Yeats, in his autobiography, said that he could remember little of childhood but its pain; Gide, in his, that he could recall nothing in his childhood soul that was not "ugly, dark, and deceitful."1 Neither man was subjected to any extraordinary unpleasantness or to the rigors of that in- famous Victorian method of upbringing, "the breaking of the will." Ruskin, on the other hand, to whom denial and deprivation were central in his early life, who was whipped summarily for crying or tumbling on the stairs, thought that childhood was a blessed time, the happiest time of life.2 Augustus J. C. Hare's adoptive mother approved of and often aided her pious sister-in-law in treating Augustus in a way which can only be described as abominable (in order to teach him to "give up my way and pleasure to others", for example, his mother made him 'acrifice his adored cat Selma to the formidable Aunt Esther, who promptly had it hanged), yet in later life Hare wrote of his relationship with this strange mother with a sincere overflow of love and affection, with, it is not unfair to say. a sadly maudlin nostalgia.3

Clearly not only the conditions of but the attitudes toward childhood change considerably from age to age. Childhood, the invention of adults, reflects adult needs and adult fears quite as much as it signifies the absence of adulthood. In the course of history children have been glorified, patronized, ignored, or held in contempt, depending upon the cultural assumptions of adults. The [64/65] autobiographical evaluation of one's early life has in turn reflected these assumptions. In an age like the seventeenth century, when babies were wrapped tightly in swaddling bands in order that they might grow not only physically but morally straight, and might not, moreover, crawl on all fours like distasteful little animals (David Hunt, 103), we should hardly expect an autobiographer to dwell at length upon the particular details of his early life; infancy, except in the abstract, was a kind of larval stage to be passed through as quickly as possible.5 Modern autobiographers, in contrast, often examine the events of their first years for insights into their adult selves: Gide's account of having bitten the beautiful white neck of a cousin whom he was supposed to kiss, or his description of having acquired "bad habits" with the concierge's son as early as he could remember, are meant to serve as signals of the pleasures and perversities he was to find in his later life. Victorians, for whom the realities of early life were sometimes brutal or at least unpleasant, nevertheless participated in a culture which regarded childhood so ambivalently that many autobiographers praised parents whom they might have blamed, and recalled comfort and happiness when they had reason to remember otherwise.

If, Philippe Ariès claims, childhood is in one sense a historical "invention," the Victorian autobiographical childhood is in another sense a literary one, since never before this period had so many English writers been interested in recalling their early lives at length within the form of sustained prose autobiography. I would like to look at Victorian autobiography as having developed within a culture in which to be a child was both a privilege and a hardship. In so doing I hope to illustrate certain inter-relations between the history of childhood and the development of the autobiographical child figure, and to demonstrate the literary uses to which Ais relatively new creature was put. Autobiography is "either fiction nor history, yet it is often read as if it were fiction and cited as if it were history, among other things the discussion will show that, as historical evidence, autobiography is unreliable; no autobiographer can be free of [65/66] fictionalizing impulse, and, even if he were, his memory itself is creative. At the same time I wish to note the very real effects which Victorian cultural attitudes had upon the development of a literary genre and its conventions. finally I would like to ask what one can generalize about the role of the "self as child" in the Victorian adult imagination, if one can generalize at all.

* * *

Family is the first, the permanent, the elemental sphere of social life, of morality; and consequently, it is the source of religion. Here and there a few single men and women with intellectual aspirations, and here and there a few childless and unencumbered adults, may nurse the idea that they are living for themselves alone: but their condition is so abnormal, so unnatural, and their mental and moral constitution so morbid, that their opinion is not worth considering, and their demands should excite nothing but pity.

