The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Sensations and Impressions in Early Childhood

by E. Hughes-Gibb
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 217-225

[Eleanor Mary (Wigram) Hughes-Gibb, 1858-1947, was already a scholar at age 12. "Instead of writing books for additional income, she instead wanted to take advantage of her educated background to spark the curiosity of a new generation about nature," perhaps inspired by her five children. She wrote How Plants Live and Work, The Making of a Daisy, Trees and Men, The Colours Of Flowers Blooming Out Of Season -- as well as 9 novels.]

The recollection of my early childhood and its sensations is, with me, remarkably clear and vivid; more so, I suspect, than is very commonly the case; and I have sympathy and tenderness for that period of my life which makes it almost a sacred thing to me, not to be approached without a kind of wistful reverence and love.

One very great difficulty which besets the writer who would recall the sensations of very early childhood is the want of a language in which to convey them! No words, I think, can rightly express the peculiar glamour with which a little child invests every object of its daily life. Perhaps it is most akin to the love-glamour of youth! We all remember the sensations of that period of our lives, even though it be long passed, with its joys and its pains, and we see things now in calm, true, peaceful light of afternoon! The little child is in love with life and with the beautiful world in which it finds itself. A charm is over everything! a charm without a why! The most unpromising thing may be invested with this charm, which no one but the child can discover, and may be a treasure untold, fascinating beyond description.

After all, why should not a lump of gum from a cherry tree be as precious as a beautiful specimen of amber? I remember well the charm of the former; it was delightful to touch, to handle, to play with. Why? there was no why! it was so.

I wish I could make an egg for breakfast look to me as it looked then! Enticing, delicious, perfectly adorable in its smooth roundness. It is not the taste I am speaking of, though that, too, was a sensation only to be experienced in childhood; but the whole conception of an egg as it was presented to my childish mind is one not to be expressed in words--a thing as intangible and indescribable as an odour!

Speaking of odours, I cannot but observe that the sense of smell seems to be remarkably developed in a child, and to have something of that power of conveying distinct impressions about the object smelled which it appears to have in the case of many animals. Certainly the memory of the odours of my childhood is keen and quick to a marvellous degree, and brings with it whole impressions and sensations which one would hardly expect to be thus evoked. The smell of the violet powder, &c., in the baby's nursery, the smell of the honeysuckle on the verandah of her house--these are not merely odours, surely? they are complicated sensations, full of meaning and intensity. Does violet powder, or does cocoa ever smell like that nowadays? I trow not!

Strangely enough, though memory recalls these sensations and impressions, the same objects now present themselves in an ordinary every-day light, and they will not take on the old charm for me again, blandish them as I may!

Though born in London, and brought up there until I reached the age of seven, flowers were always a perfect passion with me, and the flowers of my childhood glow with a brightness and loveliness such as perhaps I may find again in the Garden of Paradise, but hardly elsewhere. Never, I think, shall I forget the first time that my childish eyes beheld a red poppy! It was whilst walking with my father in a brickfield--long since built over--that the glorious vision presented itself to me, and threw my little heart into such an exquisite rapture of delight and admiration as the finding of a Kohinoor could hardly evoke in a matter-of-fact grown-up mind. But oh, the dimming of my joy (the pity of it, that it should so soon go out!) at the words, from one who saw by the light of afternoon, "only a common poppy!"

I think I have never so spoken to a child. I could not, with that recollection.

This indefinable glamour, which I am trying so hard to render into some tangible form, is closely connected, I am sure, with certain kinds of plays, absolutely mysterious, unintelligible and uninteresting to grown-up people, in which most children delight.

Sometimes the "charm without a why" lies in the playthings used in the game, whether they be "toys" according to the received notion, or, as is more probable, something which was intended for a wholly different vocation in life. In other cases it is certain actions or performances on the part of the child which are so unspeakably delightful.

