A PAINTING BY GEORGE MORLAND, IN THE HERTFORD HOUSE COLLECTION
Never, I suppose, was a painter less
maladif in his work than Morland, that lover of simple
and sun-bright English scenes. Probably, this
picture of his is all cheerful in intention. Yet
the effect of it is saddening.
Superficially, the scene is cheerful
enough. Our first impression is of a happy English
home, of childish high-spirits and pretty manners.
We note how genial a lady is the visitor, and how
eager the children are to please. One of them
trips respectfully forward — a wave of yellow
curls fresh and crisp from the brush, a rustle of white
muslin fresh and crisp from the wash. She is
supported on one side by her grown-up sister, on the
other by her little brother, who displays the nectarine
already given to him by the kind lady. Splendid
in far-reaching furbelows, that kind lady holds out
both her hands, beaming encouragement. On her
ample lap is a little open basket with other ripe
nectarines in it — one for every child.
Modest, demure, the girl trips forward
as though she were dancing a quadrille. In the
garden, just beyond the threshold, stand two smaller
sisters, shyly awaiting their turn. They, too,
are in their Sunday-best, and on the tiptoe of excitement — infant
coryphe’es, in whom, as they stand at the wings,
stage-fright is overborne by the desire to be seen
and approved. I fancy they are rehearsing under
their breath the ‘Yes, ma’ am,’
and the ‘No, ma’am,’ and the ’I
thank you, ma’am, very much,’ which their
grown-up sister has been drilling into them during
the hurried toilet they have just been put through
in honour of this sudden call.
How anxious their mother is during
the ceremony of introduction! How keenly, as
she sits there, she keeps her eyes fixed on the visitor’s
face! Maternal anxiety, in that gaze, seems to
be intensified by social humility. For this is
no ordinary visitor. It is some great lady of
the county, very rich, of high fashion, come from
a great mansion in a great park, bringing fruit from
one of her own many hot-houses. That she has
come at all is an act of no slight condescension, and
the mother feels it. Even so did homely Mrs.
Fairchild look up to Lady Noble. Indeed, I suspect
that this visitor is Lady Noble herself, and that
the Fairchilds themselves are neighbours of this family.
These children have been coached to say ‘Yes,
my lady,’ and ‘No, my lady,’ and
‘I thank you, my lady, very much’; and
their mother has already been hoping that Mrs. Fairchild
will haply pass through the lane and see the emblazoned
yellow chariot at the wicket. But just now she
is all maternal — ’These be my jewels.’
See with what pride she fingers the sampler embroidered
by one of her girls, knowing well that ‘spoilt’
Miss Augusta Noble could not do such embroidery to
save her life — that life which, through
her Promethean naughtiness in playing with fire, she
was so soon to lose.
Other exemplary samplers hang on the
wall yonder. On the mantelshelf stands a slate,
with an ink-pot and a row of tattered books, and other
tokens of industry. The schoolroom, beyond a doubt.
Lady Noble has expressed a wish to see the children
here, in their own haunt, and her hostess has led
the way hither, somewhat flustered, gasping many apologies
for the plainness of the apartment. A plain apartment
it is: dark, bare-boarded, dingy-walled.
And not merely a material gloom pervades it.
There is a spiritual gloom, also — the subtly
oppressive atmosphere of a room where life has not
been lived happily.
Though these children are cheerful
now, it is borne in on us by the atmosphere (as preserved
for us by Morland’s master-hand) that their
life is a life of appalling dismalness. Even if
we had nothing else to go on, this evidence of our
senses were enough. But we have other things
to go on. We know well the way in which children
of this period were brought up. We remember the
life of ‘The Fairchild Family,’ those
putative neighbours of this family — in any
case, its obvious contemporaries; and we know that
the life of those hapless little prigs was typical
of child-life in the dawn of the nineteenth century.
Depend on it, this family (whatever its name may be:
the Thompsons, I conjecture) is no exception to the
dismal rule. In this schoolroom, every day is
a day of oppression, of forced endeavour to reach an
impossible standard of piety and good conduct — a
day of tears and texts, of texts quoted and tears
shed, incessantly, from morning unto evening prayers.
After morning prayers (read by Papa), breakfast.
The bread-and-butter of which, for the children, this
meal consists, must be eaten (slowly) in a silence
by them unbroken except with prompt answers to such
scriptural questions as their parents (who have ham-and-eggs)
may, now and again, address to them. After breakfast,
the Catechism (heard by Mamma). After the Catechism,
a hymn to be learnt. After the repetition of
this hymn, arithmetic, caligraphy, the use of the
globes. At noon, a decorous walk with Papa, who
for their benefit discourses on the General Depravity
of Mankind in all Countries after the Fall, occasionally
pausing by the way to point for them some moral of
Nature. After a silent dinner, the little girls
sew, under the supervision of Mamma, or of the grown-up
sister, or of both these authorities, till the hour
in which (if they have sewn well) they reap permission
to play (quietly) with their doll. A silent supper,
after which they work samplers. Another hymn
to be learnt and repeated. Evening prayers.
