Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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That Pretty Person

During the many years in which “evolution” was the favourite word, one significant lesson–so it seems–was learnt, which has outlived controversy, and has remained longer than the questions at issue–an interesting and unnoticed thing cast up by the storm of thoughts. This is a disposition, a general consent, to find the use and the value of process, and even to understand a kind of repose in the very wayfaring of progress. With this is a resignation to change, and something more than resignation–a delight in those qualities that could not be but for their transitoriness.

What, then, is this but the admiration, at last confessed by the world, for childhood? Time was when childhood was but borne with, and that for the sake of its mere promise of manhood. We do not now hold, perhaps, that promise so high. Even, nevertheless, if we held it high, we should acknowledge the approach to be a state adorned with its own conditions.

But it was not so once. As the primitive lullaby is nothing but a patient prophecy (the mother’s), so was education, some two hundred years ago, nothing but an impatient prophecy (the father’s) of the full stature of body and mind. The Indian woman sings of the future hunting. If her song is not restless, it is because she has a sense of the results of time, and has submitted her heart to experience. Childhood is a time of danger; “Would it were done.” But, meanwhile, the right thing is to put it to sleep and guard its slumbers. It will pass. She sings prophecies to the child of his hunting, as she sings a song about the robe while she spins, and a song about bread as she grinds corn. She bids good speed.

John Evelyn was equally eager, and not so submissive. His child– “that pretty person” in Jeremy Taylor’s letter of condolence–was chiefly precious to him inasmuch as he was, too soon, a likeness of the man he never lived to be. The father, writing with tears when the boy was dead, says of him: “At two and a half years of age he pronounced English, Latin, and French exactly, and could perfectly read in these three languages.” As he lived precisely five years, all he did was done at that little age, and it comprised this: “He got by heart almost the entire vocabulary of Latin and French primitives and words, could make congruous syntax, turn English into Latin, and vice versa, construe and prove what he read, and did the government and use of relatives, verbs, substantives, ellipses, and many figures and tropes, and made a considerable progress in Comenius’s ’Janua,’ and had a strong passion for Greek.”

Grant that this may be a little abated, because a very serious man is not to be too much believed when he is describing what he admires; it is the very fact of his admiration that is so curious a sign of those hasty times. All being favourable, the child of Evelyn’s studious home would have done all these things in the course of nature within a few years. It was the fact that he did them out of the course of nature that was, to Evelyn, so exquisite. The course of nature had not any beauty in his eyes. It might be borne with for the sake of the end, but it was not admired for the majesty of its unhasting process. Jeremy Taylor mourns with him “the strangely hopeful child,” who–without Comenius’s “Janua” and without congruous syntax–was fulfilling, had they known it, an appropriate hope, answering a distinctive prophecy, and crowning and closing a separate expectation every day of his five years.

Ah! the word “hopeful” seems, to us, in this day, a word too flattering to the estate of man. They thought their little boy strangely hopeful because he was so quick on his way to be something else. They lost the timely perfection the while they were so intent upon their hopes. And yet it is our own modern age that is charged with haste!

It would seem rather as though the world, whatever it shall unlearn, must rightly learn to confess the passing and irrevocable hour; not slighting it, or bidding it hasten its work, not yet hailing it, with Faust, “Stay, thou art so fair!” Childhood is but change made gay and visible, and the world has lately been converted to change.

Our fathers valued change for the sake of its results; we value it in the act. To us the change is revealed as perpetual; every passage is a goal, and every goal a passage. The hours are equal; but some of them wear apparent wings.

Tout passe. Is the fruit for the flower, or the flower for the fruit, or the fruit for the seeds which it is formed to shelter and contain? It seems as though our forefathers had answered this question most arbitrarily as to the life of man.

All their literature dealing with children is bent upon this haste, this suppression of the approach to what seemed then the only time of fulfilment. The way was without rest to them. And this because they had the illusion of a rest to be gained at some later point of this unpausing life.