Memory brings back to me the sense of the fading of all joy from life when we were forbidden to play on a certain old sofa with two high ends, a high back, and delightful wobbly old springs in the seat; or, again, when I might not say my prayers at the door of my tent under the table!

Years later I recollect the gradual fading of the old glamour over things, and the loss of the power to "play" in the dear old childish way. I remember sitting before a heap of lovely sea-shells and trying hard to stir up the old sensations, and to play with them and find the old delight, but it would not do; already the rosy light was paling in my morning sky, and I consciously missed the blush upon everything.

That same old sofa shared the same fate when I met it again after an interval, with a furtive hope in my heart that possibly, at this date in its history, it might not be so precious in the eyes of its owners. Alas! it was not only the sofa which had grown older! The years had brought about a change to me, and the soft "flop" upon the yielding springs no longer produced the ecstatic thrill of other days!

It is difficult to affix a date to the period when the glamour of early childhood first began to fade; but I think it was still in its full, bright intensity when I left my London home at the age of seven, and certainly it had begun to fade at the age of 12, which date is land-marked for me by the removal of my grandmother from a fascinating old house in which she had lived for the past eight years, and which was condemned to be pulled down on account of age and supposed insecurity. This house is the treasure castle of my most romantic child memories: a house to delight in, a house to thrill in! Some of the floors sloped so much that you could roll marbles down the inclined plane. Many of the rooms were hung with marvellous papers covered with enormous bouquets of flowers, or vividly painted birds; and (oh! the mystery and awfulness of the arrangement!) many of the doors were likewise covered with the same paper, so that, except for the small brass handle, no door was apparent.

There were dark passages, and one special little lobby with four doors, which was completely dark when they were all shut. This lobby I seldom entered in the evening without a beating heart, for--think of the horror of the situation!--one of these doors was never opened! What might not be behind it? (I have since discovered that the back stairs lay in that direction!)

A verandah ran round the house, having steps down to the garden; (a splendid "ship" that verandah made!) and there were ivy-screened "dark walls" in the garden, inhabited, on one occasion by a "wild" cat and her litter of kittens, and always full of "thrills!"

These recollections lead me on naturally to consider the black side of child-life,--the awful and terrible shadow of night-time which dogs the steps of every sunny day. I fear to many children,--certainly it was so to me,--night is a recurrent horror, pressing, even on the elastic little spirits, with a sense of dread, as the sun dips towards the west. Dreams are often so vivid, so unspeakably terrifying, and so incessant that the poor child dreads sleep, which, to him, is almost synonymous with nightmare! I well remember, at the age of five, recounting my dreams one day at the safe and happy hour of seven in the morning, and being reproved for invention and exaggeration. But all that I had described was literally true, and my unlucky little brain was a constant prey to incessant terrible imaginings, followed by nameless fears and dreads which made night hideous. My dreams had a tendency to be recurrent, and also to be of that description of semi-waking nightmare, in which the sufferer knows the inevitable catastrophe at hand, but is utterly powerless to deliver himself from the meshes of his dreaming imagination.

For this worst of all experiences, however, my brother, who suffered in the same way, at length discovered and communicated to me a sovereign remedy. "When you have a bad dream, and know that you are dreaming, shut your eyes in the dream, and you'll wake at once!" This was his recipe, and it was perfectly successful. Seldom have I been more grateful for a suggestion! After this I could laugh at this special form of torture, and even enjoy letting the dream progress till very near the final catastrophe, when I would shut my eyes with a delightful sense of triumph; and, if I did not wake, at least that dream could not go on!

Still the terror of night was never really relieved. It was possible to have nightmare when apparently wide awake, and seeing every article in the room distinctly, including my sleeping nurse and the baby! This was an experience which shook my nerves for days.

I was always liable to distress and fears not in the least comprehended by my nurses, and, for the most part, entirely beyond my own control. Some of these fears, however, I honestly confess, were increased by giving way to imagination, and were distinctly lessened by the efforts made in consequence of the stimulus of a good scolding. Amongst the latter category was the alarm produced by "colours in the dark" or when I shut my eyes. These might be endurable as long as they kept to wholesome red and orange, but when violet turned up, what nerves could endure it? However, after the scolding aforesaid, I ceased to make so many experiments as to the varying shades which could be produced by squeezing one's eyelids more or less tightly together.