Bedtime: ’Good-night, dear Papa; good-night,
Such, depend on it, is the Thompsons’
curriculum. What a painful sequence of pictures
a genre-painter might have made of it! Let us
be thankful that we see the Thompsons only in this
brief interlude of their life, tearless and unpinafored,
in this hour of strange excitement, glorying in that
Sunday-best which on Sundays is to them but a symbol
of intenser gloom.
But their very joy is in itself tragic.
It reveals to us, in a flash, the tragedy of their
whole existence. That so much joy should result
from mere suspension of the usual re’gime, the
sight of Lady Noble, the anticipation of a nectarine!
For us there is no comfort in the knowledge that their
present degree of joy is proportionate to their usual
degree of gloom, that for them the Law of Compensation
drops into the scale of these few moments an exact
counter-weight of joy to the misery accumulated in
the scale of all their other moments. We, who
do not live their life, who regard Lady Noble as a
mere Hecuba, and who would accept one of her nectarines
only in sheer politeness, cannot rejoice with them
that do rejoice thus, can but pity them for all that
has led up to their joy. We may reflect that the
harsh system on which they are reared will enable
them to enjoy life with infinite gusto when they are
grown up, and that it is, therefore, a better system
than the indulgent modern one. We may reflect,
further, that it produces a finer type of man or woman,
less selfish, better-mannered, more capable and useful.
The pretty grown-up daughter here, leading her little
sister by the hand, so gracious and modest in her
mien, so sunny and affectionate, so obviously wholesome
and high-principled — is she not a walking
testimonial to the system? Yet to us the system
is not the less repulsive in itself. Its results
may be what you please, but its practice were impossible.
We are too tender, too sentimental. We have not
the nerve to do our duty to children, nor can we bear
to think of any one else doing it. To children
we can do nothing but ‘spoil’ them, nothing
but bless their hearts and coddle their souls, taking
no thought for their future welfare. And we are
justified, maybe, in our flight to this opposite extreme.
Nobody can read one line ahead in the book of fate.
No child is guaranteed to become an adult. Any
child may die to-morrow. How much greater for
us the sting of its death if its life shall not have
been made as pleasant as possible! What if its
short life shall have been made as unpleasant as possible?
Conceive the remorse of Mrs. Thompson here if one
of her children were to die untimely — if
one of them were stricken down now, before her eyes,
by this surfeit of too sudden joy!
However, we do not fancy that Mrs.
Thompson is going to be thus afflicted. We believe
that there is a saving antidote in the cup of her
children’s joy. There is something, we feel,
that even now prevents them from utter ecstasy.
Some shadow, even now, hovers over them. What
is it? It is not the mere atmosphere of the room,
so oppressive to us. It is something more definite
than that, and even more sinister. It looms aloft,
monstrously, like one of those grotesque actual shadows
which a candle may cast athwart walls and ceiling.
Whose shadow is it? we wonder, and, wondering, become
sure that it is Mr. Thompson’s — Papa’s.
The papa of Georgian children!
We know him well, that awfully massive and mysterious
personage, who seemed ever to his offspring so remote
when they were in his presence, so frighteningly near
when they were out of it. In Mrs. Turner’s
Cautionary Stories in Verse he occurs again and again.
Mr. Fairchild was a perfect type of him. Mr. Bennet,
when the Misses Lizzie, Jane and Lydia were in pinafores,
must have been another perfect type: we can reconstruct
him as he was then from the many fragments of his
awfulness which still clung to him when the girls
had grown up. John Ruskin’s father, too,
if we read between the lines of Praeterita, seems
to have had much of the authentic monster about him.
He, however, is disqualified as a type by the fact
that he was ’an entirely honest merchant.’
For one of the most salient peculiarities in the true
Georgian Papa was his having apparently no occupation
whatever — his being simply and solely a Papa.
Even in social life he bore no part: we never
hear of him calling on a neighbour or being called
on. Even in his own household he was seldom visible.
Except at their meals, and when he took them for their
walk, and when they were sent to him to be reprimanded,
his children never beheld him in the flesh. Mamma,
poor lady, careful of many other things, superintended
her children unremittingly, to keep them in the thorny
way they should go. Hers the burden and heat
of every day, hers to double the roles of Martha and
Cornelia, that her husband might be left ever calmly
aloof in that darkened room, the Study. There,
in a high armchair, with one stout calf crossed over
the other, immobile throughout the long hours sate
he, propping a marble brow on a dexter finger of the
same material. On the table beside him was a
vase of flowers, daily replenished by the children,
and a closed volume. It is remarkable that in
none of the many woodcuts in which he has been handed
down to us do we see him reading; he is always meditating
on something he has just read. Occasionally,
he is fingering a portfolio of engravings, or leaning
aside to examine severely a globe of the world.
