In the dozy hours, and other papers/The Children's Age
THE CHILDREN'S AGE.
If adults are disposed to doubt their own decreasing significance, and the increasing ascendency of children, they may learn a lesson in humility from the popular literature of the day, as well as from social and domestic life. The older novelists were so little impressed by the ethical or artistic consequence of childhood that they gave it scant notice in their pages. Scott, save for a few passages here and there, as in "The Abbot" and "Peveril of the Peak," ignores it altogether. Miss Austen is reticent on the subject, and, when she does speak, manifests a painful lack of enthusiasm. Mary Musgrave's troublesome little boys and Lady Middleton's troublesome little girl seem to be introduced for no other purpose than to show how tiresome and exasperating they can be. Fanny Price's pathetic childhood is hurried over as swiftly as possible, and her infant emotions furnish no food for speculation or analysis. Saddest of all, Margaret Dashwood is ignored as completely as if she had not reached the interesting age of thirteen. "A good-humored, well-disposed girl," this is all the description vouchsafed her; after which, in the absence of further information, we forget her existence entirely, until we are reminded in the last chapter that she has "reached an age highly suitable for dancing, and not very ineligible for being supposed to have a lover." In other words, she is now ready for treatment at the novelist's hands; only, unhappily, the story is told, the final page has been turned, and her chances are over forever.
I well remember my disappointment, as a child, at being able to find so little about children in the old-fashioned novels on our bookshelves. Trollope was particularly trying, because there were illustrations which seemed to promise what I wanted, and which were wholly illusive in their character. Posy and her grandfather playing cat's-cradle, Edith Grantly sitting on old Mr. Harding's knee, poor little Louey Trevelyan furtively watching his unhappy parents,—I used to read all around these pictures in the hope of learning more about the children so portrayed. But they never said or did anything to awaken my interest, or played any but purely passive parts in the long histories of their grown-up relatives. I had so few books of my own that I was compelled to forage for entertainment wherever I could find it, dipping experimentally into the most unpromising sources, and retiring discomfited from the search. "Vivian Grey" I began several times with enthusiasm. The exploits of the hero at school amazed and thrilled me—as well they might; but I never comprehensively grasped his social and political career. Little Rawdon Crawley and that small, insufferable George Osborne, were chance acquaintances, introduced through the medium of the illustrations; but my real friends were the Tullivers and David Copperfield, before he went to that stupid school of Dr. Strong's at Canterbury, and lost all semblance of his old childish self. It was not possible to grow deeply attached to Oliver Twist. He was a lifeless sort of boy, despite the author's assurances to the contrary; and, though the most wonderful things were always happening to him, it never seemed to me that he lived up to his interesting surroundings. He would have done very well for a quiet life, but was sadly unsuited to that lively atmosphere of burglary and housebreaking. "Aladdin," says Mr. Froude, "remained a poor creature, for all his genii." As for Nell, I doubt if it would ever occur to a small innocent reader to think of her as a child at all. I was far from critical in those early days, and much disposed to agree with Lamb's amiable friend that all books must necessarily be good books. Nell was, in my eyes, a miracle of courage and capacity, a creature to be believed in implicitly, to be revered and pitied; but she was not a little girl. I was a little girl myself, and I knew the difference.
It was Dickens who first gave children their prestige in fiction. Jeffrey, we are assured, shed tears over Nell; and Bret Harte, whose own pathos is so profoundly touching, describes for us the rude and haggard miners following her fortunes with breathless sympathy:
"While the whole camp with 'Nell' on English meadows,
Wandered and lost their way."
At present we are spared the heartrending childish deathbeds which Dickens made so painfully popular, because dying in novels has rather gone out of style. The young people live, and thrive, and wax scornful, and fill up chapter after chapter, to the exclusion of meritorious adults. What a contrast between the incidental, almost furtive manner in which Henry Kingsley introduces his delightful children into "Ravenshoe," and the profound assurance with which Sarah Grand devotes seventy pages to a minute description of the pranks of the Heavenly Twins. Readers of the earlier novel used to feel they would like to know a little—just a little more of Gus, and Flora, and Archy, and the patient nursery cat who was quite accustomed to being held upside down, and who went out "a-walking on the leads," when she was needed to accompany her young master to bed. Readers of "The Heavenly Twins" begin by being amused, then grow aghast, and conclude by wondering why the wretched relatives of those irrepressible children were not driven to some such expedient as that proposed by a choleric old gentleman of my acquaintance to the doting mother of an only son. "Put him in a hogshead, madam, and let him breathe through the bunghole!"