I cannot fix any date for the period when these night-terrors began to pass away, but I remember well the springing of a blessed hope in my mind when my brother, whom I admired and looked up to with absolute trust and confidence, assured me that he had "discovered" that at a certain age (I think eleven was the year of release, but cannot be certain) one ceased to have these dreadful dreams. The note of hope was like spring in the air, and from that time I began to suffer less, and gradually, with the glamour and the charm of early childhood, there faded likewise its awful "night-side" of terror.

Stories were to me, as to most children, a delight untold. My father's delightful renderings of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp," &c., used to hold us spell-bound. No one could tell stories quite in his fascinating manner. But stories told always, I think, at least during early childhood, have a charm which no story read from a book possesses.

Still, even at a very early age a few books made their mark. George MacDonald's Phantastes was read to me and to my brother when I was six, and the fearful fascination of it was too great for words; but the fear finally predominated over the fascination; the terrible ash, with wicked knotted fingers, was stronger than the beautiful beneficent beech with her drooping hair, and I used to beg that it might not be read. I never forgot it, and many, many years afterwards, when it came into my grown-up hands and I opened it with keen expectation, I marvelled, as I read the story again, at the intensely vivid imaginings and mysterious thrills which it had excited in the mind of a little child.

Hans Andersen was safer. Delightful, beautiful, his stories never palled; and, later on, Bunyan's "Christian" became a dear friend, and, though one shuddered at Apollyon, and still more as one passed through the "Valley of the Shadow of Death," yet the charm was greater than the fear, and there was, throughout, a sense of support and security in that Power which led and guarded Christian all along his perilous road.

La Motte Fouqué's Sintram is the last book I will speak of; it is dear to me still, as indeed are the two previously mentioned. I may have been about ten or eleven when I first heard some of the fascinating story, and was charmed by the imaginativeness of it, though but half comprehending.

It is clear to me that it was the stories which appealed most forcibly to the imagination which charmed me most; but whether such are wholesome for an excitable and nervous little brain, is, I think, very doubtful. Certainly I am convinced that the dreams found good pasturage there!

It is curious, I think, and comforting, if it be true of child-life in general, that, whilst the joys of life and thrills of pleasure left such abiding impress on my memory, physical pain has hardly left a mark! I do not think that I was a remarkably strong child, and I believe I suffered from small ailments and troubles as frequently as most children, yet the recollection of the suffering is gone without a trace. I am told that I had the measles very severely at the age of six, and I distinctly recall two little episodes of that attack which curiously illustrate this wiping out of pain from the memory. My brother was taken ill first, and, when I began to sicken, knowing nothing of course of infection, or the likelihood of my having taken the disease from him, I was painfully convinced that my complaints would be met with suspicion, and that I should be accused of pretending, or of fancying myself ill because my brother was so.

The relief was great when I found that I was believed without demur; and these two feelings--the anxiety and subsequent relief--remain clearly in my memory, though the sensations of illness which aroused the wish to complain have faded almost entirely away!

Later on I remember the delicious orange-juice which my mother used to give us in our feverish thirst, and I well recollect longing to awaken her at night that she might give me some, but being prevented by my more considerate and self-controlled brother, who would on no account have her disturbed either for his own comfort or mine. What I remember here is a baffled longing for something delicious and refreshing, and fretful annoyance with my brother for preventing me from satisfying my longing; but of actual pain and distress I have no distinct recollection. In fact, I think the only distinct remembrance of pain that I can bring to my mind, before the age of seven, is connected with a broken chilblain on a finger, which I was ordered to keep covered with a glove, at a children's party, because of its unsightliness, and which certainly did, to some extent, interfere with my enjoyment.