These remarks were delivered by Frederic Harrison in 1893 in a lecture entitled "Family Life," Though he speaks with the passion of a man who almost seems to know that he is supporting a losing cause, Harrison represents attitudes toward the home and the family which were by no means uncommon throughout much of the Victorian period (33, 40). without the family unit, it was feared, society would be endangered, religion would crumble, individuals would fall into unrestrained and base activity: in short, anarchy would result. The childless adult was unnatural, "morbid," a threat to the order of society. At the same time, however, he was admittedly "unencumbered," and, at least potentially, intellectual. That Harrison did not see a conflict here is typical of the way in which many Victorians were able to maintain, simultaneously, two contradictory notions of "home," and, more specifically, of the place of the child in it. On the one hand the child was a source of hope, of virtue, of emotion: along with the angelic wife, he was the repository of family values which seemed otherwise to be disappearing from an increasingly secular and brutal world. "Household happiness, gracious children, debtless compe- tence, golden mean": these were ideals (Tennyson, "Vastness"). But at the same time, and of course much less obviously, the child was a [66/67] hardship, an obstacle to adult pleasure, and a reminder of one's baser self.9 He might be innocent, untainted by sexual knowledge, uncorrupted by the world of business, free from the agony of religious doubt; yet he was also potentially wicked and needed constant guidance and discipline. These contradictions are apparent throughout the of the period: while there is much sentimentality about the natural goodness of children and their clear, unspoiled view of things ("Sweetheart Travellers," "Little Lord Fauntleroy"), there is also a strong element of admonition against following natural desires because they are likely to be selfish or sinful ("Rosamund and the Purple Jar," "The Fairchild Family").

In this context it is not surprising that children were much favored while they were much denied. It was during 's reign that the Christmas tree was introduced to England, that penny and halfpenny and farthing toys became popularly available, that the children's book trade reached previously unparalleled heights in volume and quality. It was also the age in which the early isolation of children from their parents — through the growth of the nursery and Nanny traditions — became established and acceptable in middle-class homes; and the child for whom new games and amusements were being created was also painfully familiar with the cane, the strap, and the riding whip as disciplinary methods (Gathorne-Hardy). As children became the focus of more attention due to the increased emphasis on "family life," the large injustices they had suffered for centuries were attacked by many legal and philanthropical reforms (such as Lord Shaftesbury's Factory Acts or his "Ragged Schools" for the poor), yet the more disguised kinds of abuse seem to have increased. There was common use of Godfrey's Cordial and other opiates to keep babies quiet; there was administering of horrifying punishments "for the child's own good" (in "The Fairchild Family," for example, the children are taken to the gibbet to see the hanged criminals in order to teach them respect for the law; real-life Nannies sometimes did this too, and seem very often to have used bedtime horror stories as preventive discipline)11; there was a general burdening of small children [67/68] with overbearing moral expectations and religious demands. Illustrating the disparities of freedom for the Victorian child, A. O. J. Cockshut noted that "the child was free to find God for himself, but not to leave the prunes upon his plate, to criticise his father, or to choose his own books" (67).

Thus, while one social historian can say that for the nineteenth century the "privileged age" is childhood (as is "adolescence" for the twentieth and "youth" for the seventeenth) another can dwell grimly upon the difficulties through which children had to pass (floggings, malnutrition, and the like).14 and both can be right (Arieès 32, Mause, passim). There was, as George Boas points out, indeed a strong tendency to idealize childhood — to see in the child such qualities as an enviable imagination, a naive spontaneity, an unspoiled sense of beauty. There was great popular sentiment for the child's innocent vulnerability — poor little Nell! — and great praise for his innocent goodness — perfect little Fauntleroy! "I love thee . . . with my childhood's faith," says the speaker in 's famous sonnet, thus granting superiority to the child's pure ability to believe over that of the polluted adult. The simplification and dilution of Romantic child-images to their sentimental extremes became a staple of the popular novel (Coveney). And melodrama was not the only literary product of this concentration on childhood percep- tion: 's Alice, in addition to being a nice and mannerly middle-class girl, was allowed to become a complex (if unrecognized) spokesman for her time.

But despite the wave of interest and solicitude toward children which can be found in the literature and the social movements of the period, one can understand why Peter Pan's "I'll never grow up" was not heard until after 1901: the fun was too often complemented by discomfort and fear. Icy cold baths, distasteful medicines, long sermons, and teachers who flogged their students are typical memories in accounts of the period, and all took place in the name of healthy upbringing. Popular Victorian attitudes toward the amusement of children were similar to the attitudes toward sex described by Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians, the vital supply was limited, therefore one must [68/69] be economical, one mustn't have too much. Alice Meynell advises her readers that