Evelyn and his contemporaries dropped the very word child as soon as might be, if not sooner. When a poor little boy came to be eight years old they called him a youth. The diarist himself had no cause to be proud of his own early years, for he was so far indulged in idleness by an “honoured grandmother” that he was “not initiated into any rudiments” till he was four years of age. He seems even to have been a youth of eight before Latin was seriously begun; but this fact he is evidently, in after years, with a total lack of a sense of humour, rather ashamed of, and hardly acknowledges. It is difficult to imagine what childhood must have been when nobody, looking on, saw any fun in it; when everything that was proper to five years old was defect. A strange good conceit of themselves and of their own ages had those fathers.

They took their children seriously, without relief. Evelyn has nothing to say about his little ones that has a sign of a smile in it. Twice are children not his own mentioned in his diary. Once he goes to the wedding of a maid of five years old–a curious thing, but not, evidently, an occasion of sensibility. Another time he stands by, in a French hospital, while a youth of less than nine years of age undergoes a frightful surgical operation “with extraordinary patience.” “The use I made of it was to give Almighty God hearty thanks that I had not been subject to this deplorable infirmitie.” This is what he says.

See, moreover, how the fashion of hurrying childhood prevailed in literature, and how it abolished little girls. It may be that there were in all ages–even those–certain few boys who insisted upon being children; whereas the girls were docile to the adult ideal. Art, for example, had no little girls. There was always Cupid, and there were the prosperous urchin-angels of the painters; the one who is hauling up his little brother by the hand in the “Last Communion of St. Jerome” might be called Tommy. But there were no “little radiant girls.” Now and then an “Education of the Virgin” is the exception, and then it is always a matter of sewing and reading. As for the little girl saints, even when they were so young that their hands, like those of St. Agnes, slipped through their fetters, they are always recorded as refusing importunate suitors, which seems necessary to make them interesting to the mediaeval mind, but mars them for ours.

So does the hurrying and ignoring of little-girl-childhood somewhat hamper the delight with which readers of John Evelyn admire his most admirable Mrs. Godolphin. She was Maid of Honour to the Queen in the Court of Charles II. She was, as he prettily says, an Arethusa “who passed through all those turbulent waters without so much as the least stain or tincture in her christall.” She held her state with men and maids for her servants, guided herself by most exact rules, such as that of never speaking to the King, gave an excellent example and instruction to the other maids of honour, was “severely careful how she might give the least countenance to that liberty which the gallants there did usually assume,” refused the addresses of the “greatest persons,” and was as famous for her beauty as for her wit. One would like to forget the age at which she did these things. When she began her service she was eleven. When she was making her rule never to speak to the King she was not thirteen.

Marriage was the business of daughters of fourteen and fifteen, and heroines, therefore, were of those ages. The poets turned April into May, and seemed to think that they lent a grace to the year if they shortened and abridged the spring of their many songs. The particular year they sang of was to be a particularly fine year, as who should say a fine child and forward, with congruous syntax at two years old, and ellipses, figures, and tropes. Even as late as Keats a poet would not have patience with the process of the seasons, but boasted of untimely flowers. The “musk-rose” is never in fact the child of mid-May, as he has it.

The young women of Addison are nearly fourteen years old. His fear of losing the idea of the bloom of their youth makes him so tamper with the bloom of their childhood. The young heiress of seventeen in the “Spectator” has looked upon herself as marriageable “for the last six years.” The famous letter describing the figure, the dance, the wit, the stockings of the charming Mr. Shapely is supposed to be written by a girl of thirteen, “willing to settle in the world as soon as she can.” She adds, “I have a good portion which they cannot hinder me of.” This correspondent is one of “the women who seldom ask advice before they have bought their wedding clothes.” There was no sense of childhood in an age that could think this an opportune pleasantry.

But impatience of the way and the wayfaring was to disappear from a later century–an age that has found all things to be on a journey, and all things complete in their day because it is their day, and has its appointed end. It is the tardy conviction of this, rather than a sentiment ready made, that has caused the childhood of children to seem, at last, something else than a defect.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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