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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
From Seven to Seventeen.

Volume 10, 1899, pg. 564

Some time ago I wrote for these pages a paper on the "Sensations and Impressions of my Early Childhood," and I am now kindly invited by the Editor to continue the record of my early life, which, in my former paper, I only carried up to the age of seven years. Most lives divide themselves naturally into epochs, I suppose, and in mine the first seven years of childhood stand separate and distinct from all that followed; for, with the close of those bright baby years, I said farewell to my first home in town, and, leaving it and infancy behind, entered on the charms of a childhood spent in the country--there were three before I reached the age of seventeen, which I propose to make my limit here.

It is not so much of the rulers that I want to speak, as of the manner in which the child developed under them; and during the first two periods, lasing together till I reached the age of thirteen, this development was normal, healthy and joyous; my impressions and recollections are vivid, life was full of interest, the spirit of adventure was alive, and so what a very robust spirit of disobedience and self-indulgence--a cheerful self-dispensation from the obligation either to control myself or to heed the commands of authority. At thirteen all this was changed. Gone from that moment were the careless hours of childhood, and, under the crushing rule which then began, my very life itself seems to me to have run so low that it has left but faint and dim records in my memory.

Out of that fearful slough of despond and misery I did, indeed, partly creep towards the end of the four years during which this Reign of Terror lasted, but it was with some parts of my nature sorely maimed and crippled, and with injuries which I was to suffer from for year years to come, if, indeed, I ever did fully recover from them.

I will return, however, to the earlier and happier period, and try to give a detailed picture of my life under the rule of those two kindly ones who led me as far as the gate of girlhood.

Quite in the early days of my life in the country, the unspeakable glamour of childhood was still upon my eyes, and every flower and bird and bubbling brook and grassy meadow was transfigured by it. It still remember how they looked, though, alas, that fairy light has faded, and I often look into the sparkling eyes of my youngest child--a bright little fellow of seven--and know that he is seeing things just so, and I wish that, but for a moment, he could lend me that splendid sixth sense of childhood.

Those were the days when I think it was always summer--or did I hibernate, like the playful squirrels which I often watch half enviously now, during their short waking intervals, when mild weather for a moment pushes winter aside?

I think of delicious beds made of the catkins of sweet chestnut trees, on which one might lie under a leafy canopy through which the blue sky peeped; I think of the prickly burs which fell from canopy later on, and their precious brown or piebald nuts which smarting fingers extracted, and which, if fires were not handy to roast them at, were really quite delicious to eat raw! I think of a flowing brook full of wonderful caddis worms and tadpoles and "water boatman," whose margins were fringed with forget-me-nots and yellow flags; and I remember how a hat once set sail as a boat thereon, not quite intentionally on the part of its owner, but none the less to the violent indignation of those in authority! The thoughts and memories come crowding in when I turn my mind back, and they stir me with a strange, sweet pain, but they would only weary my readers if I should recount them, for in themselves--apart from the glamour of childhood--there is nothing in them which may not be the experience of almost every country child in England.

I have said that it seems to have been a time of perpetual summer. When I try to recall winter days, very little comes into my mind except visions of story-books and sweets. Is it not rather a significant fact that the unpleasant things of my childhood have made such a vague impression? Here and there a poignant pang of disappointment or trouble stands out--especially in connection with my nurse, to whom I was devoted, and whose suffering, anger, or absence were all in their different ways keen agony to me--but, on the whole, painful things only leave a disagreeable sort of blur on my memory, whilst beautiful and happy experiences are often most vivid and distinct in my recollection. It may be only because I have returned to them again and again, but in any case it may perhaps afford a hint of the way to write on the memories of our little ones with indelible ink!

When I was about eight I begin to remember lessons as a more or less important part of my daily life. I do not think they shadowed it in the least at that age. I had learnt to read very early and do not remember the struggles of that uphill business much, and I cannot but think that my teacher, who was exceedingly young herself, was very indulgent to happy little children, and not inclined to make their tasks a heavy burden. I remember learning to repeat Tennyson's "May Queen" in all its three parts, and feeling its pathos intensely--so much so that when I was once called upon to repeat it to an unsympathetic audience who laughed during the sad part, I burst into passionate tears and resolved, though not quite in these words perhaps, never again to cast my pearls before swine!