. . . the evil to be feared is not that of making the child too happy; it is that of using up the capital estate of pleasure. If a child is to continue happy, to continue amused and gay, he must be entertained upon the usufruct and not upon the capital of pleasures. . . . The child over-amused is in peril of losing amusement itself within his own heart. . . . [61-62]

If the child was in some ways superior to the man and in other ways his pet or his slave, if he was sometimes God's spokesman (as in certain Evangelical story books) and sometimes the object of cruel yet "necessary" punishments (as in fairy-tales by Knatchbull-Hugesson and ), if, in short, he was both an ideal innocent and a selfish fallen creature, how did this cultural double standard affect the writing of the autobiographical childhood? Without wishing to draw any simple lines between large cultural motifs and the writing of specific books of literature, I would yet like to suggest two impulses vhich these attitudes may have encouraged in autobiograpers. First is the need to emphasize childhood adversity, to portray oneself as not having been spoiled by overindulgence, even in some cases, to have deserved hardship. Second, and in conflict with this, is the desire to present childhood as an Edenic, blissful state, a time of past blessedness, a world completely different from the grating present.

The first tendency has in some ways created a false view of the period, and since the interpretation of history through the "history of childhood" has in recent years be- come more and more popular, this is an important area for examination. The second tendency had a special function. It provided the autobiographer with a workable approach to the past and it allowed him to create, in the richness of memory, a place of repose from the harsh, indifferent "fast-hurrying stream of Time" which threatened him. In his vacillation between the need to have suffered and the need to have been blissfully innocent, the Victorian autobiographer reflected the cultural ambivalence of his age regarding children, yet at the same time discovered facets of himself which were emotionally restorative and which ultimately had their own literary power.

* * *

Though English autobiographers are generally more reticent about personal matters than, for example, their French counterparts, they do exhibit a willingness to discuss their early sufferings in print. When the military man William Butler wrote his autobiography he spent little time on his childhood; after all, it had nothing to do with the battles past and battles to come, the politics, and the impersonal events of history which were his primary concern, his "life." This is predictable in autobiographies of men of state. Butler did, however, manage to pause long enough to express admiration for his hardworking parents, and to describe certain of the early hardships of their family. Anthony Trollope, writing for entirely different reasons yet with a similar desire for objectivity, also felt that the miseries endured by his family could and must be told: The poverty of his father, the hopeless depression of his schooldays, the unceasing efforts of his to save the family from the creditors. "Ah! how well I remember as the agonies of my young heart," he confesses (28). chose to portray his strict father as a hero in Reminiscences (he was "perhaps among Scottish peasants what was among English authors," his "noble head" was like Goethe's, his "natural faculty" like Burns'); yet a different view of this stern man emerges out of the loose fictional disguises of Sartor Resartus, as Carlyle allows himself to reveal his own childhood unhappiness. Teufelsdrockh "wept often; indeed to such a degree that he was nicknamed Der Weinende (the Tearful)"; the same was true of Carlyle. And in the first person: "I was forbid much: wishes of any measure bold I had to renounce; everywhere a straight bond of Obedience inflexibly held me down . . . my tears flowed. . . ." (98, 104). Sara Coleridge, the daughter of , began her auto- biographical recollections with the intention of pointing out [70/71] whatever "chief moral or reflexion" the various stages of her life might illustrate, but she only got so far as describing such things as the displeasure Coleridge showed when she preferred her mother to him, the "nervous sensitiveness and morbid imaginativeness" she developed early in life, the nightmares she had, at Grasmere, of terrible lions, of the ghost of Hamlet, of Death at Hell's gate. The ability to remember and describe the painfulness of family struggle and childhood isolation was perhaps best accomplished at the end of the period in 's Father and Son, in which the melancholy details of his mother's death, and the seemingly interminable dullness of his father's narrow religious life afterward, are painstakingly told.

