Essays in Miniature/The Charm of the Familiar


THOSE persons are happiest in this restless and mutable world who are in love with change, who delight in what is new simply because it differs from what is old; who rejoice in every innovation, and find a strange alert pleasure in all that is, and that has never been before. With little things as with big ones, this sentiment is the sentiment of our day. "Unrest," says Schopenhauer, "is the mark of existence," and the many trifling details of ordinary life evince on every side the same keen relish for novelty, the same careless disregard of the familiar. Especially is this the case with women, who feel less wistfully than men the subtle charm of association, and who have less sympathy than men for the dear, faulty, unlovely, well-loved things of their youth. No woman could have written those pathetic lines of Mr. Lang's on St. Andrews:

"A little city, worn and gray,"

the memory of whose rainwashed, desolate streets blots out from his mind all the beauty and the splendor of Oxford. And—to descend from serious to frivolous subjects—no woman can wholly appreciate that pleasant sketch of Mr. Barrie's, called "My Tobacco Pouch," which reveals a mental condition absolutely inexplicable to the most astute feminine apprehension. It is the instinctive desire of our sex for modernism that keeps rolling the great ball of trade. Manufacturers and shopkeepers would starve in common if they catered only to men, who not infrequently have a marked preference for the archaic. But women, to use the words of Sir Thomas Browne, are "complexionally propense to innovation." With wonderful pliancy and adaptability they fit easily into new surroundings, make homes out of new houses, fill their rooms with new objects, and grasp a fair share of happiness in the enjoyment of novelty in every form, whether of fashion, art, literature, religion or philanthropy.

But what of the unfortunate few who, through some strange moral twist, are "complexionally prepense" to sameness; who feel a passionate regret for what has been lost, and a passionate reluctance to part with what is fast slipping away; and who, as the great world rolls relentlessly on its appointed course, find themselves "forever broken on the wheel of time"? The journal of that stout old Tory, Sir Francis Doyle, betrays a strong dislike, not only for political upheavals, which are very uncomfortable and disturbing things, but for innovations of any kind. "Nothing can be so good as what is old," says Mr. Lang; and Mr. Peacock tranquilly declares that all the really valuable opinions have been uttered a thousand years ago. Amid the noisy blare with which the trumpets of progress herald every move, comes thrilling now and then a note of protest from some malcontent who does not part so easily with the past, and for whom familiarity lends to every detail of life a merit and beauty of its own. It almost seems as if two-thirds of mankind were hard at work improving away the happiness of the remaining third, and bidding them at intervals to stop grumbling and appreciate the change.

When it chances that these familiar details are associated in the mind with pleasures, early pleasures especially, the memory of which lingers with the sweetness of honey, then the pain of parting with them is utterly disproportioned to their worth. I have never been able to understand how people can rebind an old book, or reframe an old picture, if the book or the picture have been in any way dear to them for years. How strange and unfriendly these objects look in their new dress! How remote they seem from the recollections hitherto aroused by their presence! One of the minor grievances of my life is the gradual disappearance from the theatres of all the old drop-curtains I can remember since my childish days. Perhaps the new curtains are better than the old ones—I hear persons say as much occasionally—but to me they are simply hideous, because their native ugliness is unsoftened by any gracious memory of those far-off nights when, feverish with delight, I sat staring at the stretch of painted canvas, and anticipating all the joys that lay behind. There was no moment of transport equal to that which saw the slow ascent of the mystic veil, revealing inch by inch the enchanted scenes beyond; and I still believe that if I could behold once more those dear, familiar landscapes, some portion of the old, lost pleasure would return. Three curtains are indelibly associated with these hours of supreme happiness; and I recall them all three now as the most beautiful pictures in the world. One—and this, I think, was the first I ever saw—represented an Italian view, with a lively volcano in the background, and, in front, a long-legged shepherd lad reclining on the marble steps of a fountain, while his flock loitered lazily around. Another displayed four stout and dropsical nymphs preparing for, or resting from, a hunt; this fact being adroitly intimated by the presence of some very long bows, and some very lean greyhounds. The third was a seaport town, with vessels lying in harbor, and a little terrace running to the water's edge, on which terrace I have taken many a stroll in spirit, waiting for the wonders to come. Not that the waits were ever long in those vanished days. On the contrary, the whole evening flew by on wings of fire, and the only thought that marred my perfect felicity was the haunting consciousness that it would too soon be over. And the theatres were never hot, or stuffy, or draughty, when I was a child; and the lights were never glaring, but shone with a gentle radiance; and the chairs were softer than down; and the music was noble and inspiring; and the actors were men of genius; and the actresses were ravishingly beautiful; and the scenery was sublime; and the plays were wondrously witty; and the paste jewels were dazzling; and ennui was unknown; and I never, never, never, wished I had stayed at home. What new drop-curtain hides from me now the rapturous illusions of my youth?

