Varia/Little Pharisees in Fiction


In that accurate and interesting study of Puritanism which Alice Morse Earle has rather laboriously entitled "Customs and Fashions in Old New England," there is a delightful chapter devoted to the little boys and girls who lived their chastened lives under the uncompromising discipline of the church. With many prayers, with scanty play, with frequent exhortations, and a depressing consciousness of their own sinful natures, these children walked sedately in the bleak atmosphere of continual correction. By way of pastime, they were taken to church, to baptisms, and to funerals, and for reading they had the "Early Piety Series," "Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes," "The Conversion and Exemplary Lives of Several Young Children," and a "Particular Account of Some Extraordinary Pious Motions and Devout Exercises observed of late in Many Children in Siberia,"—a safe and remote spot in which to locate something too "extraordinary" for belief. To this list Cotton Mather added "Good Lessons for Children in Verse," by no means a sprightly volume, and "Some Examples of Children in whom the Fear of God was remarkably Budding before they died; in several parts of New England."

Small wonder that under this depressing burden of books, little boys and girls, too young to know the meaning of sin, were assailed with grievous doubts concerning their salvation. Small wonder that Betty Sewall, an innocent child of nine, "burst into an amazing cry" after reading a page or two of Cotton Mather, and said "she was afraid she should goe to Hell, her sins were not pardon'd." It is heart-rending to read Judge Sewall's entry in his diary: Betty can hardly read her chapter for weeping. Tells me she is afraid she is gone back" (at nine). "Does not taste that sweetness in reading the Word which once she did. Fears that what was upon her is worn off. I said what I could to her, and in the evening pray'd with her alone." It is scant comfort for us, recalling the misery of this poor wounded child, and of many others who suffered with her, to know that Phebe Bartlett was ostentatiously converted at four; that Jane Turell "asked many astonishing questions about divine mysteries," before she was five; and that an infant son of Cotton Mather's "made a most edifying end in praise and prayer," at the age of two years and seven months. We cannot forget the less happy children who, instead of developing into baby prodigies or baby prigs, fretted out their helpless hearts in nightly fears of Hell.

Nor is there in the whole of this painful precocity one redeeming touch of human childhood, such as that joyous setting forth of the little St. Theresa and her brother to convert the inhabitants of Morocco, and be martyred for their faith; an enterprise as natural to keenly imaginative children of the sixteenth century as was the expedition two hundred years later of the six little Blue Coat boys, who, without map, chart, or compass, without luggage, provisions, or money, started out one bright spring morning to find Philip Quarll's Island. Sunlight and shadow are not farther apart than the wholesome love of adventure which religion as well as history and fairy-lore can inspire in the childish heart, and that morbid conscientiousness which impels the young to the bitter task of self-analysis. The most depressing thing about pious fiction for little people is that it so seldom takes human nature into account. I read not long ago an English Sunday-school story in which a serious aunt severely reproves her twelve-year-old niece for saying she would like to go to India and have a Bible class of native children, by telling her it is vain and foolish to talk in that way, and that what she can do is to be a better child herself, and save up her money for the mission-box. Now the dream of going to a far-off land and doing good in a lavish, semi-miraculous fashion is as natural for a pious and imaginative little girl, as is the dream of fighting savages for a less pious but equally imaginative little boy. It is well, no doubt, that all generous impulses should have some practical outlet; but the aunt's dreary counsel was too suggestive of those ethical verses, familiar to my own infancy, which began:—

"'A penny I have,' little Mary said,
As she thoughtfully raised her hand to her head,"

and described the anxious musings of this weak child as to how the money might be most profitably employed, until at length she relieved herself of all moral obligation by putting it into the mission-box. It is not possible for a real little girl to sympathize with such a situation. She may give away her pennies impulsively, as Charles Lamb gave away his plum-cake,—to his lasting regret and remorse,—but she does not start out by worrying over her serious responsibility as a capitalist.