Of sorrow I have almost as little recollection. The nearest approach to it was, perhaps, the abiding sensation that with no one was I a best-loved child. My mother and the brother so often referred to, older than myself only by sixteen months, were very close and dear companions, and somehow I got a distinct impression of them as "the two clever ones," to borrow poor Mr. Flintwinch's expression, who were, in my mind, almost equals in age, and far, far above me both in years and cleverness! So I felt left out and despised, and, turn where I would, I could never find myself of much account to anyone. This was hardly recognized as a sorrow, but nevertheless I think it was a real and abiding one, though unexpressed; and it certainly had the evil effect of producing various little acts of untruthfulness, exaggeration, &c., which were aimed at obtaining such scraps of pity or tenderness as I might venture to hope for, in default of better things. The only other sorrows I can clearly recollect whilst I was still under seven,--for, though fond of my grandmother, I cannot say that her death, which occurred when I was six, was a real sorrow to me,--were connected with my love for my nurse, which was passionate and clinging, so that any pain she might have to undergo was agony to me.

I remember no other very warm affection at this early age, though I believe I was genuinely fond of my first governess, who was distinctly kind to me, and, I fancy judicious in her management. Reproofs and disgrace have mostly dwelt in my mind as being connected with certain fascinating wrong-doings, and the principal impression made was the regretful recognition that the delicious naughtiness could no longer be safely indulged, and must be consigned to the limbo of other happy memories, no more return to the light of day!

As to religious feelings, I remember hardly any, though terrifying visions of a place of fear, which I called hell, sometimes added their horrors to my nightly distressful dreams. Conscience was awake, and I recall distinct acts of wrong-doing, especially one of unkindness and roughness to a cat, when left alone with it; also distinct efforts to do right, and inordinate pride in the same!

In this short paper I have confined myself principally to sensations and impressions which I experienced before the age of seven, hoping that these may be interesting and useful to parents whose memory does not extend so far back.

Later on existence became more complex, but, at this very early age, I think life was largely composed of a series of sensations, mostly delightful, produced upon me by objects of the outer world; a sort of communing with Nature at very close quarters as it were; listening to her, looking at her, admiring and wondering at her, and suffering her to play upon every string of my little soul at her own sweet will.

This spirit of simple, open-hearted receptiveness, which lays the little child under Nature's beautiful and holy spell, is possible, however, to blame for the suffering that night too often brings. The nerves that thrilled and quivered to every touch all through the sunny day will thrill again when they should be at rest, involuntarily echoing the notes that have been called forth by every passing touch. Then woe be to the child if the wandering musician of memory should strike his finger on a disordered nerve! Instead of a sweet, true thrill, there will follow a jangling discord, and the little one will awake in terror and bitter distress. One can do little to prevent it, I fear, beyond watching carefully that all the impressions made during the day be bright, soothing and devoid of terror, and keeping the little body in as healthy and sound a condition as possible.

A few practical lessons I have gathered for myself from my own recollections of my early childhood, and venture to offer them here as suggestions:--

First, I would never be afraid to shew a child all the love I felt for it in every possible tender way. This does not make it more difficult to obtain the child's obedience. I have found it quite the contrary. Sunshine is so necessary for a child, and I am sure many suffer from lack of it. Then I would treat fear in a child very tenderly, especially night-terrors, and would soothe in every possible manner, using warmth, light, the touch of the comforting hand, and every possible help to calm the troubled nerves. Thirdly, I would sympathise with a child in its every joy and delight, knowing well that there is a glamour over every object and every play for it, which my eyes are too dull to perceive. Where the object that delights it is a natural one, probably I can shew it beauties greater even than it dreamed of. Lastly, I would not be in a great hurry to force the little one to religious acts and conceptions. I would rather link the thought of God with every one of His beautiful works which the child admires and loves; and I would help it to think of Him as the One who gives it all this happiness, and who gave it--the child--to me, and me to it, that I might love it and cherish it.

Proofread by LNL, July 2020