperfield or a Nicholas Nickleby as their elders look back upon the torture-chambers of a past world—hardly realizable even by the imagination of to-day—the Dark Ages of childhood. Looking recently at an old wood-cut of a school-room, with master and pupils assembled, I was struck by the fact that the most conspicuous object in the picture was an immense birch-rod, held aloft in the hands of the dominie; and I wondered, as I looked at it, whether an old-fashioned birch-rod of the pattern depicted could be found nowadays in any civilized country. Yet they were surely enough on sale thirty years ago in English stationers', and in toy-shops—of all places!

That childhood nowadays is really a happy state of being, not merely so in the hypocritical retrospect of sentimental seniors, is undoubtedly due in part to Charles Dickens, who, of course, of all writers, realized most poignantly the pathos and pity of the lot of children. He has often been reproached for his painful pictures of the deaths of children; but indeed, to my thinking, our one consolation in reading of Paul Dombey, Little Nell, and Tiny Tim is that they do die. Their deaths are nothing like so painful as their lives, and with them we feel that it is sincerely a case of whom the gods love. At least, they are removed betimes from—

"The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
Here where men sit and hear each other groan."

"Shall we make a man of you?" asked the magnificent Dr. Blimber of little Paul Dombey, frail as a moonbeam.

"I would rather be a child," was the lad's reply.

Before Dickens, Charles Lamb was a writer to whom the sentiment of the lonely child made a strong appeal; and, like Dickens, he has a somewhat morbid fondness for associating childhood with the thought of death. One recalls that curiously fantastic story in "Mrs. Leicester's School" of the little girl who learned her letters on her mother's gravestone; her playground, as with Wordsworth's child in "We are Seven," being the village churchyard. Another whimsical conception, of a more cheerful nature, was his story of "The Little Mahometan," that of the little girl who, being left to browse at will in the solitude of an old library, becomes absorbed in a volume called Mahometanism Explained. "The book said that those who believed all the wonderful stories which were related of Mahomet were called Mahometans and True Believers. I concluded that I must be a Mahometan, for I believed every word I read." So deep grew the child's convictions that once, in the middle of the night, she roused her mother "and begged she would be so kind as to be a Mahometan."

De Quincey, whose passionate grief at the death of his sister made him exclaim, "Life is finished," when he was but a little boy six years old, has clothed the lonely sorrow of childhood in the solemn purple of his prose with an impressiveness and poignancy nowhere matched in English. "Deep," he says, "is the solitude of millions who, with hearts welling forth love, have none to love them. Deep is the solitude of those who, under secret griefs, have none to pity them. Deep is the solitude of those who, fighting with doubts and darkness, have none to counsel them. But deeper than the deepest of these solitudes is that which broods over childhood under the passion of sorrow." And again: "Many years are passed away since then, and perhaps you were a little, ignorant thing at that time, hardly above six years. But your heart was deeper than the Danube; and as was your love, so was your grief."

Among other pictures of lonely childhood must certainly be included Walter Pater's exquisite memories of The Child in the House: "So the child of whom I am writing lived on there quietly, things without thus ministering to him, as he sat daily at the window with the bird's-eye hanging below it, and his mother taught him to read, wondering at the ease with which he learned, and at the quickness of his memory. The perfume of the little flowers of lime-tree fell through the air upon them like rain; while time seemed to move even more slowly, to the murmur of the bees in it, till it almost stood still on June afternoons. How insignificant, at the moment, seem the influences of the sensible things which are tossed and fall and lie about us, so, or so, in the environment of early childhood! How indelibly, as we afterwards discover, they affect us; with what capricious attractions and associations they figure themselves on the white paper, the smooth wax, of our ingenuous souls!"...

Perhaps the most living introspective child in fiction is Maggie Tulliver, carrying in her hand an old thumbed copy of The Imitation of Christ; but, with all her reverie, Maggie is so emotionally vital, and so well able to take care of herself and turn a humorous eye on her prosaic and grotesque relations, that she seems rather to belong to grown-up romance, even when a child. Two other delightful George Eliot children are Fred Vincy and Mary Garth in Middlemarch, who marry each other with a ring taken from an old umbrella stick; and among "dream children" must not be forgotten the child that Silas Marner found on his hearthstone one winter evening, whose shining curls he at first mistook for his stolen gold come back to him again; "but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls"—the gold that was to soften, not harden, his heart.

Another solitary child that makes a space like elfin moonlight around her in the remembrance is Hawthorne's Pearl in The Scarlet Letter. His delineation of her is one of his many masterpieces of suggestive description. "Pearl's aspect," he says, "was imbued with a spell of infinite variety; in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant baby, or the pomp, in little, of an infant princess. Throughout all, however, there was a trait of passion—a certain depth of hue which she never lost; and if, in any of her changes, she had grown fainter or paler, she would have ceased to be herself—it would have been no longer Pearl!"

Another American heroine of a more lovable and human type is Bret Harte's M'liss, who was probably the original of a long line of backwoods and mining-camp heroines striking the esteemed popular note of contrast between the refining delicacy of womanhood and the rough ways of brutal, primitive men. The girlhood of Mrs. Atherton's Patience Sparhawk is one of the fullest and most robust portrayals of another American child; and, to name a writer of a very different genius, Mr. Henry James, the Maisie of What Maisie Knew is still another unforgetable child; while Mrs. Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy promises to be a permanent addition to nursery mythology.