Four o'clock in the morning was a witching hour in those days (needless to say I am in summer-time as usual). Either to wake and learn lessons for the day and so be blessedly free, or to sally forth out of doors and see how everything looked when one ought to be asleep in bed. The worst of it was, when such an expedition was in prospect it was almost impossible to get to sleep at night, and the sound of nurse pouring the cold water into our morning bath before she went to bed, somehow gave us most unpleasant shudderings! Also we discovered that though four o'clock out of doors is delightful in summer, five, on the same morning, is not quite so nice, and six is destestable! and then the same seems to be put out of temper by being looked at so early, so it really is better to begin at seven.

I see I have fallen into the plural number with my pronouns, and rightly so, for my younger brother was now my close companion and was associated with me in all my lessons and plays. Matters went on in some such happy fashion as this till I was about ten, when a new reign began, and, as was of course necessary, a stricter discipline and régime became the order of the day.

I possess a careful daily journal, kept for a whole year, from the age of ten and a half to eleven and a half; the book locks with a little key, and doubtless this gave it a great charm, though it does not seem to have impressed me with a sense of absolute security, for I find the entry, "I wish I could put just what I liked, but I am sure somebody will read it." I feel that that sense was constantly present to my childish mind in writing, so that, except as one reads carefully between the lines, it is not a perfectly trustworthy guide as to the real feelings of my heart at that time. Is any journal of the inner man, however, a perfectly true picture, and would anyone dare to write down every secret thought and motive that besieged his soul, and for a while found entrance? So I do not trust much to the journal, except to recall events and sensations to my memory, and to watch therein the influence over me of the new ruler of my schoolroom life. On the whole of this was undoubtedly beneficent. Certainly the teaching itself was often quaintly old-fashioned, for, as a contrast to the extreme youth of her predecessor, this teacher belonged two generations back, and had taught my mother before me; it must be confessed too, that though often ingenious, and always, I think, tinctured with originality and that living spirit which gives such force to any teaching, her instructions were not always perfectly sound, as, for instance, when she desired me in drawing to curve my horizon line into a gentle bow, because forsooth, "the earth is round, you know!" Yet, in spite of these drawbacks, the general influence on my development was, I am sure, excellent. I think the secret was that she strenuously encouraged every healthy interest I showed, and drew forth every latent power that I possess, sometimes even at the sacrifice of certain points. My journal, for instance, was villainously written and illustrated to match, yet I was distinctly encouraged to jot down my thoughts and feelings as best I could, and time and--another governess(!) were left to correct the handwriting and inculcate neatness!

The said journal is full of lists of flowers which Miss ----- took us to search for, and then, with much labour, for she was no botanist, hunted down and named from her "big books," which always inspired me with awe. She succeeded, after long patience, in teaching us to sing a simple air correctly, to our infinite pride and joy; she taught us to draw--in her own fashion, as we have seen! She encouraged me to string my childish rhymes, and even condescended to be charmed with a dirge which I composed for her funeral! She never spared herself, and compiled marvellous verses and memoria technica to aid us in retaining in our minds a sort of skeleton of universal history first, and particular histories of the nation afterwards. I am doubtful if we appreciated these efforts as we should!

In religious matters she was very earnest, and her influence is visible all through my journal; she was very vivid and impressive in her pictures of the future life. I find the following quaint entry: "Miss ----- talked to us about (when we go to heaven) seeing Adam and all the old people." She constantly took us with her on her charitable visits among the poor, and encouraged us to repeat hymns and verses which we had learnt to the sick and suffering, and she helped me to make garments for their children, and suggested saving the sugar in Lent that we might have something of our own to bestow in charity. From all this I think it will be seen that she wasted no materials, but worked up all that she found in us in the most conscientious and scientific manner; and for this I can never be sufficiently thankful. Had the repressive and depressing influence which followed, come earlier in my life, I think it might have been hopelessly blighted; as it was, most of the seeds sown or growth fostered in this earlier period simply remained dormant through those four wintry years, and sprang up, retarded indeed, but alive, after they were over.

I know well from later experience that there are difficulties as to the fostering of children's natural tastes, and that in some cases it is quite possible to encourage the taste out of existence! This is especially apt to be the case if one falls into the error of shewing greater heat than the child feels, or of making anything like a business of pleasure; but even this accident is far less serious than is the death of a taste from sheer despair and discouragement. If we must kill somehow, really it is better to kill with kindness! but a wise judgment may possibly steer us safely between Scylla and Charybdis.