Another grievance, more palpable because less inevitable than the replacing of worn-out theatre properties with fresh ones, is the passion of publishers for altering the covers of their magazines. This is the strangest act of vandalism that an unholy zest for novelty ever prompted in the human bosom. Why a magazine cover is selected in the first place, remains, in most cases, an unfathomed mystery. It is seldom a thing of beauty, but, once associated with the agreeable visitor that every month brings some new tidings to our door, it acquires for us all the subtle charm of familiarity. Nothing can well be more stiff and ungraceful than the design of Blackwood; that wilted, conventional border, and that wreath of prickly Scotch thistles, defending rather than decorating the vignette of the founder,

"With eyes severe and beard of formal cut."

The whole cover seems to say, "Stand off, rash mortal! There is nothing here for you!" Yet to lose it would be to lose an old, surly, faithful and long-tried friend. I sometimes feel that Blackwood is not as readable as it was when I was a girl—it is the privilege of increasing years to think all magazines were better when we were young—but for that very reason I am glad to greet the ancient thistles that alone remain defiant and unchanged.

American publishers, however, are as delighted to offer their readers a new cover as a new story, and it is occasionally interesting to follow a magazine through all its outer vicissitudes. There was a time when Saint Nicholas behaved like Harlequin in the pantomime, slipping into fresh costumes with bewildering alertness and rapidity. The Century has adopted a plan eminently fitted to confuse and distress people who are in love with the familiar, and who have barely time to accustom themselves to one of the picturesque young women on its cover, before they are confronted with another. The only engaging and comforting thing about these rival damsels is their strong family resemblance. They are like the fair daughters of Doris, with faces "neither the same nor different, but as those of sisters should be." The wanton alterations in Harper's Magazine are none the less heartbreaking for being so trivial. As well rob us of an old friend altogether as tamper with his absolute integrity. No one can claim for Harper that its time-honored cover has any rare artistic quality, any of that subtle and far-reaching suggestiveness that we prize so wearily to-day. On the contrary, its little boys scattering roses into nowhere, and its preposterous child blowing soap bubbles on a globe belong distinctly to the cheerful school of Philistia, and are not burdened with meanings of any kind. That makes them so refreshing to our eyes; and besides I have always regarded them with sincere affection, because of the pleasure they afforded me in infancy. It was one of the unwritten laws of our nursery that, when a new magazine arrived, the old one passed into our possession. We painted all the pictures with water colors, and we cut out the little figures on the cover for paper dolls. Not the child straddling over the globe! It was impossible to make anything out of him, owing to his uncomfortable position. But the lads in tunics we thought extremely pretty, especially the one in the right-hand corner, whose head was as round as a bullet. The left-hand boy had a slightly flattened skull, which destroyed his perfect symmetry, though we occasionally remedied this defect by leaving him a small portion of his basket, and pretending it was hair. Now, alas! though the children still mount guard on their flower-wreathed pedestals, and still scatter their roses in the air, some unkind hand has wrought radical changes in their aspect. They have grown bigger, stouter, and their decent little tunics, so nicely drawn up over one shoulder, have been replaced by those absurd floating draperies which form the conventional attire of seraphs and sea nymphs all the world over. Never was there such an unhappy transformation. It is true that on the old cover of Bentley's Magazine—if we may trust the minute picture of it on the face of Littell—the little figures with baskets were clad, or unclad, in these same airy rags. But this fact does not reconcile me at all. I never knew Bentley's boys, but I have known Harper's children all my life, and I cannot bear to see them shivering month after month in such ridiculous, inadequate sashes. What sort of paper dolls would they have made for well-bred little girls? And why should they have been deprived of their only garment to gratify a restless taste for change?

Well, it is useless to complain, for around us on every side people are fretting, and have fretted for generations over the unloved monotony of their surroundings. "It is not given to the world to be contented," says Goethe; and while life can never hurry on fast enough, or assume phases new enough to please the majority of mankind, a few dissatisfied souls will always cling perversely to the things which they have known, and feel more keenly every year that all the vaunted delights of novelty and progress are but a poor substitute for the finer charm of the familiar.