The joyless literature provided for the children of Puritanism in the New World was little less lugubrious than that which a century later, in many a well-tended English nursery, made the art of reading a thoroughly undesirable accomplishment. Happy the boy who could escape into the air and sunshine with Robinson Crusoe. Happy the girl who found a constant friend in Miss Edge worth's little Rosamond. For always on the book-shelf sat, sombre and implacable, the unsmiling "Fairchild Family," ready to hurl texts at everybody's head, and to prove at a moment's notice the utter depravity of the youthful heart. It is inconceivable that such a book should have retained its place for many years, and that thousands of little readers should have plodded their weary way through its unwholesome pages. For combined wretchedness and self-righteousness, for groveling fear and a total lack of charity, the "Fairchild Family" are without equals in literature, and, I hope, in life. Lucy Fairchild, at nine, comes to the conclusion "that there are very few real Christians in the world, and that a great part of the human race will be finally lost;" and modestly proposes to her brother and sister that they should recite some verses "about mankind having bad hearts." This is alacritously done, the other children being more than equal to the emergency; and each in turn quotes a text to prove that "the nature of man. after the fall of Adam, is utterly and entirely sinful." Lest this fundamental truth should be occasionally forgotten, a prayer is composed for Lucy, which she commits to memory, and a portion of which runs thus:—

"My heart is so exceedingly wicked, so vile, so full of sin, that even when I appear to be tolerably good, even then I am sinning. When I am praying, or reading the Bible, or hearing other people read the Bible, even then I sin. When I speak, I sin; when I am silent, I sin."

In fact, an anxious alertness, a continual apprehension of ill-doing, is the keynote of this extraordinary book; and that its author, Mrs. Sherwood, considered the innocence of childhood and even of infancy an insufficient barrier to evil, is proven by an anecdote which she tells of herself in her memoirs. When she was in her fourth year, a gentleman, a guest of her father's, "who shall be nameless," took her on his knee, and said something to her which she could not understand, but which she felt at once was not fit for female ears, "especially not for the female ears of extreme youth." Indignant at this outrage to propriety, she exclaimed, "You are a naughty man!" whereupon he became embarrassed, and put her down upon the floor. That a baby of three should be so keen to comprehend, or rather not to comprehend, but to suspect an indecorum, seems well-nigh incredible, and I confess that ever since reading this incident I have been assailed with a hopeless, an undying curiosity to know what it was the "nameless" gentleman said.

The painful precocity of children anent matters profane and spiritual is insisted upon so perseveringly by writers of Sunday-school literature that Mrs. Sherwood's infancy appears to have been the recognized model for them all. In one of these stories, which claims to be the veracious history of a very young child, compared with whom, however, the "fairy babes of tombs and graves" are soberly natural and realistic, I found I was expected to believe that an infant a year old loved to hear her father read the Bible, and would lie in her cot with clasped hands, listening to the precious words. Though she could say but little,—at twelve months,—yet when she saw her parents sitting down to breakfast without either prayers or reading, she would put out her hands, and cry "No, no!" and look wistfully at the Bible on the shelf. When two years old, "she was never weary at church," nor at Sunday-school, where she sat gazing rapturously in her teacher's face. It is unnecessary for any one familiar with such tales to be assured that as soon as she could speak plainly she went about correcting, not only all the children in the neighborhood, but all the adults as well. A friend of her father's was in the habit of petting and caressing her, though Heaven knows how he had the temerity, and she showed him every mark of affection until she heard of some serious wrong-doing—drunkenness, I think—on his part. The next time he came to the house she refused sadly to sit on his knee, "but told him earnestly her feelings about all that he had done." Finally she fell ill, and after taking bitter medicines with delight, and using her last breath to reproach her father for "not coming up to prayers," she died at the age of four and a half years, to the unexpressed, because inexpressible, relief of everybody. The standard of infant death-beds has reached a difficult point of perfection since Cotton Mather's baby set the example by making its "edifying end in praise and prayer," before it was three years old.

