Mary Lamb (Gilchrist 1883)/Chapter 10

Mary Lamb  (1883)  by Anne Gilchrist
Chapter X.

CHAPTER X.

Mrs. Leicester's School.—A Removal.—Poetry for Children.

1807-9.Æt. 43-45.

The Tales from Shakespeare were no sooner finished than Mary began, as her letters show, to cast about for some new scheme which should realise an equally felicitous and profitable result. This time she drew upon her own invention: and in about a year a little volume of tales for children was written, called Mrs. Leicester's School, to which Charles also contributed. The stories, ten in number, seven by Mary and three by her brother, are strung on a connecting thread by means of an introductory Dedication to the Young Ladies at Amwell School, who are supposed to beguile the dreariness of the first evening at a new school by each telling the story of her own life, at the suggestion of a friendly governess who constitutes herself their "historiographer."

There is little or no invention in these tales; but a "tenderness of feeling and a delicacy of taste"—the praise is Coleridge's—which lift them quite above the ordinary level of children's stories. And in no way are these qualities shown more than in the treatment of the lights and shades—the failings and the virtues—of the little folk, which appear in due and natural proportion; but the faults are treated in a kindly, indulgent spirit, not spitefully enhanced as foils to shining virtue, after the manner of some even of the best writers for children. There are no unlovely impersonations of naughtiness pure and simple, nor any equally unloveable patterns of priggish perfection. But the sweetest touches are in the portrayal of the attitude of a very young mind towards death, affecting from its very incapacity for grief, or indeed for any kind of realisation, as in this story of Elizabeth Villiers for instance:—

"The first thing I can remember was my father teaching me the alphabet from the letters on a tombstone that stood at the head of my mother's grave. I used to tap at my father's study door: I think I now hear him say, 'Who is there? What do you want, little girl?' 'Go and see mamma. Go and learn pretty letters.' Many times in the day would my father lay aside his books and his papers to lead me to this spot, and make me point to the letters, and then set me to spell syllables and words: in this manner, the epitaph on my mother's tomb being my primer and my spelling-book, I learned to read.

"I was one day sitting on a step placed across the churchyard stile, when a gentleman passing by heard me distinctly repeat the letters which formed my mother's name and then say Elizabeth Villiers with a firm tone as if I had performed some great matter. This gentleman was my Uncle James, my mother's brother: he was a lieutenant in the navy, and had left England a few weeks after the marriage of my father and mother, and now returned home from a long sea-voyage, he was coming to visit my mother—no tidings of her decease having reached him, though she had been dead more than a twelvemonth.

"When my uncle saw me sitting on the stile, and heard me pronounce my mother's name, he looked earnestly in my face and began to fancy a resemblance to his sister, and to think I might be her child. I was too intent on my employment to notice him, and went spelling on. 'Who has taught you to spell so prettily, my little maid?' said my uncle. 'Mamma,' I replied; for I had an idea that the words on the tombstone were somehow a part of mamma, and that she had taught me. 'And who is mamma?' asked my uncle. 'Elizabeth Villiers,' I replied; and then my uncle called me his dear little niece and said he would go with me to mamma: he took hold of my hand intending to lead me home, delighted that he had found out who I was, because he imagined it would be such a pleasant surprise to his sister to see her little daughter bringing home her long-lost sailor uncle.

"I agreed to take him to mamma, but we had a dispute about the way thither. My uncle was for going along the road which led directly up to our house: I pointed to the churchyard and said that was the way to mamma. Though impatient of any delay he was not willing to contest the point with his new relation; therefore he lifted me over the stile, and was then going to take me along the path to a gate he knew was at the end of our garden; but no, I would not go that way neither: letting go his hand I said, 'You do not know the way—I will show you'; and making what haste I could among the long grass and thistles, and jumping over the low graves, he said, as he followed what he called my wayward steps