What is striking in many o ihese accounts is the autobiographer's willingness to acce ; the blame for his own unhappiness or to see his suffering as having been, in retrospect, "good for him." Trollope said that his misfortunes were caused not only by his gentleman father's poverty but also by "an utter want on my own part of that juvenile manhood which enables some boys to hold up their heads even among the distresses which such a position is sure to produce." Though his father "knew not what he did" in passion, and in that state "knocked me down with the great folio Bible which he always used," Trollope insists that this form of punishment was simply the result of ignorance: "no father was ever more anxious for the education of his children, though I think none ever knew less how to go about the work" (21-22, 32). Samuel Smiles, the writer of self-help books, revealed his old schoolteacher Hardie to have been a tyrant and an indefatigable flogger, but then praised him for his "fairness." Similarly, Leigh Hunt described the humiliating methods of "Old Boyer," the famous teacher at Christ Hospital school. Though Boyer knocked Hunt's tooth out with the back of a Homer, and ridiculed his essays by "contemptuously crumpling them up in his hand, and calling out, 'Here, children, there is something to amuse you,' "Hunt saw him in retrospect as a "conscientious" and "laborious" man, and Christ Hospital school remained a dear memory (78). [71/72]

Evidently a child was expected to be stoical when misfortune befell him. In Victorian popular novels there are many pathetic orphans, dying children, and neglected waifs; these young martyrs were attractive for various reasons, not the least of which was a horror of that worst and most dreaded alternative, the "spoilt" child (Coveney, pp. 179-93). It would seem that any child who was poor and abused was superior to one overly coddled. When the illustrator Dorothy Tennant Stanley decided to reject, for her "ragged life" drawings, the very widespread and popular images of "pale. whining children with sunken eyes, holding up bunches of violets to heedless passers-by; dying match girls, sorrowful watercress girls, emaciated mothers clasping weeping babes," in favor of more robust and happy urchins and "street Arabs," she too was operating under the assumption that the most interesting children in London were those whose "ingenuity" and "charm" were born of extreme adversity, in this case poverty (5). The feeling against spoilt children was so common that even so unlikely (and confessedly spoilt) a person as Lord Alfred Douglas echoed the general disapproval: "I would rather see a child badly treated than spoilt," he said; "suffering is good for the soul" (16).

This may account in part for the lack of autobiographical reticence regarding childhood troubles. Victorians did not wish to think of themselves as having been "over-amused" as children. They were moreover quite ready to feel guilty for not having been strong or "manly" enough in times of distress. Childhood suffering was bracing: it was good for you. Learning obedience at the point of the rod was cause for tears, perhaps, but, as Teufelsdrockh says, "it was beyond measure safer to err by excess than by defect. Obedience is our universal duty and destiny; wherein whoso will not bend must break: too early and too thoroughly we cannot be trained to know that Would, in this world of ours, is as mere zero to Should, and for the most part as the smallest of fractions even to Shall" (98-99).

Hence the harshness of parents and other authorities was forgiven and justified. Though portrayed himself [72/73] as a lonely, suppressed child, often whipped, who was denied all toys, sweets, and even companions, he rationalized each of these denials by praising its beneficial result. The "utter prohibition" of wine and sweets, he said, had left him with "an extreme perfection in palate and in all other bodily senses." The whipping had given him "serene and secure methods of life and motion." The lack of toys and other distractions had given him a "formed habit of serenity," an ability to concentrate contentedly upon the patterns in the carpet or the wallpaper and thereby to learn "the main practical faculty" of his life. "the habit of fixed attention with both eyes and mind" through which his future in art was established (XXXV, 44, 21, 22). Gosse too felt that parental severity had had its value. Even though the zoological illustrations which his father helped him paint had been "wrung" from him, "touch by touch, pigment by pigment, under the orders of a taskmaster," the mental discipline gained by working according to the strict requirements of his father had finally been worth the agony: "It taught me to concentrate my attention, to define the nature of distinctions, to see accurately, and to name what I saw" (120-121).

Neither man protested, as a modern autobiographer might, that his talent had been damaged or his creativity stifled by such restrictions. Ruskin in fact wondered whether his childhood had not been too luxurious; perhaps, he thought, his mother had been right in suggesting that he had been "too much indulged." Mill also thought that he might have had too much too soon in his bovhood, and that easy success had spoiled his appetite for living: "I had had (as I reflected) some gratification of vanity at too early an age . . . little as it was which I had attained, yet having been attained too early, like all pleasures enjoyed too soon, it had made me blase and indifferent to the pur- suit." Like Meynell's "child over-amused," he felt that he had lost the very capacity for enjoyment: ". . . neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me" (84).

