The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Histoire De Ma Vie (Story of My Life)

by George Sand
Translated by Emily Austin Bull.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 656-661

We must conclude that life is a very good thing in itself, since the beginning of it is so sweet and infancy is so happy a stage. There is not one of us who does not recall that golden age as a vanished dream, to which nothing that follows it can be compared. I say a dream, thinking of those first years, over which memory hovers uncertainly and only lays hold of a few isolated impressions from a vague whole. It is difficult to say why, for each one of us, these flashes of remembrance--insignificant for other people--have so powerful a charm.

Memory is faculty which varies according to the individual, and which, being perfect in no one, presents a thousand contradictions. In me as in many other persons it is extraordinarily developed on some points and extraordinarily weak in others. I only recall laboriously the little events of the day before and most of the details are lost to me for ever. But when I look a little further behind me, my recollections go back to an age when most people can recall nothing of their past existence. Does this proceed from the nature of this faculty in myself or from a certain precocity in the perception of life?

We are perhaps equally endowed in this respect, and have perhaps only a clear or confused notion of past things according to the lesser or greater amount of emotion they caused us. Certain inward occupations make us almost indifferent to facts which are shaking the world around us. It also happens that we remember badly what we have badly understood. Forgetfulness is perhaps only want of intelligence or inattention. Whatever it may be, here is the first recollection of my life and it dates from very far back. I was two years old, a nurse let me fall from her arms against the corner of a mantel-piece; I was frightened, and my forehead was hurt. The commotion and shock to my nervous system opened my mind to the consciousness of life, and I saw clearly and still see the ruddy marble of the chimney-piece, my blood flowing and the scared face of my nurse. I also distinctly recollect the doctor's visit, the leeches that were put behind my ear, my mother's anxiety, and the dismissal of the nurse for drunkenness. We left the house and I do not know where it was situated, and have never been there since; but if it is still in existence it seems to me that I should know it again.

It is therefore not surprising that I remember perfectly the apartments we lived in in Grande-Bateliere street a year later. From thence date my distinct and almost uninterrupted recollections. But from the mantel-piece accident to the age of three years, I can only go over an indeterminate succession of hours passed in my little bed without sleeping and filled with the contemplation of some fold in the curtain or some flower on the paper of the rooms. I also remember that the buzzing about of the flies occupied my attention considerably, and that I often saw things double, a circumstance which it is impossible for me to explain and which many people have told me they also experienced in their early infancy. It was especially the flame of the candles which assumed this appearance before my eyes and I took knowledge of the illusion without being able to escape from it. It even seems to me this illusion was one of the tame amusements of my captivity in the cradle, and this cradle life appeared to me extraordinarily long and full of luxurious weariness.

My mother took pains very early to bring out my faculties and my brain offered no resistance to her efforts, but it did not forestall them. It might have been very tardy if it had been let alone. I walked at ten months; I talked pretty late, but when once I had begun to say a few words, I learnt all the words very quickly, and at four I could read very well; my cousin Clotilde also, who was taught as I was by our two mothers in turn. They also taught us prayers, I remember that I said them without stumbling from beginning to end and without understanding a syllable, except those words that we were taught to say when we were lying with our two heads on the same pillow, "My God, I give you my heart." I don't know why I understood that more than the rest, for there is much that is metaphysical in these few words, however, I did understand them, and it was the only part of my prayers in which I had some idea of God and of myself. As to the Pater, the Credo, and the Ave Maria which I knew very well in French, except, "Give us this day our daily bread," I might just as well have said them in Latin like a parrot, they would not have been more unintelligible to me.

We were also made to learn by heart La Fontaine's Fables and I knew them nearly all, however they were still a dead letter to me. I was so tired of reciting them that I believe I did my utmost not to understand them till very late, and it was only about the age of fifteen or sixteen that I began to perceive their beauty. It was formerly the custom to fill the memory of children with an accumulation of wealth beyond their understanding. I do not find fault with the little labour that was thus imposed on them. Rousseau, in cutting it off altogether in "Emile" risks thickening the skull of his pupil till he is no longer capable of comprehending what there is in store for him at a more advanced age. It is good to accustom children from as early an age as possible to a moderate, but daily exercise on the different faculties of their minds. But people are in too great a hurry to make use of exquisite things. There exists no literature for the use of little children. All the pretty verses that are made to their honour are affected and crammed with words that do not belong to their vocabulary. There are hardly any of the songs except lullabies which really appeal to their imagination. The first lines which I understand are those which every-body no doubt knows and which my mother used to sing to me in the freshest and sweetest voice in the world:

    Allons dans la grange
         Voir la poule blanche
    Que pond un bel oeuf d'argent
         Pour ce cher petit enfant.

    Let's go to the barn
         To see the white hen
    That lays a beautiful silver egg
         For this dear little child.