My paper is, I fear, lengthening unduly, but before I sketch those last four years of regular schoolroom life, it is necessary to say a few words as to my natural disposition and abilities. I have spoken above of my want of self-control and habits of disobedience which resulted therefrom. My desires were eager and strong, and once I gave them the rein they ran away with me entirely. These "breakings out" came upon me at intervals; for a long period I might eat soberly of my sweets and taste the excitement of new story-books with moderation and self-restraint. Then the lust of sweets would come upon me one day and there was an orgie (strange that I remember no evil results except a slight malaise of conscience), or the lust of excitement seized me and I read myself sick and dizzy! We were forbidden to take fruit in the garden, but that was a temptation which it did not seem to be in (my) human nature to resist, and when once the appetite was whetted it was not easily satisfied. Of course, this led to deception, and I was a terrible moral coward and possessed no principles strong enough either to keep me from yielding to temptation or to lead me to confession when the sin had been committed. Alas, I was no story-book character, and my faults were not of the high-class kind which are really almost admirable! My bodily appetites and passions had me terribly at their mercy; anger could shake me like a leaf, and greediness hurry me on to shameful acts; and I had courage neither to resist nor to confess. In spite of all this, there was a yearning towards higher things, a wish for a better life--in fact, there was something to work upon, if only my teacher could be very patient and hopeful.

As regards physical abilities, I had a bad memory, a confused brain, an impatient disposition and no very robust constitution. At the same time I had some enthusiasm and much power of appreciation of the noble and the beautiful, especially in poetry and in nature, a grain of originality and some power of self-expression, a more or less teachable disposition--if rightly taken--and an incipent desire for an orderly arrangement of things I was interested in.*

* My journal shows distinct traces of effort in the way of orderliness and also of attempts at accuracy. The following amusing entry, amongst other indications, shows likewise an intimate appreciation of the uncertainty of all future events, and the need for caution in speaking of them: "It is quite certain that we go to Filey to-morrow; I say ‘quite certain,' because I am there already, sitting in my room, writing with my pen made out of a cock's feather."

I cannot wonder that my new governess thought her pupil a very unpromising one, for there was not a single quality out of which a show pupil could be manufactured, and my faults of disposition were, of course, peculiarly unattractive ones.

My brother had gone to school about a year before this, and first one, and then two little sisters shared the school-room life with me. A third dear little sister was born when I was thirteen, and this baby was a great solace and comfort to me during the years that followed.

I do not find it possible, for various reasons, to speak freely of this time; I can only give a short and general sketch of the effect upon me. Doubtless the principle of general encouragement which had prevailed hitherto had tended to give me a favourable opinion of myself, which opinion was hardly justified by facts, and probably this was in great measure the reason for the system of repression adopted by my new governess. My journal was promptly extinguished, my singing pronounced that of a crow, versifying discouraged, and it was gradually but effectually impressed upon me that I was the stupidest and poorest of God's creatures, and somehow different from other people. It has been said, and most truly said, that what you are expected to be, that you will show yourself to be. I have found this a talisman to work with in the guiding and training of children. The reverse side of this talisman is a deathly spell. Expect evil of your child, and you will find it. So it was with me. My weak moral nature soon disclosed itself; untruth was then systematically expected of me, and it grew apace. My interests died one by one. It may seem strange, but now from this time I remember winter! It seems to me it was often winter: I was cold, stunned, miserable. Chilblains covered my hands, and my blood crept wretchedly through my veins. The power to think often seemed gone, and the confusion in my brain increased. Despair seized me; and I can recall times when I think I lived exactly the life of a down-trodden animal, looking forward to nothing but to my meals and to my nightly rest!

Two thing perhaps kept my heart from freezing--my love for my mother and for my little baby-sister, and a persistently clinging affection for things that grew in the earth. Once my governess--perhaps puzzled by the apathy which her system had created--asked me if there were one thing on earth that I cared for, and I muttered faintly something about planting flowers in the field. This was indeed almost the only real interest I remember. I had a little secret garden there--too secluded for anything to flourish in it, but there, in a tiny thicket, I could be alone with nature sometimes and be soothed.

I think I need say no more of this period. Of course things were not at a dead level, and doubtless there were brighter days, but the above was my general condition, I think, during the first three years. After that I began to go to classes in London, and, to my astonishment and delight, discovered that I could hold my own with other girls and take a good place amongst them. Emulation awoke, the apathy was gone, and matters were never quite so bad after this; but some things which I have not cared to touch on here, could never be put entirely right, and it was year before I recovered sufficient self-confidence in practical matters to enable me to fulfil the ordinary duties of life without other's people's help.

I know that this record is a very imperfect one, but if it says anything, surely its moral is this: encourage wisely, expect a high morality, have infinite patience, and you may feel that you are following God's plan with your child, and may then safely trust its development to Him.