In a reaction against overindulgence some autobiographers not only did not judge their parents as harshly as they "light have done, but tended to select details which suggested [73/74] more hardship than may necessarily have been the case. Ruskin, for example, gives his readers some slightly exaggerated impressions of how much he was denied. He was, no doubt, called upon to crack nuts slavishly for the guests at dinner without being allowed to eat any himself; he did, probably, remember after sixty or more years the first three raisins he was given to eat, so rare a treat were they; he must certainly have had to grow up without elaborate toys and, as he relates, to give up the beautiful Punch and Judy dolls which his aunt had given him because it was "not right" that he should own such things. Yet occasionally a glimmer of luxury peeps through all this grey suppression, and causes one to wonder. The dolls were forbidden, but we soon enough learn of the rather splendid gift of a silver-mounted postilion's whip from the young traveller's increasingly well-off father. Food being so important to children, we marvel at the poor boy's misfortune to have had no sweets, nuts, "nor anything else of dainty kind" to eat, but we then read of the "ethereal flavor" of cherry pies which were cooked from the cherries he himself had chosen — in the very garden of which he had said earlier that "all the fruit was forbidden" (XXXV, 26, 50, 36). It is not that Ruskin deliberately wishes to mislead but that like many others he selectively remembers the difficulties of his "poor little life" with a kind of unconscious pride; he creates of himself a character worthy to stand beside the rest of the unspoilt, brave, heroic children of collective Victorian fantasy.

If there was, as I am suggesting, a certain cultural encouragement to feel that one had suffered, then there is some question as to how to read a book like Augustus J. C. Hare's The Story of My Life. This six-volume autobiography is a mine for anyone looking for incriminating testimony against Victorian authority figures and the "breaking-of-the-will" school of upbringing. It begins with the story of how Augustus, an unwelcome birth, was shipped off by his parents to his widowed aunt Maria when she offered to raise him as her own. ("My dear Maria, how very kind of you! Yes, certainly, the baby shall be sent as soon as it is weaned; and, if any one else would like one, would you kindly recollect that we have others," Mrs. Hare wrote. [51]) Then starts the long and pitiful account of Maria's sincere but clumsy campaign to teach him obedience and unselfishness. There was the lesson of the puddings:

The most delicious puddings were talked of — dilated on until I became, not greedy, but exceedingly curious about them. At length 'le grand moment' arrived. They were put on the table before me, and then, just as I was going to eat some of them, they were snatched away, and I was told to get up and carry them off to some poor person in the village. [112]

There was the hanging of Selma. There was, alas, the all- too-frequent presence of Selma's murderess. Aunt Esther. This woman made Augustus sleep in an austere, freezing (cold back room because he had chilblains and gave him sauerkraut to eat because it made him sick. (Esther said of another aunt's children when they were ill with measles: "I am very glad they are so ill: it is a well-deserved pun- ishment because their mother would not let them go to church for fear they should catch it there." "She had the inflexib cruelty of a Dominican," Hare wrote. [112])'

The horrors go on and on. Augustus was made to wear a miserable and unnecessary back brace — "a terrible iron frame" — when he went to Harrow. Christmas at home meant "having to sit for hours and hours pretending to be deeply interested in the six huge volumes of Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs,'" and "being compelled — usually with agonizing chilblains — to walk twice to church, eight miles through the snow or piercing marsh winds, and sit for hours in mute anguish of congelation, with one of Uncle Julius's interminable sermons in the afternoon. . . ." (239-40). In the midst of all this anguish burns an undying flame of affection for Maria, "my darling mother." Hare justifies all her complicity with his more-than-Murdstonian aunts by referring to Maria's high religious principles: when persecuted, one must turn the other cheek; it grieved her that Augustus had to suffer, but as a good Christian he too must follow Christ's meek example. And so Aunt Esther's tyranny prevailed, year after miserable year. [75/76]