The rhyme is not very exquisite, but I did not care about that, and I was deeply impressed by that white hen and that silver egg that was promised me every evening and that I never thought of asking for the next morning. The promise returned always and the naïve hope came back with it. Dear reader, do you remember it? For you also were promised for years, this marvellous egg which never excited your cupidity, but which seemed to you the most poetical and graceful present from the good hen. And what would you have done with the silver egg if it had been given you? Your feeble hands could not have carried it, and your restless and variable temper would soon have grown tired of the insipid plaything. What is an egg, what is a toy which does not break? but imagination makes something out of nothing; it is its nature and the history of this silver egg is perhaps the thing of all material wealth which arouses our covetousness. The desire of it is a great and the possession of it but a little thing.

My mother also sang me a song of this kind on Xmas eve; but as that only came once a year I do not remember it. What I have not forgotten is the entire belief I had in the descent by the funnel of the chimney of little Father Xmas, a good old man with a white beard who at the midnight hour would come and put in my little shoe a present which I should find there when I awoke. Midnight! That weird hour that children are not acquainted with and which is pointed out to them as the impossible limit of their vigil. What incredible efforts I made not to fall asleep before the little old man appeared. I was both very desirous and very much afraid of seeing him; but never could I keep awake till then, and the next day my first look was for my shoe beside the hearth. What emotion the white paper wrapper caused me, for Father Xmas was delicately clean and never failed to carefully pack up his offering. I ran with bare feet to seize my treasure. It was never a very magnificent gift, for we were not rich. It was a little cake, an orange, or simply a fine rosy apple. But it seemed to me so precious that I hardly dared eat it. Again imagination did its part, and it is the whole life of a child.

I do not at all approve of Rousseau wishing to put down the marvellous on the pretext of its being falsehood. Reason and incredulity come quite quickly enough, and of themselves. I quite well remember the first year, when doubt seized me, about the real existence of Father Xmas. I was five or six years old, and it seemed to me that it must be my mother who put the cake into my slipper. Therefore, it seemed to me not so good and delicious as it was at other times, and I felt a sort of regret at no longer being able to believe in the old man with the white beard. I saw my son believe in it much longer. Boys are simpler than little girls. Like myself, he made great efforts to keep awake till midnight. Like myself, he did not succeed, and, like myself, he found the marvellous cake kneaded in the kitchen of paradise; but for him, also, the first year that he doubted was the last of the visits of the good old man. We should provide for children the food suited to their age and not anticipate. As long as they want the marvellous, we should give it to them. When they begin to get tired of it, we must take good care not to prolong the illusion, and to impede the natural progress of their reason.

To cut off the marvellous from the life of the child is to go against nature herself. Is not infancy in man a mysterious state and full of inexplicable phenomena? Whence comes the child? Before it was formed in its mother's womb, had it not an existence of some kind in the unfathomable bosom of Divinity? Does not the particle of life, which animates it, come from the unknown world to which it is to return? This rapid development of the human soul in our first years, the strange passage from a state which resembles chaos to a state of comprehension and sociability, these first notions of language, this incomprehensible labour of the mind which learns to give a name, not only to external objects, but to action, to thought, to feeling, all that is connected with the miracle of life, and I do not know that anyone has explained it. I have always marvelled at the first verb that I have heard pronounced by little children. I understand that the substantive shall be taught them, but the verbs, and above all those which express the affections! The first time, for example, that a child knows how to say to his mother that it loves her, is it not a higher revelation which he receives and expresses? The outward world, where this travailing spirit soars, cannot yet have given it any distinct notion of the functions of the soul. Till then he has only lived by his wants, and the growth of his intelligence has only been by his senses. He sees, he wishes to touch, to taste, and all those outward objects the use of which he is for the most part ignorant of, and the cause and effect of which he cannot understand must pass before him at first like a puzzling vision. Here begins the internal working. The imagination is filled with these objects:--The child dreams in his sleep, and he also dreams, no doubt, when he does not sleep. At least he does not know for a long time the difference between the state of waking and the state of sleeping. Who can say why a new object delights or frightens him? Who inspires him with the vague notion of beauty or ugliness? A flower, a little bird never frighten him; an ugly mask, a noisy animal scare him. It must be, then, that in striking his senses, this object of sympathy, or repulsion, reveals to his understanding some idea of confidence or of terror, which cannot have been taught, for this attraction or this repugnance is manifested already in the child who does not yet understand human language. There is, then, in him something anterior to all the notions that education can give him, and that is the mystery which constitutes the essence of life in man.

The child lives quite naturally in a supernatural environment, so to speak, where all is marvellous within him, and where all which is without him must at first sight seem marvellous to him. We do not do him a service by hastening without discretion, and without discernment the estimation of all the things which strike him. It is good that he should seek it out for himself, and that he should make it out in his own way during that period of his life, when, instead of his innocent mistake, our explanations, beyond his powers, would plunge him into still greater error, and perhaps warp for ever the correctness of his judgment and the morality of his soul.

Proofread by LNL, June 2021