"'What a positive little soul this niece of mine is! I knew the way to your mother's house before you were born, child.' At last I stopped at my mother's grave, and pointing to the tombstone said 'Here is mamma!' in a voice of exultation as if I had now convinced him I knew the way best. I looked up in his face to see him acknowledge his mistake; but oh! what a face of sorrow did I see! I was so frightened that I have but an imperfect recollection of what followed. I remember I pulled his coat, and cried 'Sir! sir!' and tried to move him. I knew not what to do. My mind was in a strange confusion; I thought I had done something wrong in bringing the gentleman to mamma to make him cry so sadly, but what it was I could not tell. This grave had always been a scene of delight to me. In the house my father would often be weary of my prattle and send me from him; but here he was all my own. I might say anything and be as frolicsome as I pleased here; all was cheerfulness and good humour in our visits to mamma, as we called it. My father would tell me how quietly mamma slept there, and that he and his little Betsy would one day sleep beside mamma in that grave; and when I went to bed, as I laid my little head on the pillow I used to wish I was sleeping in the grave with my papa and mamma, and in my childish dreams I used to fancy myself there; and it was a place within the ground, all smooth and soft and green. I never made out any figure of mamma, but still it was the tombstone and papa and the smooth green grass, and my head resting on the elbow of my father." . . . .

In the story called The Father's Wedding Day, the same strain of feeling is developed in a somewhat different way, but with a like truth. Landor praised it with such genial yet whimsical extravagance as almost defeats itself, in a letter to Crabb Robinson written in 1831:—"It is now several days since I read the book you recommended to me, Mrs. Leicester's School, and I feel as if I owed you a debt in deferring to thank you for many hours of exquisite delight. Never have I read anything in prose so many times over within so short a space of time as The Father's Wedding Day. Most people, I understand, prefer the first tale—in truth a very admirable one—but others could have written it. Show me the man or woman, modern or ancient, who could have written this one sentence: 'When I was dressed in my new frock, I wished poor mamma was alive, to see how fine I was on papa's wedding day; and I ran to my favorite station at her bedroom door.' How natural in a little girl is this incongruity—this impossibility! Richardson would have given his Clarissa and Rousseau his Heloïse to have imagined it. A fresh source of the pathetic bursts out before us, and not a bitter one. If your Germans can show us anything comparable to what I have transcribed, I would almost undergo a year's gurgle of their language for it. The story is admirable throughout incomparable, inimitable."

The second tale,—Louisa Manners, or the Farm House, has already been spoken of (p. 9); for in Louisa's pretty prattle we have a reminiscence of Mary's happiest childish days among "the Brutons and the Gladmans" in Hertfordshire; and in Margaret Green, or the Young Mahometan (pp. 10-16), of her more sombre experiences with Grandmother Field at Blakesware.

The Tales contributed by Charles Lamb are Maria Howe, or the Effect of Witch Stories, which contains a weird and wonderful portrait of Aunt Hetty; Susan Yates, or First Going to Church (see pp. 2-3), and Arabella Hardy, or the Sea Voyage.

It may be worth noting that Mary signs her little prelude, the Dedication to the Young Ladies, with the initials of her boy-favourite Martin Burney; a pretty indication of affection for him.

Many years after the appearance of Mrs. Leicester's School, Coleridge said to Allsop: "It at once soothes and amuses me to think—nay, to know—that the time will come when this little volume of my dear and well-nigh oldest friend, Mary Lamb, will be not only enjoyed but acknowledged as a rich jewel in the treasury of our permanent English literature; and I cannot help running over in my mind the long list of celebrated writers, astonishing geniuses, Novels, Romances, Poems, Histories, and dense Political Economy quartos which, compared with Mrs. Leicester's School, will be remembered as often and prized as highly as Wilkie's and Glover's Epics and Lord Bolingbroke's Philosophies compared with Robinson Crusoe."

But a not unimportant question is—What have the little folk thought? The answer is incontrovertible. The first edition sold out immediately, and four more were called for in the course of five years. It has continued in fair demand ever since; though there have not been anything like so many recent reprints as of the Tales from Shakespeare. It is one of those children's books which to re-open in after life is like revisiting some sunny old garden, some favourite haunt of childhood where every nook and cranny seems familiar, and calls up a thousand pleasant memories.

Mrs. Leicester's School was published at Godwin's Juvenile Library, Skinner Street, Christmas 1808; and, stimulated by its immediate success and by Godwin's encouragement, Mary once more set to work, this time to try her hand in verse.