Multitudes of questions arise from a reading of Hare's book, but the one which concerns us here is how to read it in light of the autobiographer's impulse to entertain, at some level, the vision of himself as a child of adversity. With Hare, one senses a definite authorial relish in the description of family eccentricities and calamities. There arc some very humorous passages, and there are moments when a character may be perfectly captured in a laughably grotesque image: at one point Esther is seen, spade in hand, marching off to the church-yard to bury two grinning skulls which have interested Augustus during his impris- onment in the church vestry. Dickens might have written it better, but the image itself cannot be improved upon for its delightfully apt placing of Esther in her proper setting. When social historians use Hare's book as factual evidence of the kind of discipline which Victorian parents were capable of inflcting, are they not misunderstanding the workings of a literary imagination? The young Hare, one is bound to note, often bears an uncanny resemblance to David Copperfield in The Story of My Life: one can also find echoes of Praeterita in the book. Hare was an experienced travel book writer who loved to repeat quaint stories and eerie legends to enhance his factual material. I do not mean here to claim that autobiography and fiction are one, or that Hare was a marvelous liar, but simply to suggest that in the case of an autobiography like this one, it ought to be read as existing within literary and cultural traditions which encouraged the selection of certain memories over others. In addition to noting Hare's habit of storytelling and his eye for the macabre and the unusual, we have to remember the increasing ease with which his culture allowed him to discuss the severity of former generations. Just as the claim that "I was the chief of sinners" became a kind of convention in Puritan autobiography, so the retelling of childhood woe became, if not conventional, at least common enough to be seen as part of a pattern (see Lerner). A man whose will had truly been broken, of course, would not have written the book at all.

The willingness to have suffered may perhaps be more [76/77] clearly seen when viewed in contrast with its equally strong opposite: the desire to have inhabited an Edenic "other world" as a child. The ideological struggle in nine- teenth-century children's literature between the didactic tale and the fairy-tale parallels this division. A fairytale need not have any relation to the world of Would, Should and Shall; its eventual triumph over the moralistic stories of writers like Mrs. Sherwood and Charlotte Mary Yonge is an indication of the adult writers' recognition that the realm of childhood fantasy could be as real and necessary as the world of adult rules and restrictions. Alongside the child as martyr, the Victorian mind was able to see the child as a free spirit, sporting idyllically on Echoing Greens, drinking in perceptions with a power which would later be lost. Ruskin praised the "large eyes of children," equating the child with the man of genius in having "infinite ignor- ance, and yet infinite power; a fountain of eternal admiration, delight, and creative force within him, meeting the ocean of visible and governable things around him" (II, 66). Froude thought that the child's simple ability to believe was worth all the world's knowledge. He would gladly give away all he was, he said. "but for one week of my old child's faith, to go back to calm and peace again, and then to die in hope."40

In this spirit, then, though somewhat less dramatically, autobiographcrs called forth memories of early happiness. Frances Power Cobbe describes a pleasant nursery, a mother who often cuddled up close to her on the sofa, a house full of relatives at Christmas with all the children playing "romping games" through the halls and corridors. In her childhood drawing room "the happiest hours of my life were passed"(10). Lord Alfred Douglas also passed his 'happiest days" in a family country house and remarked that "when you go to heaven you can be what you like, and I intend to be a child." Douglas, like Hare, idealized his mother as she had appeared to him in the early days, remembering that she had had an "angel's beauty"; she was so beautiful, he said, that when she and her sister went driving in the Park, "people stood on chairs to see them" (9-10). [77/778] Angelic mothers, paradise in the form of a childhood garden — these are images which appear to have been very important'to the formation of one's concept of early childhood. Frances Hodgson Burnett remembered an "enchanted garden which, out of a whole world, has remained, throughout a lifetime, the Garden of Eden" (Thwaite, 8). Her biographer could not place this garden, since the most likely spot housed only a small garden, not the "imposing mansion ensconced in trees" described by her son and first biographer, but the image was nevertheless real enough to Mrs. Hodgson Burnett, who transformed it into The Secret Garden, her best children's book. Ruskin of course began and ended Praeterita with images of "Eden-land" and "the rivers of Paradise" (XXXV, 561, 20).

William Michael Rossetti grew up in the dinginess of Charlotte Street, Portland Place, but found that his earliest recollections were of his grandfather's country cottage in Buckinghamshire: though he was there only about three times after his infancy, he still clearly remembered as an adult the pigs, dogs, spiders, earwigs, and slugs of those early rural visits.