Certain great writers, if they have not created for us any one outstanding figure of a child, have been happy in the portrayal of family groups of companionable children. The good vicar's family in The Vicar of Wakefield is one of the earliest and most genial examples, and there, too, we have one outstanding boy-creation in the simple Moses, with his immortal green spectacles. Another quite delightful family is that of the Yorkes in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, of whom their creator truly says: "Take Mr. Yorke's family in the aggregate, there is as much mental power in those six young heads, as much originality, as much activity and vigor of brain, as, divided amongst half a dozen commonplace broods, would give to each rather more than an average amount of sense and capacity." Dickens's Kenwigs, again, make a burlesque family group, the humor of which is as uproarious as ever. Russian novelists seem to be especially gifted in this direction, notably Tolstoi and Turgenieff. The family of the Countess Rostow in War and Peace is particularly memorable, and the manner in which Tolstoi differentiates the various children and unfolds their development through childhood and girlhood up to womanhood—notably in the case of the wayward Natasha—is one of the many marvels of his clairvoyant psychology. No other writer seems to be so absolutely on the inside of the mysterious processes of blossoming girlhood. Turgenieff, too, has some remarkably intimate studies of young family life, unforgetably in On the Eve. And while referring to Continental writers, one must pay one's tribute to the boy Paul, with all the family responsibilities on his young shoulders, in Sudermann's Dame Care. Among American writers, Mr. Howells has more than once displayed his delicate art in this special field, never more appealingly than in one of his comparatively recent books, The Kentons.

In these family groups it is noticeable that girls seem usually to predominate, probably because girls have a way of predominating in large families; but I hope that William Black has not gone so out of fashion that the delightful family of bad boys in A Daughter of Heth has fallen into oblivion—"the whaup" and his brothers. May I remind the reader of that Sunday afternoon in the Scotch manse when the minister, as he keeps his eye on his unruly offspring, with their young heads bunched together over an old folio Josephus, is at a loss to account for their unaccustomed absorption in the sacred historian until, leaving his desk to investigate, he finds that the young rascals had cut out the letterpress of the ponderous volume, leaving only the framework of the solid leather binding, which thus made an oblong box in which two white mice had been housed. Hence their remarkable interest in Josephus. And that other scene, in which the whaup had decided to give Wattie, the prig and sneak of the family, a lesson in manliness, and for this purpose held him suspended by his heels over the ledge of a little river, threatening to douse his head in the stream unless he uttered a swear-word. Wattie stubbornly refuses for a time, then attempts a compromise with a word all too mild to satisfy his tormentors, and at last, as he feels the water playing with his forelock, lets out a reluctantly orotund "dom"—which is to serve his brothers, from then on, as a Damocles sword for immediate use should he ever show signs of sneaking again. Let him play the tell-tale, and their father should know that once he had said "dom."

One cannot help remarking how much better a time the boy in fiction has than the girl; but here, no doubt, it will be said that the reason is simple, and that fiction here is but once more faithful to life. There are, as we have seen, sad and lonely boys in fiction; but for the most part, from Tom Jones to Huckleberry Finn, the lot of the boy, particularly the bad boy, is perhaps of all human lots the most enviable. No created being has so much fun out of life, and carries things with so high a hand. With all his sad and haunted children, Dickens's pages are alive with the high spirits of impish boys. When Little Nell goes on one of her frightened errands to Mr. Quilp, that gentleman has occasion to administer some energetic thwackings to an unregenerate office-boy; but, alas for the reformative efficacy of corporal punishment! what do Little Nell's gentle eyes see, as Mr. Quilp and she push off in the wherry to cross the Thames, but that so recently chastised youngster doing a derisive pas seul on his head, on the edge of the wharf, for the benefit of his master. Such flibbertigibbets are as dear to Dickens's heart as they were to Shakespeare's and Scott's.

The boyhood of Thackeray's characters is always vivid with reality. Vanity Fair may fade and Esmond grow to seem rococo, but the youth of Pendennis will never lose its dash and savor. Similarly, Meredith's subtle psychology may well come to seem an ingenuity of weariness, but the boyhood of Richard and Ripton, of Beauchamp and Harry Richmond, will not soon lose its gusto; and how grateful one is, amid the endless labyrinth of The Egoist, for the boyish laughter of Cross-jay. But, of course, the arch-creator of boys is that great humorist who recently took with him to the grave so much of the gaiety of nations, yet bountifully left so much of it behind, of which even the passage of Time, more perilous to humorists than death itself, can hardly rob us—that deep-hearted comedian who was so great an artist of laughter because of the tears and the poetry that were in him, compounded with all the drollery—that Mark Twain who could alike create for us a Tom Sawyer and a Huckleberry Linn, tell with all a poet's insight and pity the story of Joan of Arc, and weave a fantasy at once so dream-like and so human as The Prince and the Pauper. Only one other writer of our time has approached him in the understanding of that whimsical animal the boy, that many-sided genius who has told us the story of The Drums of the Fore and Aft, and set Kim astride of the old cannon in the market-place of Lahore.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1947, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.