The enormous circulation of Sunday-school books, both in England and America, has resulted in a constant exchange of commodities. For many years we have given as freely as we have received; and if English reviewers from the first were disposed to look askance upon our contributions, English nurseries absorbed them unhesitatingly, and English children read them, if not with interest, at least with meekness and docility. When the "Fairchild Family" and the "Lady of the Manor" crossed the Atlantic to our hospitable shores, we sent back, returning evil for evil, the "Youth's Book of Natural Theology," in which small boys and girls argue their way, with some kind preceptor's help, from the existence of a chicken to the existence of God, thus learning at a tender age the first lessons of religious doubt. At the same time that the "Leila" books and "Mary and Florence" found their way to legions of young Americans, "The Wide, Wide World," "Queechy," and "Melbourne House,"—with its intolerable little prig of a heroine—were, if possible, more immoderately read in England than at home. And in this case, the serious wrong-doing lies at our doors. If the "Leila" books be rather too full of sermons and pious conversations, long conversations of an uncompromisingly didactic order, they are nevertheless interesting and wholesome, brimming with adventures, and humanized by a very agreeable sense of fun. Moreover, these English children, although incredibly good, have the grace to be unconscious of their goodness. Even Selina, who, like young Wackford Squeers, is "next door but one to a cherubim," is apparently unaware of the fact. Leila does not instruct her father. She receives counsel quite humbly from his lips, though she is full eight years old when the first volume opens. Matilda has never any occasion to remonstrate gently with her mother; and little Alfred fails, in the whole course of his infant life, to once awaken in his parents' friends an acute sense of their own unworthiness.

This conservative attitude is due, perhaps, to the rigid prejudices of the Old World. In our freer air, children, released from thraldom, develop swiftly into guides and teachers. We first introduced into the literature of the Sunday-school the offensively pious little Christian who makes her father and mother, her uncles and aunts, even her venerable grandparents, the subjects of her spiritual ministrations. We first taught her to confront, Bible in hand, the harmless adults who had given her birth, and to annihilate their feeble arguments with denunciatory texts. We first surrounded her with the persecutions of the worldly-minded, that her virtues might shine more glaringly in the gloom, and disquisitions on duty be never out of place. Daisy, in "Melbourne House," is an example of a perniciously good child who has the conversion of her family on her hands, and is well aware of the dignity of her position. Her trials and triumphs, her tears and prayers, her sufferings and rewards, fill two portly volumes, and have doubtless inspired many a young reader to set immediately about the correction of her parents' faults. The same lesson is taught with even greater emphasis by a more recent writer, whose works, I am told, are so exceedingly popular that she is not permitted to lay down her pen. Hundreds of letters reach her every year, begging for a new "Elsie" book; and the amiability with which she responds to the demand has resulted in a fair-sized library,—twice as many volumes probably as Sir Walter Scott ever read in the whole course of his childish life.

Now if, as the "Ladies' Home Journal" informs us, "there has been no character in American juvenile fiction who has attained more widespread interest and affection than Elsie Dinsmore," then children have altered strangely since I was young, and "skipping the moral" was a recognized habit of the nursery. It would be impossible to skip the moral of the "Elsie" books, because the residuum would be nothingness. Lucy Fairchild and Daisy Randolph are hardened reprobates compared with Elsie Dinsmore. It is true we are told when the first book opens that she is "not yet perfect;" but when we find her taking her well-worn Bible out of her desk she is eight years old and consoling herself with texts for the injustice of grown-up people, we begin to doubt the assertion. When we hear her say to a visitor old enough to be her father: "Surely you know that there is no such thing as a little sin. Don't you remember about the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day?" the last lingering hope as to her possible fallibility dies in our dejected bosoms. We are not surprised after this to hear that she is unwilling to wear a new frock on Sunday, lest she should be tempted to think of it in church; and we are fully prepared for the assurance that she knows her father "is not a Christian," and that she "listens with pain" to his unprincipled conjecture that when a man leads an honest, upright, moral life, is regular in his attendance at church, and observes all the laws, he probably goes to heaven. This sanguine statement is as reprehensible to Elsie as it would have been to the Fairchild family; and when Mr. Dinsmore—a harmless, but very foolish and consequential person—is taken ill, his little daughter pours out her heart "in agonizing supplication that her dear, dear papa might be spared, at least until he was fit to go to Heaven."