Sometimes it is not so much the content of the memory which is important in the establishment of ar idyllic feeling. The very act of remembering can also be source of unusual pleasure. As "the past grows holier the farther we leave it,"46 so the recapturing of lost time through memory may seem to carry an almost mystical significance. Leigh Hunt found that the accidental appearance in a music stall of songs he had sung as a boy caused him to remember the intensity, the reality of the past; this moment of child- hood clarity made all his adult life seem stale and un- real:

What a difference between the little smooth-faced boy at his mother's knee, encouraged to lift up his voice to the pianoforte, and the battered grey-headed senior, looking again, for the first time. at what he had sung at the distance of more than half a century! Life often seems a dream; but there are occasions when the sudden reappearance of early objects, by the intensity of their presence, not only renders the interval less present to the consciousness than a very dream, but makes the portion of life which preceded it seem to have been the most real of all things, and our only undreaming time. [Hunt 45]

This perhaps describes the kind of pleasure which Dickens felt while writing David Copperfield, and which made him so regretful finally to put his pen down when the book was finished. The memoriali/ation of the past, through objects (Hunt's songbooks) or through narration (Dickens' story), creates not only a pleasant sense of nostalgia, but can also confer the energy and the purity of the former time to the present. The following passage on David's reaction to his mother's death is interesting because it seems also to describe the process by which the autobiographer is able to revive those images which seem most pure and eternal:

From the time of knowing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the young mother of my earliest impressions. who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour. ... In her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and cancelled all the rest. [109]

The ability to write David Copperfield must have begun with a similar cancellation, imaginatively, of Dickens' grown-up life; this then opened the door to the past, that fascinating other world, in all its seeming innocence and clarity.

Though the psychologist Emma Plank found that, of all the autobiographies she studied, only those written by "men of letters" revealed "genuine recollections" of very early memories (as opposed to "screen memories," or to repetitions of what an author had heard from other people about himself as a child), one should also note that men of letters can recollect things that may never have happened at all.49 Memory is not only creative in that it may "screen" or "conceal," in the Freudian sense, the significant event; a writer's memory, especially, may easily blend the real and the written event. Thus when Matilda Betham-Edwards describes her "first recollection" as a baby in her nurse's arms, she may simply be inadvertently revealing her admiration for the work of Thomas Hardy:

The scarlet coat so strikingly contrasted with the blue sky and green hedges, the ingratiating smiles of the wearer, who, whilst making love to the maid, warily ministered to the good humor of her charge, the animation of the pair, all these things make up a clear, ineffaceable whole.50

For Betham-Edwards, this pleasant scene is clear and ineffaceable; but the fact that it is so like the famous appearance of Sergeant Troy in Far From the Modeling Crowd, which she has read, suggests the effect other writers may have on autobiographers. The "other world" of childhood may also be a literary world.

Whether the autobiographer chooses to describe his former happiness in metaphors of enchanted gardens or visions of mother, whether his memories are "genuine" or screened or second-hand, the important point is that the tendency toward the idyllic is as common in descriptions of childhood as the previously discussed portrayal of adversity. Both are in part the result of cultural attitudes, though of course it would be much too limiting to see them only in this light. Both tendencies may exist side by side in the same writer, as when Hare portrays himself as a persecuted child raised by an angelic mother. The inclination is to swing from one to another, but never to reverse them; so far as I know, there are no spoilt children nor ugly mothers in Victorian autobiography.51 Each form of selection has its function for the writer. He is able, through the recounting of troubled times, to relieve his own sense of guilt, to reassure himself of his worth, and to implicate, without actually accusing, those who may have persecuted him or failed to help him. More importantly, the journey back to the imagination's "fair Life-garden" of childhood, where "everywhere is dewy fragrance, and the budding of Hope" allows the writer to escape his grown-up world of anxiety and limitation and to participate in an ideal which nevertheless seems "the most real of all things, and our only undreaming time" (91). In the furthest reaches of memory he finds a measure of repose.

... as yet Time is no fast-hurrying stream, but a sportful sunlit ocean, years to the child are as ages: ah! the secret of Vicissitude, "of that slower or quicker decay and ceaseless down-rushing of the universal World-fabric, from the granite mountain to the man or day-moth, is yet unknown and in a motionless Universe, we taste, what afterwards in that quick-whirling Universe, is forever denied us, the balm of Rest. [90]


Victorian Web Genre and Style Literary Technique Autopbiography

Last modified 1 July 2012