Two vastly different types of infant precocity have been recently given to the world by Mrs. Deland and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett, the only point of resemblance between their respective authors being the conviction which they share in common that children are problems which cannot be too minutely studied, and that we cannot devote too much time or attention to their scrutiny. Mrs. Deland, with less humor and a firmer touch, draws for us in "The Story of a Child," a sensitive, highly strung, morbid and imaginative little girl, who seems born to give the lie to Schopenhauer's comfortable verdict, that "the keenest sorrows and the keenest joys are not for women to feel." Ellen Dale suffers as only a self-centred nature can. She thinks about her self so much that her poor little head is turned with fancied shortcomings and imaginary wrongs. Most children have these sombre moods now and again. They don't overcome them; they forget them, which is a better and healthier thing to do. But Ellen's humors are analyzed with a good deal of seriousness and sympathy. When she is not "agonized" over her tiny faults, she is "tasting sin with the subtle epicurean delight of the artistic temperament;" a passage which may be aptly compared with George Eliot's tamer description of Lucy Deane trotting by her cousin Tom's side, "timidly enjoying the rare treat of doing something naughty." The sensations are practically the same, the methods of delineating them different.
Mrs. Burnett, on the other hand, while indulging us unstintedly in reminiscences of her own childhood, is disposed to paint the picture in cheerful, not to say roseate colors. "The One I Knew the Best of All" was evidently a very good, and clever, and pretty, and well-dressed little girl, who played her part with amiability and decorum in all the small vicissitudes common to infant years. No other children being permitted to enter the narrative, except as lay figures, our attention is never diverted from the small creature with the curls, who studies her geography, and eats her pudding, and walks in the Square, and dances occasionally at parties, and behaves herself invariably as a nice little girl should. It is reassuring, after reading the youthful recollections of Sir Richard Burton, with their irreverent and appalling candor, to be gently consoled by Mrs. Burnett, and to know with certainty that she really was such a delightful and charming child.
For Sir Richard, following the fashion of the day, has left us a spirited record of his early years, and they furnish scant food for edification. There was a time when unfledged vices, like unfledged virtues, were ignored by the biographer, and forgotten even by the more conscientious writer, who compiled his own memoirs. Scott's account of his boyhood is graphic, but all too brief. Boswell, the diffuse, speeds over Johnson's tender youth with some not very commendatory remarks about his "dismal inertness of disposition." Gibbon, indeed, awakens our expectations with this solemn and stately sentence:—
"My lot might have been that of a slave, a savage, or a peasant; nor can I reflect without pleasure on the bounty of nature which cast my birth in a free and civilized country, in an age of science and philosophy, in a family of honorable rank, and decently endowed with the gifts of fortune."
After which majestic preamble, we are surprised to see how little interest he takes in his own sickly and studious childhood, and how disinclined he is to say complimentary things about his own precocity. He writes without enthusiasm:—
"For myself I must be content with a very small share of the civil and literary fruits of a public school."
Burton, unhappily, had no share at all, and the loss of training and discipline told heavily on him all his life. His lawless and wandering childhood, so full of incident and so destitute of charm, is described with uncompromising veracity in Lady Burton's portly volumes. He was as far removed from the virtues of Lord Fauntleroy as from the brilliant and elaborate naughtiness of the Heavenly Twins; but he has the advantage over all these little people in being so convincingly real. He fought until he was beaten "as thin as a shotten herring." He knocked down his nurse—with the help of his brother and sister—and jumped on her. He hid behind the curtains and jeered at his grandmother's French. He was not pretty, and he was not picturesque.
"A piece of yellow nankin would be bought to dress the whole family, like three sticks of barley sugar."
He was not amiable, and he was not polite, and he was not a safe child on whom to try experiments of the "Harry and Lucy" order, as the following anecdote proves:
"By way of a wholesome and moral lesson of self-command and self-denial, our mother took us past Madame Fisterre's (the pastry cook's) windows, and bade us look at all the good things; whereupon we fixed our ardent affections on a tray of apple puffs. Then she said: 'Now, my dears, let us go away; it is so good for little children to restrain themselves.' Upon this we three devilets turned flashing eyes and burning cheeks on our moralizing mother, broke the window with our fists, clawed out the tray of apple puffs, and bolted, leaving poor Mother a sadder and a wiser woman, to pay the damages of her lawless brood's proceedings."
It is the children's age when such a story—and many more like it—are gleefully narrated and are gladly read. Yet if we must exchange the old-time reticence for unreserved disclosures, if we must hear all about an author's infancy from his teething to his first breeches, and from his A B C's to his Greek and Latin, it is better to have him presented to us with such unqualified veracity. He is not attractive when seen in this strong light, but he is very much alive.