A few old-fashioned people will consider this mental attitude an unwholesome one for a child, and will perhaps be of the opinion that it is better for a little girl to do something moderately naughty herself than to judge her parents so severely. But Elsie is a young Rhadamanthus, from whose verdicts there is no appeal. She sees with dismay her father amusing himself with a novel on Sunday, and begs at once that she may recite to him some verses. Forgetful of her principles, he asks her, when convalescing from his tedious illness, to read aloud to him for an hour. Alas! "The book her father bade her read was simply a fictitious moral tale, without a particle of religious truth in it, and, Elsie's conscience told her, entirely unfit for the Sabbath." In vain Mr. Dinsmore reminds her that he is somewhat older than she is, and assures her he would not ask her to do anything he thought was wrong. "'But, papa,' she replied timidly,"—she is now nine,—"'you know the Bible says, "They measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise."'" This text failing to convince Mr. Dinsmore, he endeavors, through wearisome chapter after chapter, to break Elsie's heroic resolution, until, as a final resource, she becomes ill in her turn, makes her last will and testament, and is only induced to remain upon a sinful earth when her father, contrite and humbled, implores her forgiveness, and promises amendment. It never seems to occur to the author of these remarkable stories that a child's most precious privilege is to be exempt from serious moral responsibility; that a supreme confidence in the wisdom and goodness of his parents is his best safeguard; and that to shake this innocent belief, this natural and holy creed of infancy, is to destroy childhood itself, and to substitute the precocious melancholy of a prig.

For nothing can be more dreary than the recital of Elsie's sorrows and persecutions. Every page is drenched with tears. She goes about with "tear-swollen eyes," she rushes to her room "shaken with sobs," her grief is "deep and despairing," she "cries and sobs dreadfully," she "stifles her sobs," but this is rare, she is "blinded with welling tears." In her more buoyant moments, a tear merely "trickles down her cheek," and on comparatively cheerful nights she is content to shed "a few quiet tears upon her pillow." On more serious occasions, "a low cry of utter despair broke from her lips," and when spoken to harshly by her father, "with a low cry of anguish, she fell forward in a deep swoon." And yet I am asked to believe that this dismal, tear-soaked, sobbing, hysterical little girl has been adopted by healthy children as one of the favorite heroines of "American juvenile fiction."

In all these books, the lesson of self-esteem and self-confidence is taught on every page. Childish faults and childish virtues are over-emphasized until they appear the only important things on earth. Captain Raymond, a son-in-law of the grown-up Elsie, hearing that his daughter Lulu has had trouble with her music-teacher, decides immediately that it is his duty to leave the navy, and devote himself to the training and discipline of his young family; a notion which, if generally accepted, would soon leave our country without defenders. On one occasion, Lulu, who is an unlucky girl, kicks—under sore provocation— what she thinks is the dog, but what turns out, awkwardly enough, to be the baby. The incident is considered sufficiently tragic to fill most of the volume, and this is the way it is discussed by the other children,—children who belong to an order of beings as extinct, I believe and hope, as the dodo:—

"'If Lu had only controlled her temper yesterday,' said Max, 'what a happy family we would be.'

"'Yes,' sighed Grace. 'Papa is punishing her very hard and very long; but of course he knows best, and he loves her.'

"'Yes, I am sure he does,' assented Max. 'So he won't give her any more punishment than he thinks she needs. It will be a fine thing for her, and all the rest of us, too, if this hard lesson teaches her never to get into a passion again.'"

Better surely to kick a wilderness of babies than to wallow in self-righteousness like this!

One more serious charge must be brought against these popular Sunday-school stories. They are controversial, and, like most controversial tales, they exhibit an abundance of ignorance and a lack of charity that are equally hurtful to a child. It is curious to see women handle theology as if it were knitting, and one no longer wonders at Ruskin's passionate protest against such temerity. "Strange and miserably strange," he cries, "that while they are modest enough to doubt their powers and pause at the threshold of sciences, where every step is demonstrable and sure, they will plunge headlong and without one thought of incompetency into that science at which the greatest men have trembled, and in which the wisest have erred." But then Ruskin, as we all know, was equally impatient of "converted children who teach their parents, and converted convicts who teach honest men," and these two classes form valuable ingredients in Sunday-school literature. The theological arguments of the "Elsie" books would be infinitely diverting if they were not so infinitely acrimonious. One of them, however, is such a masterpiece of feminine pleading that its absurdity must win forgiveness for its unkindness. A young girl, having entered the church of Rome, is told with confidence that her hierarchy is spoken of in the seventeenth chapter of Revelations as "Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth." "But how do you know," she asks, not unnaturally, "that my church is meant by these lines?"