But, meanwhile, came the domestic upset of a removal, nay of two. The landlord of the rooms in Mitre Court Building wanted them for himself, and so the Lambs had to quit. March 28, 1809, Charles writes to Manning: "While I think on it let me tell you we are moved. Don't come any more to Mitre Court Buildings. We are at 34 Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, and shall be here till about the end of May; then we remove to No. 4, Inner Temple Lane, where I mean to live and die; for I have such a horror of moving that I would not take a benefice from the king if I was not indulged with non-residence. What a dislocation of comfort is comprised in that word 'moving.' Such a heap of little nasty things, after you think all is got into the cart: old dredging-boxes, worn-out brushes, gallipots, vials, things that it is impossible the most necessitous person can ever want, but which the women who preside on these occasions will not leave behind if it was to save your soul. They'd keep the cart ten minutes to stow in dirty pipes and broken matches to show their economy. Then you can find nothing you want for many days after you get into your new lodgings. You must comb your hair with your fingers, wash your hands without soap, go about in dirty gaiters. Were I Diogenes I would not move out of a kilderkin into a hogshead, though the first had had nothing but small beer in it, and the second reeked claret."

The unwonted stress of continuous literary work and the turmoil and fatigue of a double removal produced the effect that might have been anticipated on Mary. In June (1809) Lamb wrote to Coleridge of his change "to more commodious quarters. I have two rooms on the third floor," he continues, "and five rooms above, with an inner staircase to myself, new painted and all for £30 a year! I came into them on Saturday week; and on Monday following Mary was taken ill with the fatigue of moving; and affected I believe by the novelty of the house, she could not sleep, and I am left alone with a maid quite a stranger to me, and she has a month or two's sad distraction to go through. What sad large pieces it cuts out of life!—out of her life, who is getting rather old; and we may not have many years to live together. I am weaker, and bear it worse than I ever did. But I hope we shall be comfortable by-and-by. The rooms are delicious, and the best look backwards into Hare Court where there is a pump always going. Just now it is dry. Hare Court trees come in at the window, so that His like living in a garden. I try to persuade myself it is much pleasanter than Mitre Court; but alas! the household gods are slow to come in a new mansion. They are in their infancy to me; I do not feel them yet; no hearth has blazed to them yet. How I hate and dread new places!... Let me hear from some of you, for I am desolate. I shall have to send you, in a week or two, two volumes of juvenile poetry done by Mary and me within the last six months, and that tale in prose which Wordsworth so much liked, which was published at Christmas with nine others by us, and has reached a second edition. There's for you! We have almost worked ourselves out of child's work, and I don't know what to do.... Our little poems are but humble, but they have no name. You must read them, remembering they were task work; and perhaps you will admire the number of subjects, all of children, picked out by an old bachelor and an old maid. Many parents would not have found so many."

Lamb left his friends to guess which were his and which Mary's. Were it a question of their prose the task were easy. The brother's "witty delicacy" of style, the gentle irony under which was hid his deep wisdom, the frolicsome, fantastic humours that often veiled his tenderness, are individual, unique. But in verse, and especially in a little volume of "task -work," those fragments of Mary's which he quotes in his letters show them to have been more similar and equal. It is certain only that The Three Friends, Queen Oriana's Dream, and the lines To a River in which a Child was Drowned were his, and that his total share was "one-third in quantity of the whole." Also that The Two Boys (reprinted by Lamb in his Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading), David in the Cave of Adullam, and The First Tooth are certainly Mary's. Through all there breathes a sweet and wise spirit; but sometimes, and no doubt on Mary's part, the desire to enforce a moral is too obtrusive, and the teaching too direct, though always it is of a high and generous kind; never pragmatic and pharisaic after the manner of Dr. Watts. That difficult art of artlessness and perfect simplicity, as in Blake's Songs of Innocence, which a child's mind demands and a mature mind loves, is rarely attained. Yet I think The Beasts in the Tower, Crumbs to the Birds, Motes in the Sunbeam, The Coffee Klips, The Broken Doll, The Books and the Sparrow, Blindness, The Two Boys, and others not a few, must have been favourites in many a nursery.