That is the nearest he ever gets to physical activity.
In him we see the static embodiment of perfect wisdom
and perfect righteousness. We take him at his
own valuation, humbly. Yet we have a queer instinct
that there was a time when he did not diffuse all
this cold radiance of good example. Something
tells us that he has been a sinner in his day — a
rattler of the ivories at Almack’s, and an ogler
of wenches in the gardens of Vauxhall, a sanguine
backer of the Negro against the Suffolk Bantam, and
a devil of a fellow at boxing the watch and wrenching
the knockers when Bow Bells were chiming the small
hours. Nor do we feel that he is a penitent.
He is too Olympian for that. He has merely put
these things behind him — has calmly, as
a matter of business, transferred his account from
the worldly bank to the heavenly. He has seen
fit to become ‘Papa.’ As such, strong
in the consciousness of his own perfection, he has
acquired, gradually, quasi-divine powers over his
children. Himself invisible, we know that he can
always see them. Himself remote, we know that
he is always with them, and that always they feel
his presence. He prevents them in all their ways.
The Mormon Eye is not more direly inevitable than
he. Whenever they offend in word or deed, he
knows telepathically, and fixes their punishment, long
before they are arraigned at his judgment-seat.
At this moment, as at all others,
Mr. Thompson has his inevitable eye on his children,
and they know that it is on them. He is well enough
pleased with them at this moment. But alas! we
feel that ere the sun sets they will have incurred
his wrath. Presently Lady Noble will have finished
her genial inspection, and have sailed back, under
convoy of the mother and the grown-up daughter, to
the parlour, there to partake of that special dish
of tea which is even now being brewed for her.
When the children are left alone, their pent excitement
will overflow and wash them into disgrace. Belike,
they will quarrel over the nectarines. There
will be bitter words, and a pinch, and a scratch, and
a blow, screams, a scrimmage. The rout will be
heard afar in the parlour. The grown-up sister
will hasten back and be beheld suddenly, a quelling
figure, on the threshold: ’For shame, Clara!
Mary, I wonder at you! Henry, how dare you, sir?
Silence, Ethel! Papa shall hear of this.’
Flushed and rumpled, the guilty four will hang their
heads, cowed by authority and by it perversely reconciled
one with another. Authority will bid them go
upstairs ‘this instant,’ there to shed
their finery and resume the drab garb of every day.
From the bedroom-windows they will see Lady Noble
step into her yellow chariot and drive away.
Envy — an inarticulate, impotent envy — will
possess their hearts: why cannot they be rich,
and grown-up, and bowed to by every one? When
the chariot is out of sight, envy will be superseded
by the play-instinct. Silently, in their hearts,
the children will play at being Lady Noble....
Mamma’s voice will be heard on the stairs, rasping
them back to the realities. Sullenly they will
go down to the schoolroom, and resume their tasks.
But they will not be able to concentrate their unsettled
minds. The girls will make false stitches in the
pillow-slips which they had been hemming so neatly
when the yellow chariot drove up to the front-door;
and Master Harry will be merely dazed by that page
of the Delectus which he had almost got by heart.
Their discontent will be inspissated by the knowledge
that they are now worse-off than ever — are
in dire disgrace, and that even now the grown-up sister
is ‘telling Papa’ (who knows already,
and has but awaited the formal complaint). Presently
the grown-up sister will come into the schoolroom,
looking very grave: ’Children, Papa has
something to say to you.’ In the Study,
to which, quaking, they will proceed, an endless sermon
awaits them. The sin of Covetousness will be expatiated
on, and the sins of Discord and Hatred, and the eternal
torment in store for every child who is guilty of
them. All four culprits will be in tears soon
after the exordium. Before the peroration (a graphic
description of the Lake of Fire) they will have become
hysterical. They will be sent supperless to bed.
On the morrow they will have to learn and repeat the
chapter about Cain and Abel. A week, at least,
will have elapsed before they are out of disgrace.
Such are the inevitable consequences of joy in a joyless
life. It were well for these children had ‘The
Visit’ never been paid.
Morland, I suppose, discerned naught
of all this tragedy in his picture. To him, probably,
the thing was an untainted idyll, was but one of those
placid homely scenes which he loved as dearly as could
none but the brawler and vagabond that he was.
And yet... and yet... perhaps he did intend something
of what we discern here. He may have been thinking,
bitterly, of his own childhood, and of the home he
ran away from.