"'Because,' is the triumphant and unassailable reply, 'she and she alone answers to the description?'"

This I consider the finest piece of reasoning that even Sunday-school books have ever yielded me. It is simply perfect; but there are other passages equally objectionable, and a little less amusing. In one of the stories, Captain Raymond undertakes to convert a Scotch female Mormon, which he does with astonishing facility, a single conversation being sufficient to bring her to a proper frame of mind. His most powerful argument is that Mormonism must be a false religion because it so closely resembles Popery, which, he tolerantly adds, "has been well called Satan's masterpiece." The Scotch woman who, unlike most of her race, is extremely vague in her theology, hazards the assertion that Popery "forbids men to marry," while Mormonism commands it.

"'The difference in regard to that,' said Captain Raymond, 'is not so great as may appear at first sight. Both pander to men's lusts; both train children to forsake their parents; both teach lying and murder, when by such crimes they are expected to advance the cause of their church.'"

"Alas for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!"

I would the pious women who so wantonly and wickedly assail the creeds in which their fellow creatures find help and hope, would learn at least to express themselves—especially when their words are intended for little children to read—with some approach to decency and propriety.

"Gin I thocht Papistry a fause thing, which I do" says the sturdy, gentle Ettrick Shepherd, "I wadna scruple to say sae, in sic terms as were consistent wi' gude manners, and wi' charity and humility of heart. But I wad ca' nae man a leear." A simple lesson in Christianity and forbearance which might be advantageously studied to-day.

There is no reason why the literature of the Sunday-school, since it represents an important element in modern bookmaking, should be uniformly and consistently bad. There is no reason why all the children who figure in its pages should be such impossible little prigs; or why all parents should be either incredibly foolish and worldly minded, or so inflexibly serious that they never open their lips without preaching. There is no reason why people, because they are virtuous or repentant, should converse in stilted and unnatural language. A contrite burglar in one of these edifying stories confesses poetically, "My sins are more numerous than the hairs of my head or the sands of the seashore,"—which was probably true, but not precisely the way in which the Bill Sykeses of real life are wont to acknowledge the fact. In another tale, an English one this time, a little girl named Helen rashly asks her father for some trifling information. He gives it with the usual grandiloquence, and then adds, by way of commendation: "Many children are so foolish as to be ashamed to let those they converse with discover that they do not comprehend everything that is said to them, by which means they often imbibe erroneous ideas, and perhaps remain in ignorance on many essential subjects, when, by questioning their friends, they might easily have obtained correct and useful knowledge." If Helen ever ventured on another query after that, she deserved her fate.

Above all, there is no reason why books intended for the pleasure as well as for the profit of young children should be so melancholy and dismal in their character. Nothing is more unwholesome than dejection, nothing more pernicious for any of us than to fix our considerations stedfastly upon the seamy side of life. Crippled lads, consumptive mothers, angelic little girls with spinal complaint, infidel fathers, lingering death-beds, famished families, innocent convicts, persecuted schoolboys, and friendless children wrongfully accused of theft, have held their own mournfully for many years. It is time we admitted, even into religious fiction, some of the conscious joys of a not altogether miserable world. I had recently in my service a pretty little housemaid barely nineteen years old, neat, capable, and good-tempered, but so perpetually downcast that she threw a cloud over our unreasonably cheerful household. I grew melancholy watching her at work. One day, going into the kitchen, I saw lying open on her chair a book she had just been reading. It purported to be the experience of a missionary in one of our large cities, and was divided into nine separate stories. These were their titles, copied verbatim on the spot:—

The Infidel.

The Dying Banker.

The Drunkard's Death.

The Miser's Death.

The Hospital.

The Wanderer's Death.

The Dying Shirt-Maker.

The Broken Heart.

The Destitute Poor.

What wonder that my little maid was sad and solemn when she recreated herself with such chronicles as these? What wonder that, like the Scotchman's famous dog, "life was full o' sairiousness" for her, when religion and literature, the two things which should make up the sum of our happiness, had conspired, under the guise of Sunday-school fiction, to destroy her gayety of heart?