The Text, in which a self-satisfied little gentleman who listens to and remembers all the sermon is contrasted, much to his disadvantage, with his sister who did not hear a word, because her heart was full of affectionate longing to make up a quarrel they had had outside the church-door,—is very pretty in a moral, if not in a musical point of view. This and the three examples which I subjoin were certainly Mary's. The lullaby calls up a picture of her as a sad child nursing her little Charles, though he was no orphan:

NURSING.

O hush, my little baby brother;
Sleep, my little baby brother;
Sleep, my love, upon my knee.
What though, dear child, we've lost our mother;
That can never trouble thee.

You are but ten weeks old to-morrow:
What can you know of our loss?
The house is full enough of sorrow,
Little baby, don't be cross.

Peace! cry not so, my dearest love;
Hush, my baby-bird, lie still;
He's quiet now, he does not move,
Fast asleep is little Will.

My only solace, only joy,
Since the sad day I lost my mother,
Is nursing her own Willy boy,
My little orphan brother.

The gentle raillery of the next seems equally characteristic of Mary:—

FEIGNED COURAGE.

Horatio, of ideal courage vain,
Was flourishing in air his father's cane,
And, as the fumes of valour swelled his pate,
Now thought himself this hero, and now that:
"And now," he cried, "I will Achilles be,
My sword I brandish; see, the Trojans flee.

Now I'll be Hector, when his angry blade
A lane through heaps of slaughtered Grecians made!
And now, by deeds still braver, I'll evince
I am no less than Edward the Black Prince:
Give way, ye coward French."—As thus he spoke,
And aimed in fancy a sufficient stroke
To fix the fate of Cressy or Poictiers
(The Muse relates the hero's fate with tears);
He struck his milk-white hand against a nail,
Sees his own blood, and feels his courage fail.
Ah! where is now that boasted valour flown,
That in the tented field so late was shown?
Achilles weeps, great Hector hangs the head,
And the Black Prince goes whimpering to bed!

The last is so pretty a little song it deserves to be fitted with an appropriate melody:—

CRUMBS TO THE BIRDS.

A bird appears a thoughtless thing,
He's ever living on the wing,
And keeps up such a carolling,
That little else to do but sing
A man would guess had he.
No doubt he has his little cares,
And very hard he often fares,
The which so patiently he bears,
That, listening to those cheerful airs,
Who knows but he may be
In want of his next meal of seeds?
I think for that his sweet song pleads.
If so, his pretty art succeeds,
I'll scatter there among the weeds
All the small crumbs I see.

Poetry for Children, Entirely Original, by the Author of Mrs. Leicester's School, as the title-page runs, was published in the summer of 1809, and the whole of the first edition sold off rapidly; but instead of being reprinted entire, selections from it only—twenty-six out of the eighty-four pieces—were incorporated by a schoolmaster of the name of Mylius in two books called The First Book of Poetry and The Poetical Class Book, issued from the same Juvenile Library in 1810. These went through many editions, but ultimately dropped quite out of sight, as the original work had already done. Writing to Bernard Barton in 1827 Lamb says: "One likes to have one copy of everything one does. I neglected to keep one of Poetry for Children, the joint production of Mary and me, and it is not to be had for love or money." Fifty years later such specimens of these poems as could be gathered from the Mylius collections and from Lamb's own works, were republished by Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt and also by Richard Herne Shepherd; when, at last in 1877, there came to hand from Australia a copy of the original edition: it had been purchased at a sale of books and furniture at Plymouth in 1866 and thence carried to Adelaide. It was reprinted entire by Mr. Shepherd (Chatto and Windus, 1878), with a preface from which the foregoing details have been gathered. A New England publisher early descried the worth of the Poetry for Children; for it was reprinted in Boston—eighty-one pieces, at least, out of the eighty-four—in 1812. A copy of this American edition also has recently come to light.

This was Mary's last literary undertaking in book form; but there is reason to think she wrote occasional articles for periodicals for some years longer. One such, at any rate, on Needle-work, written in 1814, is mentioned by Crabb Robinson, of which more hereafter.